Good Questions: How Do You Become a Historian?

I’ll be going back on break tomorrow, while we spend a week with my parents in Virginia. But first, let me briefly return to a series I started earlier this month: blogging through some of the excellent questions I was asked via Skype by Mr. Ferda’s 8th grade history class in Kalispell, Montana. The first post got me thinking about history teachers who influenced me to become a historian… This one got me rethinking the very definition of “historian.”

If I were interested in history and the past, what advice would you give to help me get started becoming a historian?

We ended up talking separately about graduate school, so I’ll save that for a later post. But even there I tried to explain that getting a PhD and teaching/researching as a college professor is only one route to the title of “professional historian.” As former American Historical Association president William Cronon asked in the March 2012 of the AHA’s newsletter:

Is a high school history teacher a “professional historian”? Is a writer of high-quality popular histories? A producer of historical documentaries? A curator of historical exhibitions? A designer of historical web sites? For myself, I would answer with a vigorously enthusiastic “yes” to every one of these questions, but I’m not sure all my colleagues would do the same—not even some of the people whose professional practice of history places them in one of the groups I’ve just named.

So if you’re interested in history and the past, there are lots of professions to consider that will let you nourish that interest and get paid (a little, at least) to share it with others.

But what I primarily emphasized to the students in our Skype chat is that “historian” is not limited even by the rather broad “professional” borders sketched by Cronon.

First, we need to clean up the question a bit and point out that “the past” and “history” aren’t the same thing. I’ll enlist Tracy McKenzie of Wheaton College to explain the distinction, by quoting one of the posts in his excellent series on C.S. Lewis:

Setting aside the revealing usage when we say that someone or something is “history,” i.e., utterly irrelevant to the present, there are two different phenomena we commonly have in mind when we refer to history.  We are probably either thinking of (1) everything that has happened until now, or (2) what is known and taught about everything that has happened until now.  These are not the same things, and the difference is not trivial.

To help my students differentiate these concepts, I encourage them to speak of all that has happened until as “the past,” and to reserve the term history for our efforts to make sense of the past.  (I like the wording of the Christian historian John Lukacs, who refers to history as “the remembered past.”)  The first and single most important step to thinking historically is coming to grips with this fundamental distinction between history and the past.

Huangguoshu waterfall
Huangguoshu Waterfall, one of China’s largest cataracts – Creative Commons (Chenyun)

Taking up Lewis’ description of the past as a “roaring cataract of billions upon billions” of moments in time, McKenzie urges the reader to “imagine yourself standing by the water’s edge with your arm extended, a Dixie cup in your hand.  If the rushing wall of water hurtling by represents the past, the drops that you capture in your paper cup would be analogous to history. They’re not the same, are they?”

(Here I also think of my graduate adviser’s analogy between a historian and a cartographer, who does not attempt to map the entirety of a location, but to give a usable representation of it: “For to try to represent everything that’s in a particular landscape would be as absurd  as to attempt to recount everything that actually happened…. Such a map, like such an account, would have to become what it represented…. We avoid the literal in making maps because to do otherwise would not be to represent at all but rather to replicate. We’d find ourselves drowning in detail: the distillation that’s required for the comprehension and transmission of vicarious experience would be lost” — John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History, p. 32.)

To get back to the good question and rephrase it a bit with McKenzie’s post in mind… If you’re interested in the past, then you are probably already producing history, since you are already trying to make sense  of whatever moments you have caught in your own Dixie cup (by personal experience, conversation with others, learning in a class, watching a movie, reading a book, visiting a museum or site, touching an artifact, etc., etc.).

I suggested this definition of “history” to our department’s Senior Seminar students this past semester, and asked them to spend ten minutes writing on some way in which Americans produce history outside of the academic discipline by that name. Several wrote about the way that music, movies, TV series, and video games make meaning of the past. (They wrote about songwriters like Brad Paisley and filmmakers like Steven Spielberg. If we’d had time, I would have pushed them to consider the role played by the audience for any of those media.) But they also identified other activities that fit better with the hobbyish “amateur history” that Cronon wrote about in his April 2012 column for Perspectives: reenacting the Civil War (and 19th century baseball); and collecting or restoring objects like coins, dishes, and cars. (The links will take you to some of the reflections by our students, published in a series at our department blog.)

No one else brought it up, so I admitted to dabbling in genealogy last fall, when I invested far too much time and money at To be sure, I drew on my abilities as an academic historian to collect and analyze evidence like census schedules (see my three-part series on studying family history via the 1940 U.S. Census), World War I draft registration cards, immigration registers, and church records (best of all, the page in the parish book for the Swedish village of Edleskog in which the pastor recorded the birth of my great-great-grandfather A.P. on October 11, 1850 — though I still haven’t found the record of his immigration to the United States some twenty-five years later). But in producing a family tree for my Grandpa Peterson’s (A.P.’s youngest grandson) 90th birthday, I was joining with hundreds of thousands of fellow amateurs (most of all, my late Grandma Peterson, whose privately published family history supplied dozens of data points that moved my research forwards) in making sense of the past by organizing a limited, but personally meaningful array of past moments. It didn’t begin to tell the intertwining stories of immigrants from northern Europe and their share of the American experience, but it’s as much a representation of the past as a dissertation about the Scandinavian diaspora.

My family tree
A snippet view of my family tree

All of which to say… I’m less and less inclined to bracket off “history” as a province of academe, or even as something done by “professionals.” I do think that I have the calling and ability to help others make sense of the past — sometimes clarifying what seems irreducibly complex; sometimes muddying waters that seem crystal clear — and that craft requires training, expertise, experience, and time for reflection that “amateurs” don’t necessarily possess. But in a larger sense, we’re all historians — unless it’s possible to stand by Lewis’ cataract without noticing it, without even wondering why you’re getting wet. (Have I killed this metaphor yet?)

And this has implications for what I do in higher education. While we’ll produce some number of professional historians (mostly junior high and high school social studies teachers, plus some who work in museums and archives and a very few who teach in universities), I think our department is better off focusing on preparing future businesspeople, lawyers, nurses, pastors, parents, church members, consumers, and voters to do two things:

To think historically, of course — to ask good questions about the present and how it emerged from the past, and, as appropriate, to seek answers by locating, evaluating, analyzing, and synthesizing historical evidence. But still more, to love history.

I’ve yet to meet a college History major who didn’t choose that path because she had some inexplicable passion for studying the past and hungered to do it more. It’s easy to feed that desire in college, when you are paying for the opportunity to spend hours and hours each week making sense of the past under the guidance of professionals with a similar passion. But how do our alumni sustain their love for history when it’s no longer a discipline practiced in the relative freedom and leisure of college, and has to compete with many other pressing demands on their time? Here I hope that even as they think historically to answer contemporary questions, they remember that the past is a foreign country — fundamentally different from our own, and worth visiting for its own sake. I hope that they read books, watch films, and visit museums and other sites for the sheer joy of encountering the past. That is to say, I hope that they practice history “at whim,” to use Alan Jacobs’ more general advice about reading.

<<Read the previous entry in this series

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