History: The Everyman Discipline?

I imagine that this will be a recurring theme for a while – I had thought that one single post would address it sufficiently…until the discussion about reenacting and living history blossomed (well, maybe that’s a tad hyperbolic … but it did get some discussion). The notion of what I like to call “history as everyman discipline” came up, and I think it merits some discussion. Plus I’d like to hear what you think, in particular about a very elementary (and deceptively simple) question:

What, precisely, is a historian, and what does a historian do? What makes someone a historian?

I was trained to be a historian (that’s what Ph.D. programs in history are supposed to do, anyway), and I do history for a living, as a college professor and as an author. And I still have no idea how to answer that question.

But first an anecdote. It has a point, I assure you.

A few years ago, my grad assistant was photocopying some Danish texts for me, using the Xerox machine in the history department office. A couple of my colleagues were interested enough to take a look at the papers being copied. One of them observed, only half-joking, that reading Danish wasn’t too difficult, since he recognized a couple of the words (Danish, like English, is a Germanic language, and there are indeed a few Danish words that are identical or nearly so to their English equivalents – hundrede, for example means “hundred,” though it sounds much much different). He brought this to my attention, observing that he must already be literate in Danish because he understood these few words. I remarked that – by that same logic – I must be a mathematician, since I know some numbers and recognize nearly all of them on sight.

I don’t think he understood my point – which was that knowing a couple of things about a particular subject isn’t the same thing as mastery of it, or even a reasonable understanding of it.

I think that many people – the public “at large,” if you will – have the same kind of attitude towards history and historians. If you have a deep interest in history, and have memorized a few facts and are able to recite them at will, then you are a historian, since we all know that history is nothing more than memorizing stuff. I hear this from students all the time, usually undergrads who are new to history as a profession. Some of them don’t fully understand the difference between a “teacher” and a “scholar” (and that can certainly be forgiven them – there are plenty of “teachers” at the college level who don’t really practice scholarship per se); few entirely get the concept that interpretations of the past change over time, and that there can be more than one way of looking at, or understanding, the past. So, to them, a historian is someone who has learned lots of facts about the past and is able to arrange them into some kind of intelligible narrative. There’s no need for analysis, of course, “just the facts” – because as we all know (or so I’ve been told), “history repeats itself.” [Lord, how I hate that phrase…it’s so wrong. Back to that later.]

That practice – the aggregation of “facts” about the past just for their own sake – is what historians call “antiquarianism,” and it’s not the same thing as “history” as historians practice it (or tell themselves that they practice it). Antiquarians usually tell a story. Usually. At best, an antiquarian narrative reads something like “this happened. Then something else happened. Then yet another thing happened” – a plain narrative, that is. At worst, there’s no narrative. Take a look at many local histories – accounts of the history of an individual American county or town, for example – and especially the self-published ones. You’ll see what I mean. Often the author leaps from topic to topic as the whim strikes him/her without even trying to create something that reads like a story.

Professional historians often make use of antiquarian studies. I know I used quite a few older histories of Boston and other Massachusetts towns when I wrote Whites of Their Eyes, and sometimes such works included information that has since been lost in the documentary record. Absolutely invaluable, in other words. Even then, the material couldn’t always be trusted. That’s not my point here. The point is that professional historians endeavor (not always successfully) to wring some meaning or greater significance from their study of the past. Narrative, in these terms, is incidental to analysis – which is why, sometimes, the most important research produced by historians is presented in a way that the “lay public” – non-specialists – would find rough-going, even downright dull, and why academic historians who are able to bridge the divide between “academic” and “lay” audiences do so because they know how to write compelling narrative. [Simon Schama, David Hackett Fischer, and Edward Lengel come immediately to mind.]

