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September 14, 2006

What is a(n) Historian?

Yesterday in class I was shocked to learn that most college students do not know what a historian is. When asked, the overwhelming answer was "someone who is interested in the past" or "someone who likes to read and write about the past." When prompted, they did suggest that maybe a historian was someone who taught history, like a professor, or someone who had an advanced degree in history. But then the other students jumped down this person's throat, calling them elitist and saying that anyone can write about history. They were surprised when I told them that, sure, anyone can write about history, but that it won't be published unless you have a Ph.D. The point I wanted to get across was that "historian" is a profession, just like "doctor" or "lawyer," and that there is a world of difference between a historian and a history buff. This was part of my larger point -- that history is analytical, interpretive, and thus subjective -- but that historians' interpretations are legitimized through their training and their use of established methods. I wanted them to be able to distinguish between, say, an article that they read in this class, and a show they watch on the History Channel. I also wanted to instill in them some respect, not only for myself, but also for the professor of the class and the writers of their readings. Not that I wanted to squelch their critical thinking -- I was very glad to see yesterday that they aren't afraid to disagree with me -- I just wanted to show them that some historical interpretations have more weight behind them than others as a result of the qualifications and methods of the historian. I wish now that I had used "doctor" as a comparison. If I had asked them what a doctor is, they would have agreed that a doctor is someone who has gone to medical school, and who has been trained in a residency program. They would certainly not have said "someone who likes the human body" or "someone who heals people." Sure, anyone can write about medicine or the body, but nobody will take that writing seriously if the author doesn't have "M.D." after his name. And, given the fact that most historians actually have more years of schooling under their belts than most doctors, we should be accorded the same level of recognition as experts in our fields.

Posted by eklanche at September 14, 2006 10:35 AM


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