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Saturday, February 25, 2012

History and the Problem of Historical Expertise

Posted by Darin Hayton on 02/25 at 11:45 PM

In his recent post, History: The Everyman Discipline?, Paul Lockhart wonders about what makes a person a historian. His characterization of “the public ‘at large,’ if you will” seems accurate both to academic and non-academic publics. This public at large, he suggests, believes:

If you have a deep interest in history, and have memorized a few facts and are able to recite them at will, then you are a historian, since we all know that history is nothing more than memorizing stuff. … So, to them [public at large], a historian is someone who has learned lots of facts about the past and is able to arrange them into some kind of intelligible narrative.

A keen interest in and some knowledge of the past is not sufficient to be historian, any more than knowing some numbers makes a person a mathematician, to borrow Lockhart’s example. Nor is arranging facts into an interesting story adequate to distinguish historians from antiquarians. Collecting, organizing, and presenting facts is not analysis, though it might be propaganda.

What Lockhart seems to be trying to identify and articulate is historical expertise. What constitutes the unique expertise that distinguishes a historian from other, often smart and educated people who have some interest in the past. Lockhart offers the training historians undertake in order to do their research. Or rather, he stresses that historians undertake considerable training: getting a Ph.D., digesting thousands of books, learning research fields, mastering languages and paleography. As Lockhart notes, neither these skills, which I would call mechanical skills, nor the credential, the Ph.D., can distinguish historians from non-historians.

If the mastery of languages, paleography, thousands of books, and research fields (I confess I’m not quite sure what this entails) do not constitute historical expertise, what does? Are there methods that historians employ, e.g., a particular type of close reading, are there questions that historians ask, e.g., source generating questions, are there philosophical and conceptual categories that historians use or avoid, e.g., presentism vs. present-centered, are there theoretical approaches or particular questions and problems perhaps arising from Lockhart’s “research fields” that historians recognize as meaningful?

The unique expertise of a historian stands at the center of the debate between Helen King and Don Shelton in the latest issue of Social History of Medicine). King takes Shelton to task for practicing bad history and, along the way, for lacking the credentials of a professional historian (in her final response she emphasizes that she is not condemning amateur history but bad history). Shelton responds to King’s charges by reasserting his conclusion and invoking a massive number of sources (facts?). For Shelton, familiarity with historical artifacts and a keen interest in the past qualifies him as a historian. For King, the facile and perhaps incorrect interpretation of these sources—promoted by easy access through the internet—and a seeming lack of awareness of less accessible sources and facts disqualifies Shelton and his work from the realm of history. King seems to imply that Shelton lacks a historian’s expertise and, consequently, is practicing bad history.

What both Lockhart and King don’t emphasize is the unique combination of esoteric knowledge and rigorous habits of mind, the attention to methodological issues that come through engagement with historiographic questions, the concern with how and why certain sources were generated and what questions they were created to answer, the worry about how few artifacts from the past remain to be enlisted as evidence in our arguments, the focus on narrative interpretations that reveal how neither the past nor the present are pre-determined but are, instead, the consequence of innumerable choices. Maybe, in the end, historical expertise cannot be reduced to a body of knowledge and a particular methodology, but is a set of questions that reject teleological and developmental narratives for narratives of contingency.

Tags: historical expertise, historiography

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