In Defence of Historians

Hello, my name is Heather and I’m a historian…

I have studied history for over ten years. I’ve written about history, researched history, taught history, attended many history conferences, had my work scrutinised and criticised by other historians. I am, by all definitions, a historian. But the reason this comes across as something of a confession is that lately I’ve felt that being a historian is decidedly uncool. As a PhD graduate looking for employment outside of academia, I admit I’ve tended to downplay my background in history and instead emphasised my interest in foreign policy and my ‘transferable skills’. I doubt there are many employers who are looking specifically for someone with an in-depth understanding of the Cabinet debates of 1919 on the recall of British troops from Persia. But somebody might be interested in the fact that I can write quite well and know a bit about project management…I’m hoping.

Don’t get me wrong – there is huge public interest in history, as the various events, literature and TV programmes surrounding the First World War centenary have shown. Social media has also made history more accessible to the public than it has ever been and has created a community feeling among #twitterstorians. However, while there is an apparently insatiable appetite for history, I don’t see a corresponding respect accorded trained historians. Maybe it’s just me; maybe I’m a bitter PhD graduate feeling unappreciated. I’d certainly like to know what other historians think. But there is, I feel, a subtle yet pervading attitude in our society towards the study of history that troubles me.

Importance Accorded Historians

One example is the attack Michael Gove made, not too long ago, on the historiography of the First World War. Gove may have been trying to make a point about the way the subject is taught in schools, but his actual argument, instead, came across as a criticism of the way historians have studied and written about the event – that (some) historians had misrepresented the war because of their own political beliefs. There is no right and wrong in history, the discipline is built on the basis of debate and argument. The BBC programmes on whether Britain should have entered the war was a fine example of eminent historians in debate. Michael Gove is not an historian nor is he an expert on the First World War – he therefore has zero right to criticise how historians do their job.

Young_Britons_Study_American_History-_Education_in_Wartime_England,_1943_D13789

Children should be taught there is no black and white when it comes to history.

Related to this is the value that is accorded to the teaching of the subject of history generally. Every few months it seems somebody is questioning whether history should be absorbed into ‘citizenship’ classes, or scrapped entirely from the curriculum. How often are we being told that Britain needs more scientists, mathematicians and technologists? I saw a scheme recently that is trying to encourage PhD graduates to go into secondary school teaching – the salary for those who have done a science PhD is double that of the arts. And yes, this may be due to the fact that there is a lack of STEM teachers. But the overall message constantly being projected is one that says those who have training in the sciences are more valuable members of society than those who have trained in the arts. Not that this is an ‘us versus them’ situation. Indeed, I have no time for the arts versus science debate – both are equally valuable pursuits. And I in no way hold any ill will towards my STEM peers – my sister is, in fact, doing a PhD in Biology. But am I allowed to feel a little jealous when her lab had the funds to buy her a MacBook when I don’t know a single history PhD student who’s department could have done that for them?

This in turn is linked to a prevailing attitude that while you need to be trained to be a scientist/mathematician/engineer etc, anyone can be a historian. All you need is a library card. The concept of being trained in analysis of primary sources, construction of argument, critiquing of historiography, use of methodology, even citation systems, are all lost on most people. For instance, I always find it interesting that for some types of book (usually to do with psychology, healthcare, even economics), the author’s academic credentials are often very prominent. But you won’t find a history book on the shelves with ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’ on its cover. I can only conclude that while the fact that the author holds a PhD or MD is important to readers who want advice on their diet, it’s not so important if they want to learn about the Suez Crisis. Yet, how does the average reader know that the author of a history book is properly trained, that they have looked at all of the sources and facts, that their argument and opinion is well informed and based on years of research and study? It’s notoriously hard for an early-career historian to get published, despite the fact that have gone through a gruelling process of writing a 100,000 word thesis (often together with articles, conference papers and book reviews) and had their work constantly scrutinised and criticised by their peers. Yet a certain well-known journalist who has no training whatsoever in history can easily publish history books and speak at high profile events on history matters.

