Tearing Down the Barriers Between “Experts” and “Buffs” in the Historical Enterprise

Over the past few days I have been going back and forth with a commenter on a recent post I wrote about mediocre, good, and great biographies of Ulysses S. Grant. One of the issues raised in the conversation was my citing of a book written by a professional lawyer instead of an academically trained historian with a PhD. Without having read the book in question the commenter wondered aloud if the author’s choice to publish with a non-academic press reflected a desire to “bypass the normal refereeing process at a scholarly press” and, in a defense of scholarly publishing, warned that not all history writers are in a position to make sound judgements about the past. The commenter also equated the history profession with the medical profession: you wouldn’t trust someone not trained in medical practices to examine you for a disease, so why would you trust a non-historian with interpreting the past?

I believe these comments are unfair to the author in question, but looking at the bigger picture this conversation also reflects an unfortunate and all too common desire to create false barriers between “experts” and “buffs” within the historical enterprise. Few would disagree that training in historical thinking and interpreting primary/secondary source documents is very important to good historical scholarship, but the question of whether someone needs to hold a history PhD to be considered a competent historian is very much debatable.

My argument is simple: Some people focus on the players; I focus on the game. Some people focus on credentials; I focus on arguments.

I am far less concerned about a person’s academic background than I am with the substance of their arguments. I am far less concerned with what a person does for a living than what scholars in any particular field have to say about how that person’s work shapes their field. Take Gordon Rhea as an example. The fact that he holds a law degree from Stanford (and no history PhD) and has worked as a trial lawyer for 35 years means far less to me than the fact that his scholarship on the Overland Campaign of 1864 is highly respected by both Civil War military historians and general readers.

This is not to say that everyone’s opinion is equally valid when interpreting history. The point is that the historical enterprise should strive to cast a wide scholarly net that allows people from many different types of backgrounds to contribute their voice to the conversations we have about the past. Setting the bar for good historical scholarship to only include history PhDs who work in academic institutions impoverishes our field and shuts out many people who care about history but may not have pursued an advanced degree for any number of reasons, not least the fact that it’s damn expensive and time-consuming to get a PhD.

Equating the history profession’s standards with the medical profession is also a poor apples-to-oranges comparison. It might be better to compare the history profession to the music profession. There are musicians with PhDs in music, others who have more limited training through k-12 schooling and private lessons, and still others with no formal training whatsoever. Chances are that when you first discovered your favorite artist you probably didn’t go online to check that person’s formal training before determining whether or not their artistry was valid. The musician’s credentials matter far less than the fact that their music makes you feel good. Different types of music have different goals and required standards of training. You don’t need a PhD to play punk rock, but you might need it to teach classical music in a college setting.

Obviously the end goals of historical scholarship don’t necessarily compare to those of music, but the point stands that history is something that exists far beyond the walls of academia. Different works of historical scholarship–whether they’re written in a book or designed for a public history setting–call for different sets of training and expertise. Not every person who engages in these scholarly endeavors comes with a history PhD in their academic background, and that’s okay with me. Hit me with your best argument and I promise to look at it with an open mind.

Cheers

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16 responses

  1. I can think of a number of non-professional historians who produce (or produced) first-rate stuff. You mentioned Gordon Rhea. We also have Eric Wittenberg, Dave Powell, Bruce Catton and my personal favorite, K.P. Williams. There are also non-professionals who produce utter garbage. (Just as there are professionals who produce garbage.) The determining factor is the quality of the work, not the pedigree. In some fields the pedigree matters as a means of entry—we wouldn’t want folks hanging out shingles as doctors w/o some proof they know what they are doing—but the bottom line is the quality of the work.

    1. Bingo! The quality of the work matters a great deal. Thanks for the great comment, James.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with this! Further to your point, academically-trained historians know better than anyone that history is an increasingly interdisciplinary study (as it should be!) If historical research and theory were limited to just “historians” (which I would argue is a fluid term anyway), we would not have the ideas of Foucault, Said, Weber, and other methodologies which have profoundly influenced and improved historical research.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Ashleigh! I didn’t even think about the interdisciplinary aspect of the whole conversation. What a great point!

    2. I believe history is an increasingly interdisciplinary field at it’s own peril. One of the major themes of the post-modernists was to remove ahistoric structure and that debate is still where historiography tends to either be traditionally positivist or just ahistoric. Subsequently the irrationalist social theories like psychology, sociology, political economy, modernity all serve to created a non-linear hegemonic subject. I think we need to take all these things into account when studying history but there can be only one subject of global history. Or the study of historiography will always be of competing theories but each of them ahistoric

      1. Hi there,

        Thanks for the comment. I get that there are perils to doing interdisciplinary work, but I’m not following your reasoning as to why. It might just be me.

      2. Certainly interdisciplinarity in any subject area can be problematic as well as beneficial. As with every other aspect of scholarship, it should be utilized with care. I would be curious to know your definition of “ahistoric”, the term seems somewhat arbitrary to me.

        1. ahistoric, though more commonly seen as ahistorical is any research, discourse, epistemology that lack historic context.

  3. There is one valid distinction between academic and non-academic history writing. It is not judgmental (of either), and perhaps I’m drawing the line too sharply…. Academic writing is engaged with a conversation with itself (again, this is not the condemnation it usually sounds like). To engage in a conversation, one must use a loosely agreed upon vocabulary and participate in a back-and-forth with others. Most importantly, that conversation is geared toward answering a set of questions that are different in the academic world than they are in the non-academic world. To outsiders, this may appear mystifying, particularly because the vocabulary, the terms, and the nature of the questions are not intended to address non-academic concerns. So, we can’t really understand why McPherson claims what he did in “For Cause and Comrades” without knowing what Linderman said in “Embattled Courage.” You won’t be able to understand why I claim what I do in my work without knowing what McCurry and Schweiger have previously written.