I think that’s why, at least in part, professional/academic historians get annoyed, frustrated, or otherwise upset by our general tendency to label anyone who knows something about the past as being a “historian.” I know I have, although I can’t say it really upsets me anymore. Sometimes, at book signings, someone will ask me about my research and then say something like “My husband is a historian, too. He reads all the time. I’ll bet he’s read at least a dozen books about the Revolution…or maybe it wasn’t the Revolution, but some kind of history stuff. And he’s been to all the battlefields and knows just everything about them.” Sometimes I get an email from a reader who declares himself to be “a fellow historian” – and then reveals that he hasn’t actually been trained as a historian but he’s read a lot about it, and that what makes him a “fellow historian” is his enthusiasm for the topic. To someone who has spent four to twelve years in a Ph.D. program in history, digesting the contents of thousands of books, learning not just one research field but a broad range of history, mastering perhaps a few languages and – likely – paleography too (paleography is the study of old handwriting; for anyone who has ever, without preparation, attempted to read original manuscripts from eighteenth-century America, or Elizabethan England, you know exactly what I’m talking about), and then devoted a big chunk of one’s life to immersion in archives and libraries to master a particular topic, then … well, let’s just say it’s all too easy for such a person to respond, “No, sorry, you’re not a fellow historian. You’re someone who likes history a lot, and there’s a huge difference.” When a History Channel documentary on the sinking of the Titanic features an interview with a Titanic buff – someone who has spent his life reading about the Titanic, and labels that person as a “Titanic historian,” we’re likely to think “Unless you can put the Titanic’s sinking in the broader context of maritime history, or the history of technology, or the social history of the Anglophone world, then you’re not a historian – you’re someone who knows a lot about the Titanic, and they’re not the same thing.”

If those outside the all-too-tight-knit and exclusive circle of professional historians don’t know what it is that historians do, to a great degree that is the fault of historians themselves, who rarely “speak” to the public and mostly communicate among themselves. Even highly educated and literate people outside the community of professional historians are frequently unaware of what historians do and what they hope to accomplish. A friend and former colleague of mine, a noted historian of modern Russia, once told me about a dinner conversation he had with a biologist from his university. After listening to my colleague tell her about his research, the biologist asked, “Isn’t that expensive?” Well, yes, of course it is, my colleague noted, pointing out that grants and other external funding are much harder to come by in the humanities than in the sciences. No, the biologist continued, that wasn’t what she meant. “I mean the translations. With all those books and all those tens of thousands of manuscripts written in Russian, especially from the eighteenth century, getting a translator to render those into modern English would cost a lot, wouldn’t it?” My friend was dumbfounded by the observation, but after a brief pause it struck him: why would anyone outside of history know that professional historians do all this themselves? To us, it’s just part of the training – if you’re going to study Russian history, for example, you’re going to have to learn modern Russian – to read it, of course, but also to speak it and write it (so you can communicate with research contacts and leads, and to get along day-to-day when you’re doing archival research abroad). You’re going to have to learn the dialects that were in frequent use during the period you’re studying. You’ll probably have to learn several other languages besides, especially if you’re dealing with a topic that has any kind of international dimension. And you’re going to have to learn the paleography (sometimes several paleographies), plus anything else that you would have to know to understand the context of a letter written in a distant time and place – different conventions about calendars, for example, or money, or bureaucratic titles. Years of preparation goes into one’s first venture into the archives, or else it would be impossible to understand any of the research material. You don’t go through that preparation because it’s going to make you wealthier, or more famous. You do it because that’s what’s necessary before you can call yourself a historian.

A great example from recent literature. Michael Crichton is of course famous for his relatively sophisticated fiction, so I was expecting a real treat when I first read his book Timeline. Not a bad book, after all, but what struck me most was that Crichton had no idea about how historians worked. I won’t go into great detail here, but the main characters – academic historians – are conducting a study, historical and archaeological, of a medieval French castle. Besides the fact that Crichton seemed to be unfamiliar with the concept of historical archaeology, the thing that was oddest was that the scholars directing the project had to rely upon a whole host of specialists do provide advice on all sorts of things that, apparently, the historians couldn’t do themselves. Like a “graphologist.” What this individual did in Timeline was to make sense of the handwriting styles of the period for the historians. It’s news to me. I’ve never worked with a “graphologist” during my career. Because, in our little world, historians aren’t historians unless they can do that kind of work themselves. A historian of medieval France who couldn’t decipher medieval French paleography and read it quickly – nearly as fast as he could read his native language – probably wouldn’t be able to get a Ph.D. I think in this case Mr. Crichton may have been better attuned to the sciences, in which collaborative work is the norm, where historians tend to do most of their work alone.

