The Limits of Scholarship


February 18, 2013 by LeVoyageur


“Stories–individual stories, family stories, national stories–are what stitch together the disparate elements of human existence into a coherent whole. We are story animals.”
― Yann Martel, Beatrice and Virgil

For a very long time, quite consciously, I have been trying to understand culture and identity – that sense of who you are and where you come from as expressed in stories, relationships, food, and even personality. Through my genealogical research beginning when I was young, through an exploration of religion and spirituality that spanned from my adolescence to my (current) middle age, through language, reading and travel, and more genealogy. Lately this fascination with culture and identity has led me to an ever-expanding, close study of the history of the areas where some of my ancestors landed long ago, in Quebec, and the subsequent lands they inhabited over the centuries along the St. Lawrence and across the Great Lakes.

This current course of study is not a formal program. After I obtained my second master’s degree and began a PhD program, I came to the realization that enough was enough. In the particular area I had been studying I was, on some level, attempting to attain cultural acceptance and legitimacy through higher education. But this will take you only so far. Nothing can replace life experience to truly understand, and be connected to, a particular culture.

There are many scholars working in the area of the French colonial experience in North America from multiple perspectives. There are historians, folklorists and ethnographers, and archaeologists, and others whose research provide new interpretations, new lines of inquiry, and revised overviews that help us understand how life played out in the Great Lakes area during the 16th-19th centuries, a formative era for what would become states and provinces in the 19th and 20th centuries. There are people writing about travel, trade, race, and the multiple dimensions of life in an 18th century fur trade village to cite some examples. To me, it is truly fascinating stuff.

There are also genealogists and independent researchers who work diligently on the pedigrees of the people who lived during the colonial time-period and their descendants. Sometimes their research leads to perspectives that are at odds with scholarly findings and analysis. All scholars and researchers do make mistakes of course; on the other hand unlike university faculty, independent researchers are not accountable to anyone. And then there are average people, who are expert in neither area, but whose heritage is played out in how they live day-to-day, season to season.

Had I undertaken this reading project some 20-25 years ago, I might have alighted on my life’s work. Perhaps it is my work for the second half, I can’t yet be sure. But had I immersed myself in the academic study of French North America as a profession, I wonder how I would have come to understand this unique, multi-faceted culture? Would it have become for me a culture that no longer existed except as a research topic for an academic journal article?

As a researcher and writer whose love of culture is equal to my desire to expand my knowledge of it, it is sometimes very easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. When immersed in genealogy or scholarly literature, I find it necessary to step back, more frequently now than in the past, to get perspective. The more I read, the more complicated the roots of what I consider to be my culture seem to become. And getting to this point of immersion is, for me, a moment when I realize I have diverged from my true interests.

This is the pitfall of turning so readily to the work of scholarly researchers to develop an understanding of culture and identity. I have, through this literature, found many new, interesting perspectives and much data. Scholars have provided insights that have enriched my understanding of the culture of my ancestors. But are you actually experiencing culture if your relation to it is only in the academic domain or to lines on a pedigree chart?

So, I present this essay as a reflection on my past year of reading and writing. I have come to realize that with all of the dates and the sites of life in Colonial New France that I have learned about, very little actually made me feel more French Canadian or, for that matter, more Part Indian.

The culture I grew up with instilled those dimensions of culture in me from an early age. I will say that my encounter so far with the scholarly research on French Colonial North America has led me to assert my heritage, my culture, and identity more confidently. This is due in part to a disconcerting sense that it is all too often relegated to the realm of history by well-meaning scholars, or worse, to the realm of fiction by others.

It is when I think about my family, our stories, the communities they lived in, the values they passed on, their professions, their faith, their independence, and the challenges of life on the rivers, on the lakes, in the forest, and on the frontier that I realize that I have more understanding of my culture than I could ever find in scholarly research.

I suspect many people who share a Great Lakes heritage might find this rings true for them as well. Giving expression to our culture and identity in a meaningful, honest way through writing is my goal. Unraveling the tight knots and honoring all strands of my culture and identity is my right and, in ways that have become clear over time, a responsibility that I take seriously.

6 thoughts on “The Limits of Scholarship

  1. Beautifully written, and a sobering warning about the limitations of the intellect. We mustn’t forget to experience life even as we think about it. Thank you!

    • James says:

      Thank you Danny for the comment. Culture is more and more being homogenized and spectacle is replacing tradition. Sometimes you need to step back and retrench.

  2. LaVagabonde says:

    “Nothing can replace life experience to truly understand, and be connected to, a particular culture.”

    So very true. I’m not an academic, but I have spent time with different cultures in the South Pacific. I can’t imagine declaring oneself an expert on a culture without actually immersing oneself in it. This is what annoys me about academics who specialize in human rights – most of them have never stepped from behind their podiums and ventured into the real lives of the people that they claim to want to help.

    • James says:

      The South Pacific sounds pretty good right about now. I would have to agree about so-called human rights experts. How many poor people get to speak about poverty? It’s always a privileged class that has the last word.

  3. rosewater12 says:

    Another excellent essay, James, and a sobering reminder for those who believe they can understand things by reading about them. That being said, I think your readers might enjoy a concise little history of the accomplisments and life of Bishop Baraga. While his exploits are covered in Michigan highschool textebooks (or, at least, they were fifty years ago), I recently spent the night in the wonderful Bishop Baraga Suite of the historic Landmark Inn (in Marquette) and the pictures reminded me of what I half-remembered.
    Don’t get selfish and turn your blog into an introspective self-analysis :-). Please continue to share your knowledge and insight. Just as the remarkable writings of Elizabeth Custer (widow of the famous general) have disappeared from libraries and that piece of history will soon be forgotten, I’ll bet you have anecdotes and adventures to share with those of us who have less desire for research and knowledge.

    • James says:

      Thank you Chuck – I admit this is possibly one of my more introspective posts and I do not want it to become a habit. I like your idea of writing about Bishop Baraga. There are so many stories to mine and so many stories that go untold. I appreciate your comments as always and am honored that your read my blog!

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