by Unknown | 6/30/2008 10:00:00 AM
Earlier this month, I called for a symposium on the topic "What Is a Historian?" Here's what I asked then:

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?

While the response to this call-for-symposium wasn't enormous, the few of you who did respond did admirably, raising a number of important issues. Here are the responses:

- iampunha, Historians and Storytellers
- Mark Safranski, On Historians and Others....
- Jeremy Young, Historians and the Gospel of Professionalism
- Jeremy Young, Toward a "History that Does Work in the World"

Over the flip, some choice quotes (but you really should read the contributions in their entirety!).

at a certain point, each historian above stops being a historian and starts being a storyteller. That point is reached when telling a good story becomes more important than telling the whole story.

A historian is someone who uses the scientific method in researching and writing about history. The method can be drawn out or span a second's thought. ...

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.

-- iampunha

The relationship between academic and popular/amateur historians is an interdependent one; the former are usually creating the monographic bricks with which the latter build their sweeping and entertaining literary edifices while popular historians "hook" readers into studying history more deeply - perhaps deeply enough to become a professional historian! One is not "better" than the other, simply different with distinct objectives.

The door of history is open to anyone - you simply need to walk through it.

-- Mark Safranski

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.

-- Jeremy Young

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Blogger Pete Jones on 6/30/2008 9:04 PM:

I really enjoyed the summer symposium. Some really good contributions by all the participants. I always enjoy ruminating on what history means to me and how to do it. It definitely makes the final product better to reflect on the process.

I'm also one that thinks amateur historians have just as much right in the "field" because they have many strengths (passion for the topic, incredible knowledge of facts and stories) to their weaknesses (less knowledge of historiography, fewer resources, prof. connections, etc.). Pro's will generally produce the most insightful work, but that does not mean amateurs should not be allowed to tell about a past which has great meaning to them.


Blogger Unknown on 6/30/2008 11:24 PM:

Thanks for your comments, Pete! I'm glad somebody read them!


Blogger iampunha on 7/01/2008 4:06 AM:

"Pro's will generally produce the most insightful work, but that does not mean amateurs should not be allowed to tell about a past which has great meaning to them."

The difference, to me, is based off this.

Professionals will go to great lengths to stay personally out of the history they write.

For amateurs, sometimes the history is how it affected them personally.

So long as this bias is recognized and accepted, I see nothing wrong with it. I also see no reason to keep it out of The Old, Crusty Books.


Blogger Unknown on 7/01/2008 12:58 PM:

This is a really interesting comment, and very thought-provoking. Thanks!

Hope the wedding went well...