The Thrill of Discovery- Alma Boykin
I had not thought about how long its been since I delved into something really new until a few weeks ago, when I started reading a monograph on a very new-to-me topic. My hands and my mind actually started to tingle, there’s no better way to describe it, as I dove into new information. Every sentence was learning, challenging what I had been taught, complicating things as the best histories tend to do. Anyone watching would probably think me a bit touched in the head as I underlined, side-lined, made arrows to especially important points or pieces of data, and grinned as I though about how much this will improve my teaching on this topic.
Reading outside my usual field is normal. Reading something totally new to me is not so normal, or I should so common. I read to learn more about what I already know. It is comfortable, entertaining, and to be absolutely honest, does not require as many brain cells or as close attention. And it goes faster, although page count isn’t as important as it was when I had to read two monographs and a handful of articles per week.
Why am I even reading this monograph? Because it fills a hole and complicates my knowledge. I hadn’t realized just how long its been since that happened, until I got that happy itchy excited “oh wow this is so neat!” feeling.
Archival research can generate a similar “thrill of the hunt.” You read, chase leads, slog through documents, force yourself to keep going through yet another round of zoning-permit change requests and turn the page once more to find . . . exactly that little nugget of data that locks everything else into place and proves or disproves that which you were trying to prove or challenge. Those nuggets, or the occasional surprise windfall or “What on earth?”* moment are the reward for digging, the proof that your effort has and will continue to pay off. You meet the challenge and master it.
Despite what some activists keep propounding, humans are not herbivores. We are not able to talk to plants. We did not live our entire existence as a species browsing on fruit and nuts with the occasional carrion chaser until some eeevil male/spirit/monotheistic impulse/capitalist introduced poor, weak victims to fire-charred mammoth tenderloin. We can be relatively content with browsing, especially if that browsing includes lots of really juicy blackberries or wild strawberries that were hiding in a large patch of clover on a mist-damp hillside that smelled of new-mown hay and clouds and— Ahem. Sorry. Memory dump. Where was I? Oh yes, humans are omnivores who hunted as well as scavenged. We have not always been the top of the food chain (still aren’t in some areas. Africa, India, parts of North America). And the pleasure of pursuit and capture remains with many of us, just sublimated.
Our minds have not changed that much, either. The excitement of tracking knowledge lures so many of us on, especially difficult knowledge. Do you think the serpent in the garden would have been as successful if he’d lured Eve to the Tree of the Presence of Good and Evil? Or the Tree of Three Foods Guaranteed to Keep Your Husband’s Cholesterol Low? Nope, she’d probably have called for Adam to come and bring a large snake-stick with him. The serpent offered her knowledge. The different groups lumped together as Gnostics all argued that people needed additional, restricted knowledge in order to escape this vale of tears. How many books and stories are premised on the lure of forbidden knowledge, of “Things No Man Should Know!!!”? Besides the entire Lovecraft canon, I mean. All the Faust stories, a fair amount of fantasy, including the Earthsea books and Tamora Pierce’s third and fourth Song of the Lioness novels, those are just the titles that come quickly to mind. We hunt knowledge.
Knowledge does not mean wisdom, but it often helps build wisdom. I suspect that is why I get the shivery excited feeling when I read things that counter the traditional historical narrative or apparent general knowledge. The human condition is an endlessly fascinating topic to study, trying to sort out how and why and just what did happen, in an effort to better understand then and today. The more I learn, the richer the world seems to be and the better I can assemble the pieces to give my students and readers that richness. It may be a tidbit about language, such as “this alien species has an inflected language, but it is also based on caste and sex, so that vocal pitch and upward or downward inflection informs the listener of the speaker’s sex and birth-rank.” So what do humans do when presented with an alien who looks one way but literally sounds like a very different person? What does an alien do when something causes her voice to change, illness or accident? The ambassador suddenly has the voice of an untouchable – how does this complicate the story?
Or in this case, certain African tribal groups in what is now Ghana not only actively encouraged the slave trade, but they controlled the Europeans who tried to manage it. And the first Europeans in the area discouraged the slave trade because they wanted gold and ivory, not people. The native Africans called the shots for a hundred fifty years or so. Boy oh boy does that upset a lot of conventional apple carts about “agency” and Europeans’ place in the long-practiced system of slavery in west Africa, at least in this region.
How about Spain’s colonies in the New World being much closer to the Medieval mind-set than the Early Modern approach of the people north of the Rio Grade and east of the Mississippi? Instead of being settled by people who assumed responsibility for their own actions and the events of the world (within limits), the dominant mental world remained that of a system where everything depended on those in power, up to and including the Almighty. And if that becomes entrenched and absorbed into the general bulk of culture, that ninety percent that lurks below the surface, what are the odds that a society of laws and of personal responsibility, of individual rights and freedoms, is going to grow and flourish? Probably a bit longer than in that strip north of the Rio Grande and east of the Mississippi River.
That is the kind of thing that makes my eyes light up, and makes me grin at my books and annotate margins with strange and obscure notes and cryptic abbreviations. And I fear it is the kind of thing we are choking out of the younger set, both by presenting everything as “set and settled,” and by discouraging curiosity and the thrill of the intellectual hunt. Hunting is hard. Learning what you don’t know so you can start filling in the spaces is tedious and requires a large dose of humility (or being hit firmly with the cluebat. BTDT got the skull lump.)
Most people are content with knowing what they know, and learning only what they need for survival. That’s fine. That’s normal. Society needs a lot of normal people doing normal things before it can support Odds like academics.
People read in their comfort zone. I do it too. Why do I have a gazillion books about the Habsburg Empire and central Europe? Because I know a lot already, so I don’t work as hard on the new stuff.
But when that little tease of the chance for new knowledge floats by, when the prints of that long-sought animal come into view, ah the thrill of the chase! The excitement of the hunt! Squirrell!!
*I really do need to go back and find that enormous city commission minute about the search for the sick cow and the owner’s attempts to hide it, and write an article based on it. The story is just too good to let slip into obscurity.