Saturday, February 21, 2015

Who are Historians?

by Jack Le Moine

From the latest happenings in the world of history.

This March 1 the Host of the History Carnival will be in Unspoken Assumptions. Last April 17, 2014 she wrote In Defense of Historians. Her essay’s theme is ‘I’m a historian and you’re not.’ I believe that there’s two things wrong with this essay: (1) it fails to address the differences between professional and amateur historians; and (2) it fails to address the underlying causes of the problems professional historians face today.

Hello, my name is Heather and I’m a historian . . .

I have studied history for over ten years. I’ve written about history, researched history, taught history, attended many history conferences, had my work scrutinized and criticized by other historians.

To sum up, she is a historian. She even has a PhD! The essay then goes to it’s first mark: the great unwashed must not criticize the professional.

Michael Grove is not an historian nor is he an expert on the First World War – therefore he has zero right to criticize how historians do their job.

If the reader doesn’t already know who this MG is; the historian doesn't enlighten him. If the reader puzzles at this decision of the historian, consider what right you might have to express your reaction. If you’re not a credentialed professional or if you’re not an expert, is your right 50%, 25%, 10%, or 0%? From the quote above the correct answer to this multiple choice question is zero but one still must wonder how the essayist arrived at that figure? Was it the result of some mathematical calculation or just mere turf war? Like in ‘I’m a historian and you’re not.’

So, after explaining who the true historians are, let’s find out what they do.

There is no right and wrong in history, the discipline is built on the basis of debate and argument. The BBC programmes on whether Britain should have entered the war was a fine example of eminent historians in debate.

Now I love a good debate (can you tell from his piece?) but is this all that the discipline is based upon? If so, then I want to demand combat pay for sitting next to Brian Williams in that chopper that took all of that enemy fire in Iraq. Also, where’s my medal? Also, I was the Patriot who intercepted that pass in the final seconds against the Seahawks. Gimme my Super Bowl ring dammit! - That is, if debate and argument matter, not facts.

(BW is the anchor for NBC News who is in trouble for making up stories about his being in a helicopter among other fantasies and no I don’t even play football, let alone playing for a major league team in the Superbowl.)

There is more to the discipline and the practice of history than just a credentialed few debating and arguing.

The author bemoans the lack of respect and support the historian receives. I, too, have watched historians debate and argue on tv. A lot of times they’re just not that good. In school, I used to be amazed at how a history teacher could take the most interesting subject and make it boring. Is there some kind of class that history teachers must take on how to make history boring? Maybe these amateurs write history books that sell because they know the importance of being interesting. Interesting writing is not the enemy of truthful, factual, and insightful writing.

The last two sections of her essay discusses the value of the historian and the value of history. Here she ends up on much firmer ground, especially since she acknowledges that historians in fact do more than just debate and argue.

So, where do all of us history people (what shall we call ourselves?) go from here? Let’s start with this whole us versus them thing.

Virtually all of the professions/disciplines have professionals and amateurs. If we follow this essay’s advice and “demand their history writers are actually historians” then most of the great works of history fade into oblivion. Goodbye Churchill. Take your Nobel Prize and disappear. Goodbye Gibbon. Farewell Macaulay. Whatever merit there is to your works, you don’t have the PhD., so out you go.

Let’s have the amateurs respecting the professionals more and the pros respecting the amateurs. The author reveals that she is looking for a job outside of academia at the time of the writing of that essay. She mentioned that the skills learned to qualify as a historian are transferable to other lines of endeavor. How about skills being transferable in the other direction, too?


  1. LinkedIn has over 181 comments to this post.

  2. Hi Jack - please could you amend this post. I am not unemployed and didn't say I was. My point in my post was that in looking for work outside of academia I have tended to downplay my PhD. I have been employed at my university for over two years, including the final year of my PhD. Thank you.