Non-Academics and the Historical Enterprise

Part Two in a series of posts about the CWI 2014 Summer Conference and the Civil War in 1864.

One of the great things about history is that anyone can study and contribute their own historical scholarship without the need of fancy credentials or even employment in a history-related field. History is all around us, and there are many ways to engage with it beyond the confines of an academic classroom. Even if you grew up hating high school history courses and their seemingly endless focus on “dates, dead people, and dust,” many people in their adult life eventually acknowledge the importance of history and accumulate enough historical knowledge to at least partially recognize their place in it.

The Civil War Institute’s 2014 Summer Conference at Gettysburg College demonstrated to me–perhaps better than any other conference I’ve attended–the benefits of academics and non-academics sharing historical knowledge with each other. Almost every history conference I’ve attended or participated in prior to last week was dominated by academic historians in the crowd and at the speaker’s podium, an environment that essentially consisted of academic historians talking to each other about topics that were mostly of interest to them and only them. I have no problem with academic conferences that are mostly composed of professional historians, but it was a really remarkable experience seeing so many non-academics at the CWI conference, both as attendees and participants. I met so many people who attended the conference not because they worked for a prestigious university that paid for their travels but because their love of Civil War history led them to spend their own hard-earned money and time at Gettysburg. People from a wide range of occupations came to see the conference, including high school teachers on summer break, people in business and law, and retired enthusiasts who now spend their time learning about history.

The presenters at CWI also came from a wide range of occupations. Emmanuel Dabney and Eric Leonard of the National Park Service, independent writer Megan Kate Nelson, high school teacher Kevin Levin, and Licensed Battlefield Guide Sue Boardman all demonstrated to me that one does not need to be a university professor to help shape the field of Civil War studies. I must also acknowledge the talents of Gordon Rhea, who participated in a sit-down interview with Gettysburg College professor Peter Carmichael on the first day of the conference. Rhea was a full-time lawyer in Washington, D.C. in the 1990s and 2000s when he wrote his trilogy of books on Ulysses S. Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign in Virginia, essentially turning himself from a lawyer into a historian by nightfall (a fourth installment on the campaign is forthcoming). These books have become standard resources for analyzing the Overland Campaign and are doubtless included in the libraries of academic Civil War historians across the country. Rhea’s accomplishments are really amazing if you think about it. You don’t often see non-academics writing standard treatises on medical practices, quantum physics, or German literature. But that’s the great thing about history – anyone who’s interested can ostensibly contribute their interpretations of history without worrying about a lack of credentials. All you need is good evidence and interpretive skills to back up your claims.

As someone who has great reservations about pursuing a history Ph.D. or an academic career, it was inspiring to see so many public historians, students, and history enthusiasts contributing to the scholarly discussions that took place at CWI. While I haven’t completely ruled out the possibility of someday continuing my education, I’ve come away from this conference thinking I can get pretty far in the history world even if I choose to focus on my public history career without any further education. For now we’ll have to wait and see what happens on that front. Life as a public historian has been pretty great so far.



5 thoughts on “Non-Academics and the Historical Enterprise

  1. Great post, Nick.

    Whether or not you decide to get a Ph.D. I know you’ll be one who always learns and write!

    Your comments about history being for every one, reminded me of a book I was reading through yesterday that you might like: “The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life.” The authors (two of them) concluded based on surveys they connected that the general public is very interested in the past, just not the past as “academics” study it. It makes extensive use of oral history, too.

    1. Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for your kind words. I actually came across “The Presence of the Past” in graduate school and read a bit of it. There’s a lot of interesting data in it and I’ll have to give it a re-read at some point in the future.

  2. Hi Nick — Could not agree with you more. Especially since I am in the non-academic camp. CWI is a treat – I have the opportunity to have tours led by by John Hennessy at 2nd Manassas, Mark Grimsely at Gettysburg, Brooks Simpson in the Wildnerness, and Garry Adelman again at Gettysburg. In addition to break out sessions and dine-ins with Kevin Levin, Megan Kate Nelson, and Susannah Ural. I do firmly believe that there must be a connection between the professionals (academic or public historians) and the general public. Although my friends/family don’t share my obsession (is too strong a word?) with history – the fact remains that by osmosis they do learn bits and pieces.

    Keep up the good work. Do you think you’ll be in the St. Louis are this fall? Maybe a trip in the offing that direction November.

    If not, maybe we can meet up at CWI 2015 for a coffee.

    1. Hi Mike,

      Thanks for your comments, I appreciate them. I too took Brooks Simpson’s tour of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, but I got lumped in the back of the bus with a bunch of high schoolers and didn’t get to speak with many “adults” during throughout the day. So it goes.

      I am working full-time at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in South St. Louis. I’ll most certainly be there this Fall and would love for you to stop by. I work weekends so there’s a good chance you’ll catch me if you come on a Saturday or Sunday.

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