All manner of people work and trade under the banner of ‘Historians’.
But what the hell IS a Historian?
Generally speaking, its someone who specialises in looking at, and possible also explaining about, the past. More specifically, purists would say that Historians should have at least a degree, and real History snobs would probably say you need to have a PhD or an MA or something to be a ‘true’ historian. Other people might read a book about History then suddenly decide that that makes them a Historian.
But then again, like a lot of things in life, having the qualifications and the fancy certificates doesnt actually make you good at doing something. Some lecturers I have come across were able to reduce a room full of students to insanity within 10 minutes. And by the same token, some of the most gifted ‘historians’ I have come across have had not one qualification at all.
What I think makes a good Historian is… research. Theres no substitute for getting your sleeves rolled up and working with documents, getting out and looking at things, and talking to people. There are certain things that you just can’t learn in books. Also, just regurgitating what other people have already written doesnt make you a Historian, merely a plagiarist. If you’re going to write a book, please please make sure that there is something new in it, so its worth the bother. Some of the biggest selling ‘historians’ on the shelf are guilty of this. Selling books isnt important, but making a contribution to people’s understanding of the future IS.
Another thing that does annoy me is the fact that the overwhelming majority of high-profile Historians are either from a very privileged background, or are where they are thanks to a family connection. Take Dan Snow. If he wasn’t Peter Snow’s son, no-one would know who he is. He’s made no contribution to History, but has no doubt earnt a lot in the process. Granted many people may have become interested in History through his programmes, but you would think that maybe a Cambridge graduate might have something more to offer rather than trading on his Dad’s name. And I can’t help but think that the large amount of Oxbridge graduates and double-barrelled shotgun historians out there will really give a good account of normal, working class people’s experiences. It will always be a ‘top-down’ approach, no matter how objective.
The problem is, that they way History is taught in schools, and prescribed by the national curriculum, History is just not an attractive subject. I really don’t blame kids for being bored with it, when its largely irrelevant, too rigid and taught so blandly. It doesnt help either that there’s absolutely no money or glamour to be earnt from a career in History.
Something else that annoys me is the fact that a History degree alone is not enough to get yourself a job in a museum, archive et cetera. I can’t help thinking that the policy of insisting on professional qualifications and postgraduate degrees is a way of making sure that only people who can afford it get into that line of work, thus keeping the whole profession nice and stable and free of new ideas that might upset the apple cart and derail the gravy train. If you think about it, you can learn how to handle pots quite easily on the job if you have the aptitude. But people skills? No postgrad course goes into them. In my experience they are far more important than any obscure professional thing.
But having said all that, there gets a point where you have to put aside where you come from, and think more about where you’re going. I think a Historian should be judged on what you do, not on what school or Uni you went to.