The Value of History

One of the sad results of this lack of respect for historians is it has forced us to start having to justify what we do, using a framework that often is less about the value of historical knowledge and more about telling people what they want to hear. The Gove argument is again a good example of this – the reason we should be talking about the First World War is because it boosts national morale, or so the education secretary believes. Aside from the great danger that comes from having politicians involved in how history should and should not be studied, this sets a bad precedent for judging the inherent value of historical knowledge. No longer does the act of studying history have meaning in and of itself. Instead, something needs to be done with the product of our endeavours – we need to enhance our country’s reputation, we need to hold bad people and regimes to account, we need to learn the lessons so as not to repeat mistakes. History which aims to do any of these things is at best, bad history, at worst, dangerous propaganda.

books 2

‘Those who do not understand their past are doomed to repeat it’ – too often this phrase is taken to mean that by looking at history we can somehow stop future mistakes. I think most historians would agree that the ability to predict the future based on past events is limited. Instead, what I take to be the real meaning behind this saying is that understanding history gives you skills and abilities to hopefully reduce the chance of making the same mistakes in the future; that in training people to be analytical, critically thinking, engaged members of society, always looking to understand the other point of view and ready to question the status quo, certain aspects of our past would not be able to replicate themselves in the future.

Unfortunately, the ever increasing need to justify what we do causes some historians to try to shoe-horn this ‘lesson learnt’ aspect into their work. I’ve read work and listened to talks where very tenuous links have been made between the historical subject at hand and some current affair. Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine have brought forth a plethora of Cold War analogies; every conflict involving territorial competition between foreign powers is a ‘new Great Game’. I don’t really blames these people – when it’s hard to have your voice heard you have to give the people what they want. You also have to try to connect with what people already know. And I know some people will call me a hypocrite, being that I am a historian who writes about current foreign policy. However, I’m not saying you can’t talk about history and current affairs together, just that if this is a forced element of an article/book/lecture then it doesn’t work. Again this goes back to the issue of why we should study history. I believe that knowing the history between two countries (for example Britain and Russia) can help policy makers to have more sympathy for the other’s point of view. People are shaped by their past, and for me, good history can help inform the way we look at the world as it is today. To illustrate: understanding the previous wars which have occurred between Britain and Afghanistan in the 19th and 20th centuries can perhaps help western decision makers to better understand the attitudes that the Afghan people may have towards Britain today; it does not provide a template of what one should or shouldn’t do when going to war with Afghanistan today.

I know there are many people who will see what I’ve written as simply another ‘so-called expert’ whining about not being given the deference they feel they deserve. But I think it’s quite a natural human reaction that, when you have a passion for a subject and have dedicated significant time and effort to being trained as an expert in it, you then seek recognition of your abilities from others. So how can we change things? Well, for one thing, when you look to buy a history book, check to see if the author is a trained historian, rather than a journalist, politician or TV personality. If the public starts to demand their history writers are actually historians, we have a better chance of becoming published. That has a knock-on effect for the standing of historians. One small step but a big boost to us closet historians!

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  1. #1 by Luc Devincke on 04/07/2014 - 9:56 pm

    Great explanation.. And strange, you seem to have a lot of the same ideas as me. And I thought I was a lonely wolf in the field of history… I see I have to follow you better. I’ll study what you have written better next days. Good night

    • #2 by hacampbell on 04/07/2014 - 9:58 pm

      Thanks Luc. Glad to know I’m not alone in my thoughts!

  2. #3 by Tim Berg on 04/07/2014 - 10:50 pm

    Heather,

    Great article!

    I too am an historian. Having taught the subject for over 15 years on both the high school and college levels.

    Did publish some articles and did some podcasts, public lectures and even trained school teachers and gave them refresher courses in history.

    What has been my experience over the past ten years is that there are less colleges who require courses in history and even high schools are minimizing it as a required class in the U.S. The latest smart phone gadget, celebrity tiff or sports teams victories are all at the access of ones fingertips.
    In class many times I have to tell students to turn off their phones, tablets and laptops because their are not paying attention to the subject and many times do not even bother to read the textbook or even bring it to class.

    Even on linkedin-where we should be a so-called community of “professionals” anyone can be a an historian.

    I post threads and discussions all the time and recently I have noticed that some people-who neither teach or have degrees in history who disagree with me on various topics tell me that I am not a “good historian” because I have a bias! So now everyone is an expert despite the years of study and teaching and research that I have put in.

    Also-there is no respect for historians at the universities anymore as you correctly pointed out.
    It is all about the latest technology in the classroom or how to make money. The history classes and programs are cut, and the result is a gaggle of technocrats with no historical consciousness or abilty to think critically or communicate orally or in writing.

    Thanks for this article-you are a kindred spirit.

