Professionalizing History 2: What Does it Mean to be a Historian?
In the last installment of Professionalizing History, I talked about the importance of discussing history and put down the foundation of this entire series. I highly recommend reading this series in order by publish date in order to fully understand what it means to professionalize history.
Unlike many other careers, history doesn’t really have an elitist corporation dictating what’s important in the field. In the fields of medicine and law we have severe institutions that look down upon the masses and decide who is a doctor and who is a lawyer based on strict tests and certification processes. We don’t necessarily have that sort of certification board to officially decide who is a historian.
If you practice medicine, you’re a doctor. If you practice law, you’re a lawyer. If you practice history…are you a historian?
That brings us the overarching plot stemming from the technological and informative world we live in. With infinite information at our fingertips, it seems as if history is commonplace with the average citizen. Just about everyone at the bar is an aficionado with the history behind their favorite sports team; just about everyone at the concert claims you’re not a real fan unless you’ve heard every song in the history of their favorite artist; just about everyone you meet will consider themselves a bit of a history buff in the Civil War because they’re really really really into that one obscure battle. But…does that make them a historian?
That’s the problem society has with history majors. We’ve watered down what it really means to be a historian in a world where everyone considers themselves a history buff. Not everyone can perform surgery, and not everyone can defend obscure common law in theory and practice, but anyone with more than three brain cells (sorry, average conservative) can open up a Wikipedia article or google search page on historical events.
That is not to say that historians are to be ridiculed as obsolete in our society. Au contraire, historians are the most important men and women holding the fabrics of civilization in tact. Historians don’t just gather unnecessary facts and regurgitate the ones that interest them the most. Historians hold to themselves tactical skills: of extraordinary writing, the ability to empathize and sympathize, and to understand objectivity and bias in any source. Historians do more than memorize random facts and dates – they take the patterns of society and format them to tell the stories of our civilization. They connect the dots of history, sociology, and political science to create a web surrounding our knowledge of, well, everything else.
However, without a proper certification board or institution to keep what it means to be a historian as culturally acceptable and respectable, it may almost seem regrettable – futile, even – to label yourself as one. What is the definition of a historian? Someone who researches, studies, and writes about the past and is regarded as an authority on the subject at hand. The first part of the definition is rather clear: knowing the history of your favorite sports team or folk art band does not qualify for you to label yourself as a historian. The second part, however, is what’s kept history nerds at arms against each other.
If you are a high school history teacher that researches, studies, and writes about history as much as a world renown professor…does that make you any less of a historian? I bring into the definition that a historian should be based not upon their recognition – as many ‘historians’ throughout history wouldn’t be able to accept such a terminology until long after their deaths (as stated in the introduction of this series our histories may outlive our physicality) – but upon their dedication to the subject as a whole.
The amount of work towards the archiving, revising, teaching, recording, and even rebutting of history as a whole should be what defines a man or woman as a historian. We are not the first generation of history majors and students to question the necessary skills of self-proclaimed historians. What must a history major – a self-proclaimed or future historian – be able to accomplish?
The American Historical Association (commonly abbreviated – to my dismay – as AHA) has come up with a historical tuning project to dictate ‘international’ history discipline and to create a core of historian skill sets. I learned of the Tuning Project from its 2013 phase and have basically decided that it fits the core definition of what it means to be a historian more than its more recent 2016 version. For all purposes of this post and the Professionalizing History series, we’ll be discussing the AHA’s 2013 platform for the Tuning Project. If you are interested in the 2016 version, however, you may click here for more information.
To be a successful history student, one must be able to…
Engage in historical inquiry, research, and analysis.
Any good student of history should always be skeptical of the world surrounding them. It does not help that our modern world is being plagued with fake news and, as a result, fake history as well. To develop a skeptical stance, one heavy-handed with a need to have evidence alongside information, is one of the most desired traits in the historical world. Students of history cannot base fact with fiction. Different perspectives exist. As one friend of mine loves saying: you should witness the world of history through not only the eyes of the executioner, but through the eyes of the condemned, and the crowd of people watching as well. All information should be used to provide a truthful and dynamic viewpoint of history. “Alternative facts” do not exist. Students of history should be able to evaluate sources for credibility, position, and the aforementioned perspective in order to provide the most accurate history possible.
Practice historical empathy.
According to the American Historical Association’s Tuning Project, any good student of history should value the study of the past for its contribution to lifelong learning and possess the critical ‘habits of mind’ that are essential for effective and engaged citizenship. Any and all analysis of history should be wed to depth and rationality in some sort of polygamous nature. To empathize is to not only share but to understand the emotional and historical background for anyone in any society. A good historian will try to put themselves in someone else’s shoes in order to truly understand the sources they are researching. Any and all historical viewpoint should be not only read, but understood in a sense that will allow for history to recognize them. A human being is more than a statistic…they are an individual that allowed history to progress forward. Thus, any individual interested in history should be able to recognize where in history they are currently residing within.
Understand the complex nature of historical record.
History isn’t simple, and anyone who’s ever found themselves neck deep in research truly understands that. With so many perspectives – even those that have been truly lost to the abyss – it becomes complicated to explain history as a whole. Primary and secondary sources are important to the world of history, and historians may find themselves at ends with opposing viewpoints. Sometimes, even though it may pain them, a historian just can’t say who caused something or why that something even happened. Historical inquiry comes in to shape our individual objectivity. Conflicting narratives and evidence aren’t there to refute a thesis…they’re there to help history as a whole.
Generate significant, open-ended questions about the past and devise research strategies to answer them.
It may seem strange to suggest that a historian needs to not only be able to answer questions, but create them as well. History remains important because of social patterns and comparisons between current events of the present and of the past. Good students of history will seek to provide more than just evidence to support their arguments; they will be able to identify and summarize any and all historical arguments through the development of a methodological practice. Historians do more than gather facts and sift through papers – they possess the skill to interpret evidence through analytical data. Questions do more than create thesis papers – they keep the community going through discussion on both academic and entertaining levels.
Craft historical narrative and argument.
A good student of history should be able to merge rational analysis with historical evidence to produce an argument worth the paper it is written upon. Analyzing the past for its use in the present should be more of an effective resource and less of a splurge of information. Historians understand and appreciate the ethics of practicing history through recognizing and building off of resources through peer review, historical analysis, and approved citations. When new evidence – whether or not it is supported by factual evidence – is given to the pubic, it is the historian’s job to defend their positions.
Practice historical thinking as central to engaged citizenship.
Perhaps most importantly; historians use their knowledge to benefit modern day society. To engage and empathize with so many different viewpoints – all from diversified backgrounds and experiences – is the key to being able to bring all of your knowledge to the world. The best history students apply their immense historical knowledge in a way that contributes to society and contemporary issues. From writing books, to blogging on social media, to lecturing and teaching – historians don’t keep their viewpoint to themselves… they share their specific mentality with the world.
If one were to coordinate their abilities into this tuning project, then in my personal opinion you are more than a history student. With proper education, dedication to the subject of history, passion for history as a whole, and the core discipline coming from the AHA’s tuning project – one can label themselves as and truly understand what it means to be a historian.