What is a Historian? If you get your answers from Dictionary.com, your answer will be “an expert, or authority, on history” and “a writer of history.” Although these are part of being a historian, professionals will tell you these are too simplified. When defining an occupation or identity, you must decide whether to be inclusive or exclusive, with our parameters. Should a historian just be someone who studies or writes history, or must there be certain methodological standards? Formally trained, or self-taught? Focused on writing and research, or on teaching? That’s what we are going to look at.
Is it what they do, or how they do it?
First, should a historian just be someone who studies and writes history, or should there be a standard as to how they go about their research and writing? An excellent example to look at for this would be the legal case of Irving v. Penguin Books Ltd. This trial (depicted in the film “Denial”, as well as the book of the same name) created a legal standard for historical experts in English courts. To be an “objective historian,” they must meet the following qualifications:
- The Historian must treat sources with the appropriate reservations;
- The historian must not dismiss counter-evidence without scholarly consideration;
- The historian must be even-handed in treatment of evidence and eschew “cherry-picking”;
- The Historian must clearly indicate any speculation
- The Historian must not mistranslate documents, or mislead by omitting parts of documents
- The historian must weigh the authenticity of all accounts, not merely those that contradict a favored view;
- The Historian must take the motives of historical actors into consideration
This, I believe, is a good starting point but it fails in two regards; the standards need to be further elaborated, and they don’t define “Historian,” as much as what a “competent” historian is.
Can they be self-taught?
Should historians be formally trained, or must they be self-taught? This must be answered. A large number of people who are currently recognized as historians would no longer be so. The earliest known historians such as Herodotus, Bede, and Ibn Khaldun, were all self-taught. It wasn’t until the 19th century that history truly became its own subject. Edward Gibbon, the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was self-taught but is often referred to as the first modern historian. More recent historians such as David McCullough, David Barton, and Ron Chernow are also self-taught. If we are to exclude self-taught people from the definition of “historian”, we are going to be removing a large portion of the western canon of history.
Advantages of being trained in historical research are; exposure to academic standards, different schools of thought, and methodology. In contrast to this, a self-taught historian is mostly just reading whatever they can get their hands on, with little direction. Being a professional self-taught historian is very difficult. The same goes with every other profession. So unless we want to eliminate the work of thousands of years of writings, we should probably include self-taught historians in the definition.
Teaching, Writing, and Researching
Should historians be focused on writing and research, or teaching? This is a surprisingly contentious issue. Many historians who only teach often feel ostracized by rest of academia because they aren’t contributing to the creation of new knowledge. A similar sentiment is felt amongst historians who only write and research. They are made to feel that if you aren’t bestowing their knowledge upon students, then they aren’t fulfilling their roles as historians either. And if we look at those who do both, it is safe to assume that they feel like they don’t have enough time to dedicate to either to make a difference.
So what is a historian? Perhaps the best answer to this question is that the word “Historian” shouldn’t be an exclusive label, but rather an umbrella term, and beneath it are numerous categories describing their activities, areas of focus, and levels of competency.