  3. #4 by Steven on 05/07/2014 - 12:16 am

    Historians: All you need is a library card. – Great title

  4. #5 by Michael Ramsey on 05/07/2014 - 10:24 pm

    Heather,
    I am not an historian. However, I have read history for pleasure ever since my two-semester course on English Social History in the late 1960′s. It was the first time I had heard a professional historian explain the lessons of history instead of relying on dates and facts and names.
    Over the past fifteen years, I have read and reviewed 225 history books for a daily newspaper. Excerpts from about 55 of those reviews have been used by publishers in the fly leaf promotions of the paperback editions. I lecture about American history and I moderate book club discussions.
    After I retired from the insurance industry, I started a second (less lucrative, but more rewarding) career working as a classroom coach in a high school. I work with students who have learning disabilities caused by autism, dyslexia, and other issues. I have encountered several history teachers who use the classroom as a forum for proselytizing for ideas that appeal to a radical fringe of American society. Those people, wherever they are, miss the point of studying history.
    The study of history, when it focuses on the lessons of history, is a foundation for the kind of thinking and conversation necessary to help make organizations be continuously successful.
    Over the course of my business career, I was able to cite incidents from history which helped guide discussions away from focus on minutiae and refocus the conversation of achieving goals. Being able to talk about how George Washington, Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower successfully faced similar situations gave me an edge in those conversations.
    I have also chaired the boards of directors of several not-for-profit organizations, and we have been able to focus on goals that made those organizations successful because of the lessons from history.
    Your education in History is an asset. People with strictly technical educations can achieve great things during their careers, but the training that helps them be successful also limits the contributions they can make to the larger goals.
    A liberal arts education prepares you to be a field-grade officer. A technical education may enable you to be a master sergeant, but being a colonel requires an ability to see beyond the obvious — an ability to anticipate the future. You can only anticipate the future if you understand the past.
    When I have a student who resists learning Algebra or Geometry because “I’ll never use this stuff after I graduate,” I don’t argue. I do point out that I studied those subjects in high school and college, and I seldom used the mathematics involved, but I use the thought process daily.
    History is like Algebra. You may never need to know the dates that Gen. Grant lived or when he outmaneuvered Gen. Lee, but if you can explain Grant’s clever tactics at Cold Harbor and relate those to a similar situation at work, you can generate discussion that will lead to a solution that can make the organization successful.
    When interviewing for positions, don’t allow the interviewer to limit your abilities because of your educational background. This is just another sale, except that you control how the product (i.e., you) is positioned.
    GODD LUCK!

  5. #6 by Peter Altomare on 06/07/2014 - 9:24 am

    Good commentary on not just the state of history and historians, but a sadly true appreciation of the conditions of our various cultures and the abilities of those cultures to understand, value and utilize what the study of history is.

  6. #7 by J. James Cotter on 07/07/2014 - 7:28 pm

    A historian is a social scientist- one who knows more and more about less and less. I submit that a STEM researcher is the same. Rare is the biomedical researcher who publishes a book for a mass audience. Thus, I think a historian is little different from a serious, trained researcher in any field. The audience for success in the academic world are the editors of journals that want tight, methodologically rigorous studies. These studies, of necessity, deal with the tiny, incremental steps that build knowledge in a field. “Bedside Teaching and the Acquisition of Practical Skills in Mid-Sixteenth-Century Padua” (Stolberg, Jrnl of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences). They are inaccessible to the general public. The journalist seeks to be a generalist and their audience is the general public. Thus there topics must be, of necessity, appealing to a wide audience. Also, a somewhat distinctive voice is needed, a characteristic that PhD education seeks to eradicate. No “I”s or “we”s or character in journal articles.
    I think most people try to balance research rigor and a good story. And perhaps professional historians have trouble with the second part.
    I have an MA in History, but quit a PhD program in history (despite a fascination with historiography) when it was evident that jobs for trained historians were disappearing. I finished a PhD (Health Research) much later and now I teach my students how to succeed in the academic publishing world not the general publishing world.
    I read Barbara Tuchman, Shelby Foote, David McCullogh, etc. None with a PhD in history, all known as historians. Are they not historians?
    As to your comments on the inanity of not learning history, I totally agree.
    Thanks for a stimulating essay.

  7. #8 by hacampbell on 07/07/2014 - 8:31 pm

    Thank you everyone for your thoughts and comments. Its great that people feel strongly enough to debate this issue: that’s the way to get people thinking more about the value of history, how it should be taught and studied. From a personal point of view it’s also always nice to get feedback on my writing!

