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.