    Obviously, this doesn’t always apply, and again, perhaps I’m drawing too sharp a distinction. I can’t speak to non-academic writing, but I think it’s perfectly valid for academics to write the way they do, and for everyone to understand why they’re not out to top the Amazon best-seller list.

    So, for me, the matter of quality isn’t really a part of it. (Well, it is, but as an explanation for the differences, not so much.)

    1. Thanks for commenting. My response is a mix of yes and no to your argument. While some popular history writers avoid jumping into those academic conversations you mention (and I don’t criticize them for doing that since their objectives are different than those of an academic scholar), I have previously criticized authors like David McCullough who don’t even acknowledge that such conversations are taking place and openly express a disdain for academic writing. Academic writing is indeed perfectly valid and it’s where I obtain most of my understanding of the topics that interest me.

      That said, I think we have to be careful in assuming that historians participating in those academic conversations are exclusively academic historians or that academics don’t participate in the making of popular histories that eschew the academic vocabularies, questions, historiographies, etc. etc. The particular book I reference in this post–the lawyer Frank Scaturro’s “President Grant Reconsidered”–jumps into the historiography of Grant biographies and explains their role in our understanding of Grant’s presidency quite nicely. Conversely, academic historians like Gordon Wood and Alan Taylor do a nice job of focusing on historical narrative in the main body of their texts and addressing historiographical questions in the footnotes. Ultimately, while I agree that such an distinction does in fact exist, I think it’s marked with shades of gray.

      I’ll also add that I view this discussion as something that goes beyond the writing of books and into the public history realm, which in some respects as a field of historical inquiry calls for different training and expertise than someone who is writing a book of historical scholarship.

      1. I agree with everything you say. You’ve added the necessary blurriness to my admittedly too-sharply drawn lines.

        1. Fair enough! Thanks again for commenting, Chris!

      2. As to your final paragraph above… are graduate public history programs sufficiently teaching these disciplinary differences? When I was in, a ways back now, it was basically “they need to be good historians, too” and throw us into the two academic U.S. History seminars to learn the historiographical debates, and that’s it. (I had to go out in the world, discover Rosenweig & Thelen, and tell my old teacher that he might want to use that.) I still see some programs that do this and then jump into museum management, interpretation, etc., classes that have room for articulating the differences between academic and public historical disciplines, but are not intentionally prioritizing it.

        1. My experiences in grad school were pretty much what you’ve described above with the exception that I was required to take an Intro to Public History class that did hit on some of the historiography of public history, including Rosenweig & Thelen. Since I’m interested in the interpretive/education side of public history I took several museum education courses with a really fantastic professor for my electives and feel like those classes hit a lot of the communication/interpretation/exhibit design/visitor studies-related topics that weren’t really discussed in my public history classes. I also took a digital humanities class that was really good as well. Our program is still very focused on training historians who write good master’s theses. I support that effort, but there was a lot of discussion during my time about ways to expand the curriculum beyond “they need to be good historians too.” There’s only so much you can learn in two or three years time, however, so I’m not sure what the best answer is for those questions.

  4. The biggest concern for history programs of any kind is the element of time. As an educator I am trying to instruct students in various disciplines. What do I teach is directly related to how much time I have to teach the subject. When it comes to programs, the time factor is now altered to reflect what does the student need to know before becoming proficient in the program and meets the goals the program expects.

    First, no master’s degree program is ever complete. They always run along the balance of time. How long should they be? What is the point of an overly long program? What are we teaching students that they will not be learning as a result of their job itself? You can see there is a measure of redundancy involved. At what point does the learner become a master? The goal of a history MA program is to develop the student into a self-learner capable of seeking out knowledge for themselves and correctly developing interpretations OR to be capable of integrating other historian’s research into their own knowledge.

    In the case of an instructor this is where the teacher is able to take other people’s knowledge and apply it to their teaching. In the case of a public historian they are able to take knowledge and disseminate it to the public. Research is still evident in this aspect, but the MA graduates are not expected to be deeply involved in research like the doctorate holders who (in theory) are expected to be working with elements that require a much greater degree of specialization. Obviously that is going to depend a lot on the individual so it is slightly generalized.

    Regardless of the differences in programs, at a certain point the student should no longer need to be taught in formal sittings. They should have transitioned to the point where they can seek out knowledge on their own. I see this reflected in the way that some students will wish to continue taking college courses even after they get their MA. They just spent time learning how to learn. They should be capable of picking up a monograph and reading it, placing the information into context with other information, and integrating the whole into their collective knowledge of history.

    We discussed this about my school’s MA programs for history and public history a few times. It has been an ongoing discussion for many years for the reasons you listed. Is the public historian an archivist? Are they a historian? I think the answer is to realize that what they do is present history to the public. That requires a skill set which other historians if they are smart will put to use. Just because a doctoral degree holder can develop history from their research, that does not mean they know how to present it to the public. In fact, many of them just do not have the ability to do so.

    You can see that reflected in academic writing and presentations. I hate presentations where people read verbatim from their papers. Screw that. Give it to a public historian and let them light up the room. I think the biggest problem with history right now is that it just is not being presented well. The academic historian needs to develop the research and hand it over to others to present. Instead we see too many gatekeepers trying to control history and it is detrimental to history overall.

    1. Great comment with a lot to chew on and think about. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jimmy.

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