Wednesday, June 12, 2019

HIstory of whiny historians

Like medicine, law or engineering, history is a profession.
Actually, history is not like medicine, law, or engineering.  Medicine, law, and engineering are licensed professions with governing agencies empowered to withhold or remove the right to practise from those who fail to meet precisely defined professional standards. Generally, you cannot hold yourself out to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer without the permission of the certifying body, and if you screw up seriously enough, that permission can be withdrawn.

Historians? No. Academic teaching is a profession of sorts, though without the same sanctions (I can't think of a professor who has been disbarred by their fellows just for bad teaching or writing.)  Nobody grants or removes an exclusive right to practise history. And nobody should, for the most basic free speech reasons.  

Erik Loomis, a terrific historian at the terrific blog Lawyers, Guns, and Money, has fallen into this error.
One of the most annoying things about being a historian [is] that every random person on the street thinks they know more than you do about it. It really does drive me nuts.  ... This is how you have idiots like Bill O’Reilly out there writing “history” and it’s why you have people such as Naomi Wolf and Cokie Roberts being called out for basic errors. They shouldn’t be claiming they can do history to begin with because it’s an actual profession with actual training that develops actual skills.
This is, well, nonsense -- one might say, almost a disqualifying error by the standard Professor Loomis is proclaiming here. It would not take long, shall we say, to compile a list of distinguished historians who in their time have promoted slavery, racism, colonialism, misogyny, unjust wars, toxic nationalism, and other errors, without suffering consequences to their employment or professional standing.  

Historians do make errors. Need we be reminded of Hugh Trevor-Roper, perhaps the most distinguished British historian of his generation, Regius Professor of History at Oxford, no less, who endorsed the fake Hitler diaries as genuine? His whopping error in this case does not mean he is "not a historian;" he was a fine and skilled one. Historians with "actual training that develops actual skills" are not immune to error, any more than are the American writers Loomis is calling out here.

So here is the rule, everyone. There are good histories and bad histories. There are competent historians and incompetent historians.  There is no "I am a historian, but this person -- whose historical work I dislike -- is not." Good thing too.  There is a strong free speech bar against preventing someone from writing history just because you don't like the things they may write. In history, what matters is quality, not qualifications.

Call out bad history and bad historians to your heart's content. If you must, try to revive the lovely Victorian definition "historiaster, a petty or contemptible historian."  Do not imagine you hold a monopoly on historical practice and can deny it to others.
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