Pardon the Interruption . . .

Forgive me for breaking up the “we’re all Federalists, we’re all Republicans” love fest, but I can not help but be flabbergasted at the suggestion that there is no distinction and none should be made between the professional and amateur historian. Are you seriously saying, Brooks, respondents—you, Lieutenant Weinberg—that the fact that one has a doctorate and teaches at a university does NOT set them apart from folks who do not?

At the risk of disappointing and destroying whatever good will I might have with the studio audience, there are distinctions between the professional and amateur historian. One is called paying your dues, symbolized by possession of a doctorate. Surely no one out there thinks they just give those things away. If you are not willing to put in the sacrifice and spend a few years as the lowest of God’s creatures, the graduate student, to totally commit yourself to the pursuit of knowledge in your field (and not least of all, go through the separating men from the boys experience of the comprehensive examination—it is not as bad as it is made out to be, but until you have actually gone through it, how the heck do you know?), don’t be surprised when those who have look upon you and your work with a jaundiced eye. Besides providing evidence of a lack of common sense and ruining you for any sort of productive work, a doctorate at the least says that you have paid your dues and met standards in your field. Many Ph.D.s may never move beyond their dissertations and some may well be poor writers (although not so many as self-glorifying amateurs since Allan Nevins have been telling themselves and others), but by far the worst historical writing I have encountered has been by amateurs of the sort that would never, ever get past a dissertation committee.

I suspect the problem some have with what academics write is not their writing style, but the subject or subjects they are writing about. To give a recent example: Mark Wilson’s excellent recent book Business of Civil War. This was once a dissertation and I have no doubt that there are readers who will declare it terrible reading, “too academic”. Now, to someone who would rather read about the cavalry action at Monroe’s Crossroads, I can’t see how Wilson’s book would be anything but “stilted and pedantic” reading. That, however, is attributable to the difference in the subjects and the perspective of the reader, rather than the skill of the authors. I bring up Eric’s book not to knock it or him but to say that as a reviewer I judged these two books by different standards of “contributing to knowledge and understanding”. The test for Eric’s book was whether it told a good story of an interesting but relatively minor action well and in a way that would appeal to general readers (it did, exceptionally so). The test for Wilson was whether he made sense of what was a very important story but one that was difficult to tell in an especially exciting manner (economics is, after all, the “dismal science”) in a way that would stand up to the scrutiny of historians interested in the subject of military and industrial mobilization. He met his standard also. Rob Wick brought up the name of James G. Randall. But was not Randall absolutely correct to lament the heavy hand of the amateur on Lincoln studies and can anyone dispute that we are better off because he did not leave the Lincoln field to Carl Sandberg in the 1930s and 1940s?

Was possession of a doctorate the only difference between Randall and Sandberg? Of course not. Can not someone write good history without a doctorate? Of course they can. Let’s drop this notion though, that: 1) there is no difference between the amateur and professionally-trained historian; and 2) possession of a doctorate means little. This is unnecessary of course if one wishes to operate on the assumption that anyone who does or has pursued a doctorate is a fool–an assumption for which there certainly is much supporting evidence.

Comments (3) to “Pardon the Interruption . . .”

  1. Somehow I never thought that my name would be linked to the word “lovefest.” Let me, however, tackle the other issues in a longer piece.

  2. Ethan, I don’t think the point is that possession of a doctorate “doesn’t matter,” but that it is only part of the story. The bottom line is the quality of the writing and research.

  3. I agree, Jim. I think there are extremes here that just aren’t substantiated, Ethan. I don’t know of anyone who said, or even implied, that a doctorate doesn’t matter, or that there isn’t any distinction between academics and non-academics. Certainly there is. The discussion has been the connotation that is sometimes applied to each term, which is then used to characterize the writer regardless of their credentials or the quality, or scholarship, of their writing.

    J.D.