by Jeremy Young | 6/28/2008 10:00:00 AM
Part I of a two-part series on Carl Becker's 1931 Presidential Address to the American Historical Association, "Everyman His Own Historian." The series is part of the ProgressiveHistorians 2008 Summer Symposium.

Before I decided to become a historian, I planned to pursue a career in classical music composition. What led me to change gears, among other things, was a sense of disgust at the narrow range of "music" accepted by the academic composing establishment. While many have correctly pointed out that more types of music are accepted in academia today than ever before, what's left out of the equation entirely are folks like me who think current popular music has something to teach us. My composition professor, an accomplished atonal composer, directed his students to listen to a combination of old masters and modern atonalists, without so much as a hat tip toward the music I valued. When he sniffed that film soundtracks were nothing but "emotion dumps," I knew I was in the wrong place.

It only took me a couple of months in a history graduate program before I realized that many academics in my field viewed "popular" history with similar disdain to how my old composition teacher had viewed "popular" music. Scholarly historians often sniff at their non-university-based counterparts whose works decorate bookstore shelves -- journalists and public figures who write history books, and amateur historians such as David McCullough. Departments even look askance at professional historians who write works of popular history (a topic I'll take up in tomorrow's post).

The field of history is, of course, not alone in possessing an academic elite that frowns upon the work of the untrained. But as historians, we are uniquely qualified to know better. After all, history itself is littered with the carcasses of professionals who were bested by accomplished amateurs. There's Yale-educated geneticist Francis Collins, whose Human Genome Project was beaten to the punch by a private research scientist with a degree from UC-San Diego. There's trained astronomer and physicist Samuel Langley, whose attempt at the first powered flight was trumped by two bicycle repairmen who hadn't finished high school (and probably before that by several others, including an uneducated German sailor and a British knight who dropped out of school at fourteen). And of course, there's all those Newtonian physicists in 1905 whose world was suddenly turned upside down by a young patent clerk named Albert Einstein. Not all the examples are scientific, either; few would dispute two-time Pulitzer Prizewinner Barbara Tuchman's importance as a central figure in the twentieth-century historical profession, though she was a housewife who possessed no formal training in history.

In 1931, a brilliant American historian at the peak of his career recognized the foolishness of the idea that only those with training could be considered historians. In fact, argued American Historical Association President Carl Becker, there was a legitimate case to be made that all human beings are historians -- that they make use of some aspects of historical practice while going about their daily lives. Becker made that argument in his memorable 1931 AHA Presidential Address, "Everyman His Own Historian."

Becker began by positing a definition for history itself: "History is the memory of things said and done." He argued that if one accepts this straightforward definition, then one must also acknowledge that "professionals" are not the only historians:

If the essence of history is the memory of things said and done, then it is obvious that every normal person, Mr. Everyman, knows some history. Of course we do what we can to conceal this invidious truth. Assuming a professional manner, we say that so and so knows no history, when we mean no more than that he failed to pass the examinations set for a higher degree; and simple-minded persons, undergraduates and others, taken in by academic classifications of knowledge, think they know no history because they have never taken a course in history in college, or have never read Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. No doubt the academic convention has its uses, but it is one of the superficial accretions that must be stripped off if we would understand history reduced to its lowest terms. ... Normally the memory of Mr. Everyman, when he awakens in the morning, reaches out into the country of the past and of distant places and instantaneously recreates his little world of endeavor, pulls together as it were things said and done in his yesterdays, and coördinates them with his present perceptions and with things to be said and done in his to-morrows. Without this historical knowledge, this memory of things said and done, his to-day would be aimless and his to-morrow without significance.

