Monday, August 11, 2008

Professing History

Last week I went to Buffalo to take a course on how to be a legal guardian for my mother, who is suffering from dementia. I sat in a room with a bunch of lawyers for about six hours, watched a number of CDs filled with pertinent information, had a few slices of pizza that they brought in for lunch (though its odd that in western New York pizzas are divided into squares, not slices of a round pie, for cultural reasons I cannot fathom.) All very well and good, and at the end of the session I was given a paper that notified to all who were interested that I had just earned six continuing legal education credits. Lawyers need to earn a certain number of continuing education credits to remain a lawyer in good standing. They have to demonstrate that they are up to date on current developments, recent laws and court decisions, and methods of practice. This makes eminent sense. Many professions require continuing education. Nurses, I know from my wife, have a similar requirement, and no one would want to have a lawyer or a nurse unfamiliar with recent innovations in their professions.

Professional historians have no such requirement. You get you degrees—my Ph. D from NYU is now almost two decades old, and you get to call yourself a professional historian in good standing, without, as far as I can tell, ever having to crack the pages of a history book again. But there are a number of oddities about professional historians. First, there are relatively few of us. Most so-called professional historians are really professional teachers, and while it would be unfair to say that producing history is incidental to their careers, it is part of a mix of broader responsibilities. I am a professional historian, whose career has largely consisted in the writing of history; I have nothing against amateur or popular historians, or historians who teach, but that’s not what I am. I have spent my career being paid for producing, either directly or through highly directed editing, what amounts to academic historical prose. I do try to keep up to date, and if I don’t follow every flow and ebb of historical interpretation with the avidity I did in graduate school, I subscribe to professional journals, and try to continue to read what I take to be important or path breaking books. But there is no test, no place for historians to get certified on recent developments. Anyone who wants to hire me as a professional historian could verify, if they chose, my NYU Ph.D. Other than that, I am a professional historian because I say so.

There are those who are uncomfortable with the openness of the historical profession. Many of the best known, and certainly the best compensated historians do not have a Ph.D. Professional historians often gripe at their treatment in reviews in widely read popular journals, where complex arguments and researches taking years to complete can be vetted by someone with no real grasp of the literature of the field. I have recently read of efforts by some historians to get journals to use only historical professionals to review the work of other historical professionals, or to develop some means of certification, whereby I could call myself, Peter Eisenstadt, C.E. (Certified Historian.)

Bad reviews are never fun, especially when written by someone you think unworthy of the task, but I think continuing education or certification for historians is a bad idea. What makes history so challenging is that it is entirely exoteric, without any hidden or special vocabulary or kinds of knowledge outside of what average intelligent people know. Unlike mathematics, or even the law or medicine, what historians write is generally intelligible to outsiders (Efforts by historians to develop their own arcane languages are invariably a failure.) We are naked before our readers. Anyone can think they can do our job better, they are welcome to try. What I bring as a professional historian is knowledge gained over thirty years, knowing how to research, how to write serviceable prose, and how to interpret a historical event and its immediate and more distant contexts. In many ways it is a subtle skill, but not a very mysterious one. The basic commitment of historians is that everyone should be well informed historically, and our job as professional historians is to help our readers (or students) to become better historians. In a society in which every citizen realized their own obligation to understand history and pursue historical learning, perhaps there would really be no need for professional historians.

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