Historical Expertise

Is Everyone a Historian?

I worry, constantly worry, about what makes any form of history—though I am most concerned with the history of science—a distinct discipline with a particular expertise. Both a broad, non-academic public and the more narrow academic audience fail to recognize history’s unique methodological and philosophical approaches or the historian’s unique domain of expertise. Perhaps because everybody has access to the past, to history, and because the historian’s craft doesn’t seem to depend esoteric knowledge or technical languages, the barrier to doing history appears low.

Elise Blackwell wonders why so many people want to be writers.

I take small solace from the fact that historians are not alone. In a recent post at The Chronicle, Elise Blackwell asks: “Is Everyone a Writer?.” As her title suggests, she wonders why so many people think they can write a book and why they would want to write a book? She concludes by pointing out that even writing a book does not mean you are a writer, that you have acquired the unique expertise that distinguishes writers:

But I do hope that those who are hobbyists—or who view writing as therapy or just want a book under their belt or write for any reason other than to make literature—understand when I have to tell them no, they cannot audit our graduate literary fiction workshop. That workshop is populated by people who have already put in years of study and practice, who may have gone into debt or alienated sensible family members or at the least have bypassed or forsaken profitable careers. They have done this and moved from wherever they were to my city for the sole purpose of apprenticeship in a particular art form. They don’t want to be writers; they are writers.

Blackwell’s essay prompts me to wonder: Is everyone a historian?