  8. #9 by Gerald Ritter on 08/07/2014 - 5:39 pm

    Fine article. I especially liked the response of Michael Ramsey. Heather, it might be worth remembering that some of the worlds most successful financiers and financial analysts studied English and History. (As did I.) There are few long range planners. We constantly see the results of that shortage. Institutionalized myopia makes itself felt all around us in numerous unfortunate ways. The study of history is necessary for making good decisions. Project management is the main tool used to sell the idea of an archaeology major at a university in our region. Being able to work independently and write well are two of the hallmarks shared by the archaeologist and historian. Sell that to the interviewers.

  9. #10 by Dave Jennings on 13/08/2014 - 7:34 pm

    I am a 71 year old genuine, academic student of history. I currently attend college American studies courses and have written 60 essays on Americanism since 2007. I have a passion for historiography.

    David McCullough may suffer criticism for his lack of genuine credentials as a historian, but no one does historical biography better. His work is impeccably researched and cited. He may have popular appeal to his readership due to his incredible language skills, but that does not mean he is not the real deal.

  10. #11 by Ross on 16/09/2014 - 11:15 am

    Heather,
    The key problem with being a historian is that it is not a protected title. For example, while many people inter-change the terms dietician and nutritionist they are actually very different. You can’t just call yourself a dietician. You have to have the qualification and membership to prove you ability to work in the area. It is regulated. We, alas, are not. This means that anyone can call themselves a historian and this leads to the problem that there is a lot of bad history out there. In this respect, you are right to feel aggrieved, I am! This is not to suggest that there isn’t good history being written by non-trained specialist, however, I have found, certainly in my field, that they are a minority. This lack of ownership is of course an outgrowth of the simple fact that we all have our own history and this is what leads people to seek to engage, which is no bad thing. Indeed, it is this balance that seems to be at the heart of the problem for me. We, as academic, should encourage people to engage but at what point do those engaging stops being spectators and begin to be participants in historical discourse?

  11. #12 by Luke Sprague, M.A. on 16/09/2014 - 5:30 pm

    Heather,
    Okay, yes, if you approach the world outside of academia with a PhD, you will be overqualified (whatever that means). I have never understood or accepted this myself, as it means you are more than capable of doing the job you are applying for; I suspect it is mostly a employers fear of having to pay more for someone with the actual training and skills.
    I agree there is a subtle shift, even here in America, towards professional historians. James Cotter captured in his comments and I agree, there are at least two major audiences all historians serve- public and academic. There is little overlap between the two, i.e.: academics pointed outwards and conversing with the public and vice-a-versa. Yes, STEM, STEM, STEM is being over-stressed at this point within the educational world, but our students cannot tell you anything about their local, regional, or national history. Instead, a type of deconstruction where we teach students how search instead of what actually occurred. This is a deliberate misdirect to undermine the importance and relevance of studying the past. In essence, this ideology says, only what happens today or within the last two weeks is relevant (see the news cycle). The students behave as such with cell phones and constant connection as Berg’s comments state, just wait until the implants arrive within five years. Try disconnecting these students and then ask them to find, analyze, and then synthesize an argument–good luck. Write a thesis? Huh, what is that?
    In a purists world, Michael Cove (who I know nothing about) does have a right to be critical regardless if he is a professional historian or not. But, the issue is there is no mechanism to disassemble this man’s fatuous statements unless you have an audience who is looking for the response in the debate and is capable of weighing the arguments–that does not exist today. You have a thirty second sound bite audience who wants their 30-second video snip and perhaps 50 words of text. So, when you and I respond critically and analytically to a journalist or minister the public might grasp part of it, but it will be down towards the bottom of their reading.
    Best,
    Luke Sprague, M.A.
    Independent Historian

  12. #13 by Jack Le Moine on 02/03/2015 - 12:12 am

    Thank you for this. I am afraid that I had a little fun at your expense as this essay had so many juicy targest, I was too weak of character to resist. Anyway, my negative review of this essay in my blog was meant in fun, not in spite. Suprisingly, this essay is now among the most commented on in LinkedIn, 179 comments as of now and still going strong. (In case you don’t know, LI is a social media site for professionals.) See “Who Are Historians?” in the History Enthusiasts Group. The link for my review of this essay is http://dld.bz/d7jh2

    • #14 by hacampbell on 02/03/2015 - 7:37 am

      I have no problem with people expressing their opinion on this debate. However, please could you modify your piece. I am not out of work but looking for something where my PhD skills are in use. I have held a full-time job at my university for the last two years (and started during the last year of my PhD). This info is available on my LinkedIn page which is spoken of on my ‘about’ page. Thank you!

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