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A House Divided … Why?

What’s a historian? Who’s a historian?

I read with interest Eric Wittenburg’s recent musings whether he should pursue an advanced degree in history. Eric’s essay and the comments that followed bring to the surface issues of definitions. What’s the difference between a professional and an amateur historian? Who makes these distinctions? What do they mean?

I believe that these are miscast, misleading, and ultimately fruitless lines of inquiry. If there’s a meaningful difference, it is between academic historians (those housed in research or teaching institutions) and non-academic historians, and that difference is understood in part by how these people are funded, paid, and rewarded. There are professional imperatives involved in being part of the academy, as well as a set of expectations that is more or less understood. There are also different sorts of academic institutions: Eric mentions American Military University and Norwich. Each of those institutions provides a distinct service to its students and serves a particular function, but they are an alternative method to training than the model offered by the institutions where Steve Woodworth, Ethan Rafuse, Mark Grimsley, and I received our advanced education. None of us holds an advanced degree in American military history or even military history: our PhDs tend to be in “history,” and we teach and write in other fields. Mark, for example, is a military historian whose interests transcend the United States; I teach and write about political history, and in the profession people are more likely to identify me as a political or presidential historian as a military historian (my first appearance on C-SPAN, for example, was on a series on American writers: I’ve spoken at more conferences on political or presidential history than on Civil War history). My work on Reconstruction history has received a good deal of attention. I’ve taught courses on the American Revolution, the early American Republic (where I have published), the age of Jackson (where again I’ve published), American intellectual and cultural history, American foreign policy, the American presidency, American political history, and American women’s history … as well as Western Civ. Perhaps one of my most interesting teaching experiences was when a colleague in British history, apparently having decided that all civil wars are alike and therefore interchangeable, and having no interest in wars, asked me to do her lecture on the English Civil War. Piece of cake!

I’ve met Eric several times, and I appreciate the work he does. Much of it would not gain the recognition in academic circles that it does from readers who are interested in the military history of the American Civil War. That’s just a fact of life. It’s not a commentary on the quality of his scholarship. In fact, Eric’s training as a lawyer gives him many of the research tools he needs to be a good historical researcher. Moreover, not all academic historians are in fact researchers and writers, and several find it difficult to move past publishing their dissertation. I recall a survey conducted several years ago that showed that the percentage of historians who teach at institutions of higher education who have published two or more books is rather small, and the percentage who have published three or more books is small indeed. My former graduate student, Mark Weitz, has published four books to date, more than the two colleagues who bookend me chronologically in my department put together. Each of Mark’s books is of high quality and scholarly value: not all are Civil War-related.

I do believe that the term “historian” is abused through its too-broad application. People who comment on their own physical health do not consider themselves doctors; people who have experience with the legal system do not call themselves lawyers (although, Eric, I’ve been mistaken for one). Yet I’ve seen a lot of people who poke around websites, publish links, and do some reading proclaim themselves “historians” as if they are committed and trained researchers who explore widely, weigh evidence, and then produce contributions to knowledge and understanding (which is where I draw the line … producing contributions to knowledge and understanding). Parroting the writings of others and cutting and pasting in a discussion group does not make one a historian, folks. I don’t particularly care whether a person has an advanced degree in history: I know personally of several people, including Eric, Jim Epperson, and Dave Smith, who do good work, and none of them are professionally-trained PhD historians (they have advanced degrees elsewhere). My concern is not whether one is a “professional” or an “amateur”: these distinctions make little difference, and, as Mark, Steve, Ethan and I can testify, even so-called “professional” historians invest a lot of time and labor in certain work primarily because of the love for it (see the battlefield guide series as an example).

To me the issue is not between professional and amateur historians: that specious distinction builds walls, rivalries, and resentment where none should exist. This is especially ironic in light of the fact that many Civil War professional historians wonder whether their work receives nearly the appreciation from professional peers that it does from a broader readership, one that is enjoyed by but few of their peers. To me the question is whether one is a good historian or a bad historian. I’ve seen professionally-trained historians plagiarize, do poor research, and fail to convey their findings in a readable (let alone lucid) style. I’ve seen professionally-trained historians do great work. I’ve seen “amateur” historians do fine work, and I’ve seen them bumble and stumble, plagiarize, do poor research, and so on. To spend time and energy worrying about constructed notions of a professional/amateur divide among historians (in which both sides appear to have their axes to grind and their resentments to express) as opposed to worrying about asking questions, finding out what happened, doing good research, and conveying one’s findings as best as possible is in my mind a waste of energy and time. Don’t create resentments and rivalries where none should exist.