Becker proceeded to create a proof of this rather radical argument through a detailed thought-experiment regarding "Mr. Everyman"'s attempt to pay a bill. In the process, Mr. Everyman ransacks his brain for a memory of how the bill was accrued (historical sourcing), sorts the events in his mind (analysis), checks his ledger for a receipt (archival research), and comes up with a complete picture of the debt (argumentation). Becker continued by saying:

Mr. Everyman would be astonished to learn that he is an historian, yet it is obvious, isn't it, that he has performed all the essential operations involved in historical research. Needing or wanting to do something (which happened to be, not to deliver a lecture or write a book, but to pay a bill; and this is what misleads him and us as to what he is really doing), the first step was to recall things said and done. Unaided memory proving inadequate, a further step was essential—the examination of certain documents in order to discover the necessary but as yet unknown facts. Unhappily the documents were found to give conflicting reports, so that a critical comparison of the texts had to be instituted in order to eliminate error. All this having been satisfactorily accomplished, Mr. Everyman is ready for the final operation— the formation in his mind, by an artificial extension of memory, of a picture, a definitive picture let us hope, of a selected series of historical events—of himself ordering coal from Smith, of Smith turning the order over to Brown, and of Brown delivering the coal at his house. In the light of this picture Mr. Everyman could, and did, pay his bill. If Mr. Everyman had undertaken these researches in order to write a book instead of to pay a bill, no one would think of denying that he was an historian.

I wouldn't go so far as Becker in suggesting that everyone is truly a historian, and in fact Becker himself admitted later in his address that "although each of us is Mr. Everyman, each [academic] is something more than his own historian." But Becker's insight here is nevertheless a critical one: historians differ from non-historians in degree, not in kind. Academic historians often write better books than non-academics because we have assets that they don't: years of time to spend reading and teaching scholarly works and digging in archives, advice and support from other historians, and steady jobs that insist that we publish or perish (as opposed to amateur historians, for whom publishing often means perishing). Give an amateur historian the same tools as a professional, and he or she will likely do as well if not better; many amateurs do just fine without them.

Given this insight, I see no reason for professional historians to lord it over amateurs or to dispute their credentials on the basis of their formal education. The gospel of professionalism many historians preach is merely an academic flim-flam designed to discredit those who lack formal training without considering the value of their work. Review a book, whether scholarly or non-scholarly, on its merits -- but don't discount it because its author has no training, or venerate it because its author graduated from an Ivy. Likewise, there's no point in declaring that someone is "not a historian" simply because he or she lacks a doctorate in history. A historian is anyone who writes about history in a public forum -- it's that simple.

Becker's remarkable address is divided into three sections, the first of which I've discussed in this post. The second section, in which Becker defines the "specious present," is an important forerunner for memory studies, but I'll pass over it here because it's not directly relevant to the symposium topic. The third section, Becker's paean to "history that does work in the world," is the subject of tomorrow's post.



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Blogger mark on 6/28/2008 11:59 AM:

Great points in this post Jeremy!

Professional training ( any field) imparts the fundamentals, the skill-sets and the received culture and habits of mind of the profession. Professional SME's strongly tend to "think vertically" within their field and subfields - to the point where they get blinders to possibilities noticed by novices or outsiders. This may be one of the reasons that mathematicians and physicists do their best work in terms of new insights at the start of their careers.

"Horizontal thinking" across domains is often the preserve of the generalist - something history programs do not usually produce anymore - or of the career-switcher, shifting gears after having mastered one field already. It's an important technique for gaining new perspectives and enhancing creativity by getting out of the paradigm.

Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner dealt with this topic in considerable detail ( dont agree with everything he wrote though) in his last couple of books. Edward DeBono is another thinker here.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 6/28/2008 12:23 PM:

Fascinating -- thanks for that. I'm familiar with Gardner through his theory of multiple intelligences, which I think is brilliant -- but he's a terrible historian of leadership, so I have a mixed view of him as well.


Blogger subadei on 6/30/2008 8:21 PM:

Jeremy, I'd also suggest Nassim Taleb's Black Swan (if you haven't already read it) as it discusses much of what Mark's comment entails, pointing out the fallibility and tunnel vision of "expertise".

Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason's fictional The Rule of Four has, at it's core, the desperation of the scholastic "caste system," if you will.

Excellent post. As one of the above mentioned "Everymen" I'm always especially interested in topics such as this.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 6/30/2008 11:27 PM:

Subadei, thanks very much for the recommendations. I'll try to check out those books, particularly the first one you mention.