So…where am I after all these ramblings? Right back where I started. What makes someone a historian? Is it having a professional degree in history? If so, then the most famous historians in America today aren’t actually historians. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Nathaniel Philbrick, David McCullough…none of these have Ph.D.s in history, but they’re clearly historians. Certainly I’m not about to not think of them as historians. Although this is based purely on impressionistic evidence, I would venture to say that the vast majority of those who have published “popular” history with any of the Big Six houses over the past couple of decades are all in the same boat. Professional journalists are disproportionately represented among the writers of popular history, and while there are some among that throng who I don’t consider to be historians that doesn’t mean that none of them are historians in my view. And, for that matter, having a professional degree in history doesn’t necessarily make you a historian, either. Or at least not a very good historian. [I can think of a couple of prominent history Ph.D.s who aren’t particularly astute as historians.] I guess the best I can come up with right now is that I know a historian when I see him/her.

What do you think? What makes someone a historian?


Filed under Academic history, General, History as profession, History of history, Popular history, Writing history

14 responses to “History: The Everyman Discipline?

  1. Kate

    You’re spot on about fact-collecting vs. analysis. Even very bright people seem to have difficulty with this distinction, especially when analysis is presented as a narrative. I’ve spent the better part of the past week trying to convey (mostly unsuccessfully) to my students that, no, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War does not straightforwardly report “the hard facts” about the Peloponnesian War, it is a text produced by an individual (with an agenda/biases/worldview!) seeking to disseminate his own interpretation of the events in question. It’s been a hard lesson for me — I never would have anticipated how many of them would fail to understand the difference.

    Speaking of Timeline, I’ve always enjoyed the character who ended up staying in the Middle Ages, the one who magically knew enough Old French/Old Occitan to pass as a medieval Frenchman despite never having spoken either with a native speaker before. Forget having no idea what historians do; Crichton clearly had no idea how languages work, either.

    • @kate — yeah, LOL about Timeline. You’re being way too cynical about that, though. I’m sure that Crichton had it covered — the Occitan-speaking guy undoubtedly learned it from Rosetta Stone: Occitan. Or maybe all those videos of the interrogation of Cathars — I’m pretty sure there must be more than a few of them in the Vatican archives. Or on YouTube. Or something. You’re just way too picky. :-)

  2. Sean

    A very interesting read, I’m glad you clarified at the end that a professional qualification is neither necessary nor – excuse the pun- qualifying. Also I would suggest that Historians are largely to blame for the public’s ignorance of what we/they do as there is little or no attempt to inform them. Popular Historians – or at least people who purport to be so- either do not have these skill sets outlined or do not show it. For a piece of my undergraduate research I studied the role of Hitler based largely on accounts written in German, not speaking German (and as an undergraduate) I was unable to go into the detail I would have preferred and instead struggled through using resources available to me -thanks to a very patient German fluent relative- and produced a piece I was pleased with. This did not stop me taking ludicrous amounts of abuse from friends on Science programs who do not understand the differing problems offered by History as an academic discipline.

    For me to be a Historian is to at least attempt to use History in an academic way, quite separate from entertainment or enjoyment.