Comments (10) to “A House Divided … Why?”

  1. That was clearly articulated and right on target. It’s nice to hear from you again.

  2. Brooks,

    Amen, brother. I agree with you wholeheartedly.

    And thanks for your kind words. I like to think that I’ve earned my spurs through hard work.

    Ultimately, I think that the work speaks for itself, and that’s how I ultimately hope I will be judged.


  3. Brooks,

    Interesting commentary. I think “producing contributions to knowledge and understanding” is a pretty good measuring stick. Though I have an undergraduate degree in history, have edited and published Civil War studies, and written reviews and some articles, I scrupulously avoid referring to myself even as an amateur historian. Some people are comfortable assuming that mantle. I think it sounds too presumptuous, or even pompous (as some use it).

    There are plenty of people who have not had the graduate level training one normally associates with a professional historian but who, nonetheless, have earned that status. Among them, I would include many NPS staff, or local historical society types who have simply done more research than anyone else on a particular subject. Still, there is some meaning to the distinction between amateur and professional, and in Civil War circles, particularly, the term “historian” is too loosely used (in my opinion). The terms “research” and “scholarship” have been grossly distorted in this age of self-publishing and what are effectively vanity presses. Lots of people seem to think the presence of footnotes is proof of scholarship, but it’s often so much window dressing. Even “The South Was Right” has footnotes.

    And don’t get me started on “Living Historians” — that one drives me nuts.

  4. […] Over at Civil Warriors, and citing my ruminations about whether to obtain an advanced degree in military history here, Brooks Simpson has chimed in with a very thoughtful and well-stated analysis of the sticky question of amateur vs. professional historians. […]

  5. I, too, would like to thank Brooks for including me in his list of “decent folks.” Although trained in a very different area (mathematics), I do think my professional training has helped make me a decent student of history.

    And now for a question. Does anyone know where I can find a picture of the fire-eater Leonidas Spratt?

  6. While I appreciate Brooks Simpson’s comments, I would submit that most academics don’t hold his views, and most never have. Certainly James G. Randall didn’t. When Randall said “the hand of the amateur has rested heavily upon Lincoln studies” he just personified what most professors professed. There is a divergence between vocational and avocational historians that is, in my opinion, largely the result of the dislike most academics feel for those who write without the benefit of the Ph.D, and while this grossly oversimplifies the issue, I think much of it rests on acceptance of that work by the public at large. While I agree that much popular history is tripe (James Swanson’s “Manhunt” comes to mind), if the public had to get its knowledge from the majority of academic historians, that knowledge would be stillborn in many cases because most academic writing is stilted and pedantic. Brooks (if I may be permitted to address you by your first name), your writing is in the welcome minority, but sadly it is the minority.

    Rob Wick

  7. Part of the problem here seems to be that there are far too many people who read Shelby Foote and/or several other Civil War titles, do minimal research in primary source materials, and then declare themselves to be a historian. These folks are frequently grouped with the so-called amateurs like Eric, Dave Smith, and others who do quality work but are thus tarred with the brush of not being “real” historians.

  8. Very well said, Brooks, and I appreciate your thoughts on this issue. When I brought this up yesterday on my blog, it was motivated by a bit of frustration borne by the fact that the distinction is important to some. Most of us agree that it is pointless and just causes division and resentment. As Rob says, some academics don’t feel as you do, and feel it necessary to point out one’s “status” as a historian – as if it’s important that a distinction be made. God forbid some unsuspecting reader not know that one author or another doesn’t have a PhD.
    As I state on my blog, I only wish to be measured by my work. Whether I had a doctorate or only a 6th grade education, I’d want my work to be my yardstick.

    J.D. Petruzzi

  9. That the distinction is important to some academic historians shouldn’t be surprising. A Ph.D. is a status marker (with real work behind it) and like any status marker, some people will stress it more than others.

    I think it’s also partially in reaction to some people’s perception that anyone can do history without much effort, which isn’t true. Whereas anyone who reads J.D. or Eric’s (or whomever’s) work realizes that they’ve put a lot of effort and follow the same standards as the academics.

  10. Is there any kind of ‘search’ function in this blog? It would be nice.