by Unknown | 6/11/2008 10:51:00 PM
In a comment last night on Mark's excellent post, I made a radical statement regarding the uniqueness of the historian's craft: there isn't any.

No matter what our training, we all have experience constructing narratives, searching out facts, and analyzing present actions in light of past events. The truth is, armed with the data and experience we historians have gathered over time, quite a lot of people could do as well as, if not better than, many trained historians at constructing useful historical analyses. (That's one reason I value "amateur" and "popular" historians so highly; I don't see their lack of formal training as any impediment to their creating meaningful scholarship.)

In a post today at his own blog regarding Senator Jim Webb's historical inaccuracies about the Confederacy, my co-blogger Kevin Levin made a somewhat different argument:

Webb reminded me why I don't consider him to be a historian, although he identified himself as one during the interview. ... Sorry, but this kind of simplicity no longer cuts it in more serious circles. You can't call yourself a historian when all you can do is fall back on the same tired one-liners that are in every neo-Confederate's playbook. You need to read books by Jim McPherson, Joe Glatthaar, Jason Phillips, and Chandra Manning to even begin to approach these complex questions. Webb identifying himself as a historian is like me identifying myself as a chef when all I can do is prepare TV Dinners or [now your turn] identifying yourself as _____________ when all you can do is __________.

The argument we're (not quite) having here -- and to which Adam Hochschild in Historically Speaking makes another important contribution -- concerns a series of rich and timeless questions: what exactly is a historian? Should the term be applied only to those who possess doctoral degrees and publishing histories, or are historians a more broad and multifaceted group? Is everyone a historian, as Carl Becker famously argued? And assuming we can define the "wheat" and the "chaff," what separates the two? What does the "trained" historian have to offer that the "amateur" does not, or vice versa?

The questions above merit further discussion -- and I propose to facilitate it in the form of a summer symposium here at ProgressiveHistorians. We'll be following the same model we did last time, and that Cliopatria, from whom we shamelessly stole the idea, has done many times in the past. The rules are as follows: write a response to the bolded prompts above. If you're a contributor at ProgressiveHistorians, post your contribution here [edit: as a stand-alone post, not as a comment in this thread] and I'll link to it in the official symposium post. If not, post your response at your own blog and let me know by e-mail that you've done so; I'll include a link and an excerpt in the official post as well.

Given that I've got to put together another History Carnival at the end of the month, I'll have to move up the due date for this further than I'd like. Your deadline, then, is by the end of the day on Monday, June 23. I'll try to get the symposium posted within the ensuing couple of days.

Happy writing -- and please spread the word!

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Blogger Lisa Pease on 6/12/2008 12:49 AM:

I've always cringed a bit when people call me a historian simply because I do not have a PhD and did not go to school. But I dare most PhD's to match my knowledge of the CIA's real history - not just the stuff in the Agency-approved books, but the stuff you find in the books the CIA tried to take out of circulation, in little-known publications, in books not even about the CIA that nonetheless shed light on their history.

Ditto the Kennedy assassinations. There are few in the country who have read as much as I have on the subject. Most so-called historians who have approached the subject have missed the forest for the trees.

So I agree with you, Jeremy. Amateurs and the highly trained both have something to offer, but it is not the same thing. Some amateurs may be passionate, but do not have a high standard for which argument to believe when data conflicts. Other amateurs sort this out better than higher profile PhD historians.

I think both have important contributions to make. And let's never forget - history is not science. It's partly science, but partly art. We see events and put them together into narratives based on the data we have read. But we don't know everything and cannot know everything that transpired, whereas in a scientific experiment, everything can be documented to the tiniest fraction of a second and to the subatomic level. We can't know nearly so much about those events in history on which we choose to report.

Anyway - thanks. It's an interesting question. And for another analogy, there have been people that taught themselves law and passed the bar without attending law school. It's not common at all, but it's been done. I think we need to consider that some amateurs have followed a similar path, with similar success, re history. Not most, but a rare few.


Blogger iampunha on 6/12/2008 2:15 AM:

A historian is someone who uses the scientific method in researching and writing about history.

In the two months I have been running my "Today in History" series, and in the longer time I have spent as an amateur historian of sports and language, I have learned two things I take with me wherever my research takes me:

1) I'm never, ever, ever, ever going to get the whole story.
2) If I try to pretend that I have it all, someone will embarrass me.

My research this Wednesday night is on Henry Ossian Flipper and Thomas Huckle Weller. Right off the bat, I know almost nothing directly of Flipper's childhood beyond his being a slave and his parents' jobs. Did any of his relatives escape on the Underground Railroad? Did he know Harriet Tubman (by that or a different name)? Did Weller have some relative die of one of the diseases he later fought?

Interesting questions, all. If I felt more like telling an interesting and suggestive story, I might frame them to invite the reader to consider them as plausible. But lacking any factual basis for believing there's more to those questions than just the questions (and I'll be looking later), any such maybes are conjecture.

Am I, by virtue of my egotistical little series, a historian? Sure, in the sense that someone who's good at Wii sports is an athlete. Sure, there's hand-eye coordination going on there, and there's absolutely competition, and you have to look for your opponent's strategy.

But if I can win a baseball game sitting down in my living room, I'm playing a video game, not a sport. And spending four or five hours researching one topic, and getting into barely respectable depth in the subject, gives me a passable first few pages of a junior-level paper in my chosen subject.

But oh, it's interesting! I write engagingly! I tell jokes (mostly about sex)! I make history fun!

Because that way people will actually read what I've written. Because history books are boring by default. You have to actually want to know the material to be able to plod through them. By contrast, people read me because I'm fun.

Because historians generally write for historians first and the general public second — unless they are writing to get a book sold, as opposed to merely published (in which case the writing style is more engaging and the title is sexy rather than descriptive). Most academic writing is intensely boring, partly because excitement dictates importance and emotive response, which historians are supposed to stay away from. Because I have no concerns that my editor (Jeremy, who presumably recruited me based on my writing style) will say "You need to stop being so opinionated," I can … be opinionated. I can tell you what I think. I can use my Today in History to only tangentially talk about that day in history and launch into a more general discussion of the phenomenon, as I did with my first PH entry.

I have no interest in writing like the average historian, and I have no hope of being the next great historian. I'm far, FAR too flighty to stay on one topic for more than one diary, and while I might return to certain themes (civil rights is a big one), that's only when the topic so invites.

I tell stories that are as factual as I can make them and as complete as I think is interesting (details can make stories more interesting, but they can also bog you down in trivialities and result in your waving goodbye to any sense of your narrative's flow). And that makes me a storyteller. Not a historian except on the third-year history major level. Sure, I use the scientific method, but I test my hypothesis for an hour or three, not weeks, and against what documents I can find online and in my apartment, not source documents from 1324 or Malaysia.

I'm a storyteller. And I prefer things that way.


Blogger Unknown on 6/12/2008 2:23 AM:

Iampunha -- style, quality, content, and frequency. The whole shebang.

And guys -- why not write up these lengthy comments as individual posts so I can feature them in the symposium? You're killing me here!


Blogger iampunha on 6/12/2008 6:06 AM:

I can't speak for Lisa, but I took "If you're a contributor at ProgressiveHistorians, post your contribution here and I'll link to it in the official symposium post." to mean we should post them as comments.

Presently I'll post my comment as a post. (Then I'll toast some toast and roast some roast.)


Blogger Unknown on 6/12/2008 1:18 PM:

Sorry for the confusion! I'll fix it now.