    • Thanks for the incisive comments, Sean. You’re right — historians are to blame for much of the public’s ignorance; there’s a true hunger out there for some connection with the past, and academic historians have abdicated their responsibility — at least I see it as a responsibility — to satiate that hunger. A good many of them are perfectly content to fulminate about poorly-done popular history (some of the truly awful Tudor stuff that has come out in the past couple of decades, for example), and justifiably so, but aren’t willing to do anything about it. So they — I guess I should say “we,” because by training and profession at least I’m one of them — end up talking to themselves and wonder why no one outside of the narrow horizons of the profession gives a damn about anything they/we have to say. It doesn’t help that most of us, in grad school, are all initiated into the cult of Absolute Originality — i.e., the belief that all good research concerns topics That Have Never Been Done Before. Consequently we end up working with topics that aren’t at all interesting. I remember interviewing a new PhD applying for a tenure-track prof position at my school years ago. The topic of his/her (I honestly can’t remember if it was a he or a she) dissertation was “the uses of land” in a district in Kent over a two- or three-year period in the 1920s. I’m usually of the belief that everything in history is interesting if you dig deep enough, but I took one look at this title and I was absolutely overwhelmed by a great wave of apathy. It just looked boring. It was all I could do to suppress a really loud laugh. Then a colleague of mine on the search committee observed that “this is great, really cutting-edge stuff,” and I couldn’t hold it in anymore. It was just too funny. And what made it funny (and sad, too) was the idea that my colleague didn’t see the same disconnect, between what academics do and what a broader public craves.

  3. Steven Gray

    Fantastic article. I often see ‘historians’ on TV in archives looking around in wonderment. Perhaps they are very passionate about their field, but one would imagine that most historians, like me (if I may call myself one) spend so much time in archives the novelty soon wears off. Also you are spot on about facts vs analysis, but I think your point about context is crucial. Even professional historians can be very blind to the wider context of their work, and thus wrongly ascribe primary importance to what they are interested in, rather than see it as part of a wider historical pattern.

    • Thanks, Steven. LOL — I can picture exactly what you mean — “historians” in archives with beatified looks on their faces. You’re right: the novelty wears off quickly. I remember my very first day in the State Archives in Copenhagen in 1988. The very first document I looked at was a personal letter from Louis XIV (this was dated 1 January 1644) to Christian IV of Denmark. Louis was, what, not yet six years old? I probably had that look of wonderment on my face. I was holding in my hands a letter signed by none other than the Sun King himself, even if he was just a boy. It was written in whatever hand was commonplace at the French court at the time (I know a lot of paleography but I don’t know the term for that particular hand) but I was young and nervous and it took me forever to get through the letter. I think I wasted about two hours on this single document before it finally dawned on me: all this letter said was, in essence, “Happy New Year! And thanks for the condolences on my dad’s death last year!” That was a real eye-opener — I had been in many archives before, but until that moment I didn’t really think of an archive as a place where one does his/her work and nothing more.
      And you’re right — professional historians can most certainly be blind to broader context. Being immersed in a relatively narrow topic for years on end can do that to you. I’ll have to admit that that’s why I’ve always been grateful that I get to teach so many sections of intro Western Civ — it forces me to think in a bigger way, and most of my most valuable epiphanies have come from extemporaneous comments delivered in Western Civ classes.

  4. Agree. Agree. Agree. Especially the part about historians’ failure to engage with “the rest of us,” as I put it. Since leaving academia, I’ve devoted my career to taking good history — REAL history — to the public. It’s an uphill slog for the reasons you describe here. Great piece. Thanks!

    • Maureen — thanks. Sounds like we’ve got a lot in common, though I’m still in academia — but if my book income were to significantly surpass my teaching income, well…that’s a different story. Love your blog, by the way; I remember running across your rant about the history of grass-fed beef a while back — great stuff. I’m addin’ you to my blogroll if you don’t mind!

  5. This was a very interesting read. I think that a lot can be learnt from historians and I think it is important to try to get across to the general public how history relates to them as well as the academic analytical side of the subject. I definitely agree with the need to learn a language. I’m currently studying the French revolution and I quickly realised that I’d need to get a French phrase book..I’m by no means there yet. I have felt a little lost at times but I’m getting there slowly and loving learning about another country’s history.

    • Thanks so much! You’re right, language is important — not only for the necessary research but also because it affords such an important window on a foreign culture. By the way, loved the post and photos of your trip to Norway. I haven’t been in Norway since 1997, when I had to work at archives in Trondheim, Bergen, and Oslo. I took a train from Copenhagen through Stockholm, Storlien, and — of course — Hell to Trondheim and thence to Oslo. But it was a miserable trip. Rained the entire time I was in Trondheim, and the town was filled with inebriated football fans. I’d love to get back there again under more pleasant circumstances.

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