Thompson Rivers University
Thompson Rivers University

Pros, Amateurs and others

Professional Historians

Several developments were necessary in the 19th century before history became a subject of wider study in schools and universities and before the discipline acquired the characteristics of a profession. This involved systematic training in the discipline of history at university and the introduction of a hierarchy of degrees, which qualified students to teach in schools or universities. The degrees in North America became the BA or bachelor's degree, the MA or master's degree, and the Ph.D. (philosophiae doctor) or doctorate.

In North America the BA usually requires four years of study, much of it in the major subject of history. The requirements have become increasingly detailed and structured in an attempt to move students from survey courses to more intensive study of areas or themes in discrete chronological blocks. To provide depth as well as breadth of study, faculty advisors encourage concentration in some courses that relate to one another. They also recommend that students take some courses outside their major areas of concentration.

The MA, a graduate degree, involves the study of history at a more sophisticated level and in courses with far fewer lectures and much more reading and discussion. The discussion frequently revolves around contradictory points of view in the historical literature. Students at this level must learn more about the facts of history, but especially about the various interpretations of those facts by scholars. Candidates for the MA degree normally write an article-length thesis, which is supervised by a faculty member expert in the field.

The Ph.D. candidate studies major fields of history and must pass written and oral examinations on them. The doctoral candidate also researches and writes a thesis of several hundred pages, which then has to be defended orally before a committee of faculty and external examiners. The time necessary for a doctorate in history, the essential professional qualification for an academic career at a college or university, is six years or more after the MA, mainly because the research and writing of the thesis take so long.

Programmes for training historians, sequences of degrees, and the hierarchy of ranks in the universities (a kind of licensing) are attributes associated with a professional guild. The members of it belong to professional associations, which hold conferences and edit journals. In these journals, historians publish articles and review one another's books, often severely. Publication places their work in the public domain, where it is assimilated by other historians and advances knowledge of the subject.

Historians at most universities have time, as a condition of their employment, to continue the research they began in graduate school and to write articles and books advancing knowledge in their area. Indeed, this is usually a requirement of their employment and promotion. Quantity alone is not enough. The quality must also be high, and secure for the scholar a reputation in the field, which is measured by book reviews, letters of recommendation from referees outside the institution, and to some extent by the prestige of the publishers or journals in which the work is published. Publication of their work is also essential if historians are to secure funds for their research programmes. Their list of publications gives evidence of recent research and writing and indicates that they will accomplish something with the monetary support they obtain

At TRU, the teaching abilities of instructors are also carefully examined and evaluated.

As part of this evaluation colleagues attend their lectures and prepare written critiques. Also, the teaching evaluations of students in their courses are given considerable weight, more than at most universities.

"Amateur" Historians

Many historians have not formally qualified to be professionals. To call them amateurs is not to denigrate their work. Many are or have been journalists, who often maintain high standards of veracity and verifiability in their reportage of current events. They should weigh many different kinds of sources; be skeptical in their assessments; have broad knowledge of the environment of their reportage, whether local, provincial, national or international; and have some grasp of many disciplines, such as history, economics, political science, and sociology.

They should write clearly, analyze issues cogently, and tell a story. These are talents that they and other "amateurs" can bring to history. Lawyers, politicians, civil servants and writers of fiction sometimes turn to history; there really are no restrictions. But professionals frequently criticize "amateurs" for their ignorance of other languages and because they often do not master the scholarly literature as a professional will. Amateurs may not be as critical and careful in their assessments of documents, testimony, and physical evidence; quite often they cite their sources carelessly or imagine verbatim conversations as though they had been recorded, in order to enliven their work. Nevertheless, our bookstores overflow with their efforts, some of very high quality.

Everyone really can be an historian, and the beginning of this is the preservation of records, the keeping of diaries, the writing of autobiographies, the effort to preserve family histories, the recording of the histories of associations and clubs, of businesses, firms, and companies. There is a widespread desire on the part of individuals and bigger groups to leave a record of their efforts in their time. This very human enterprise is welcomed by historians, whether amateur or professional, who dream of abundant archives.

Thus professionals and amateurs have the same or some of the same goals. There should be a symbiotic, reciprocally beneficial relationship among them. Unfortunately, however, this is not always the case.

Falsifiers, Deniers, and the Politically Correct

Some who claim to be historians deliberately falsify, seek to mislead, to distort or pervert the record of individuals, events, a period, or even a civilization. They adamantly reject criticisms expressed by the genuine historians, both professional and amateur, and maintain their assertions in the face of overwhelmingly convincing evidence. In a sense, they disqualify themselves as historians because they so obviously do not seek the "truth", which is elusive but the opposite of deliberate falsehood.

In the 20th century two world wars generated two generations of falsifiers and propagandists who sought in the face of contrary evidence to exonerate or convict countries for their roles in the origins, course, or conclusion of the wars. There is a rich literature demonstrating their dishonesty. Many of these people were fanatical nationalists, ideologues or patriots, who simply could not face the issues honestly and objectively. Others were employed by their nations to say what they did. Their work generated yet more fanaticism and conflict. An ongoing corollary of this is denial. Today, for instance, there are those who would deny that upwards of six million Jews were murdered in Germany and in the Nazi-occupied territories during World War II. Some go so far as to assert that the Holocaust never happened. They reject the results of the investigations of professional historians, exclude the testimony of witnesses, especially Jews, and typically rely on sources unknown to most professional historians because of their origin in the same milieu as the falsifiers themselves.

A chief and very important characteristic of falsified history is that it often merges in some or many of its dimensions with the honest work of professional and amateur historians. Thus genuine historians must use their full armoury of skills, evidence, and argument to combat the falsifiers, whether they are nationalists or propagandists in the employ of the state, or bigots and racists.

In contrast to those who would distort, a genuine historian searches for truth, listens carefully and evaluates contradictory positions. Falsifiers and deniers have been with us for a long time. Humankind is inclined to be credulous. The historians at TRU will attempt to educate you so that you will not be exploited or duped. Remember this if and when you incur their criticism.