An army of amateurs

I want to address a topic which has been, shall we say, “brewing” for quite some time now in various Civil War historian circles.  I’m sure a similar situation exists in virtually any segment of historiography.  It’s the distinction between what is deemed to be a professional historian vs. an amateur historian.

Apparently, such a distinction (or label) seems important to some.  From my experience, since I began getting published several years ago, it appears that a “professional” historian is one with a doctorate – whether that madates a degree in the historical genre, I’m not sure.  An “amateur” is anyone, like myself, who does not have a PhD.  Perhaps the “professional” label extends to anyone who is in the academic field regardless of degree in the mind of some, but as far as I can determine the attainment of a doctorate is the dividing line.

Let me start off by saying bluntly and honestly that I don’t care about the label either way.  My discussion of it here is only because I’ve seen situations flare over it in online discussions and personal interactions.  I only wish that the “professional” and “amateur” distinctions weren’t so important to some, but apparently it is. 

The “amateur” connotation here reminds me of such a distinction in the world of sports, although it has an entirely different meaning.  Even though I’ve had quite a number of articles published in popular Civil War and historical magazines, with my first book appearing late last year (and I get paid for all of them) I am termed an “amateur” by the academic community.  I could have 100 published and acclaimed books, but without a doctorate I will always be regarded as an “amateur” in the field.  In sports – take the example of golf, for instance – the amateur is one who has not yet received purse money for performance or become an official member of the professional circuit.  Until joining the PGA, for example, Tiger Woods was of amateur status.  He could easily beat the tar out of 99% of the pros even at that time, but he carried amateur status simply because he had not declared himself and joined the pro tour.

But in the historical writing and research field, payment for services seems to matter not.  Nor speaking to various groups, or even being recognized as an “expert” in a various field in print.  Without the doctorate (or a position in a related field at an institution) such a person would always be an amateur.

So I guess folks such as Ed Bearss, by this definition, is an amateur.  So was Brian Pohanka.

It seems important only to academics, those who term themselves “professionals” in the field, to make the distinction.  I guess that’s only natural, of course.  It’s not like I print up business cards touting myself an an “amateur historian.”  I don’t truly think of myself with any label other than student-historian – which I’ve called myself numerous times – because I’m always studying and pursuing knowledge.

In that world of academic Civil War history, there is more of a study of the political and social aspects of the period.  And I don’t think anyone would dispute that.  One of my favorite people, Gerry Prokopowicz, has an article in the current (Vol. 9, No. 7) issue of North&South magazine in which he lists the “Most Significant Books of 2006.”  Gerry is a PhD and the host of Civil War Talk Radio.  I was one of his guests this past December.

Gerry’s list of “most significant” books for the year are, as I expected, of a political/social bent.  None of the books on his lists concern battles or campaigns, and three of the five books are heavily concerned with the issue of slavery.  If academics and, well, “amateur historians” or just your plain reader were interviewed, would the list of “most significant” books be markedly different?  You can bet your cartridge pouch they would be.

In the end, I think the distinction between “professionals” and “amateurs” in the field is important to only a very small segment.  Most folks don’t think about such a distinction, probably never heard of it, and don’t care one way or the other.  When it comes to books and articles, folks will read what interests them and ignore what doesn’t, regardless of who the author is or his/her credentials.  The reader’s level of familiarity with the subject, and reviews, will allow them to assess the writing’s value and scholarship.

Since I plan no pursuit of a doctorate in history, I will always be an “amateur” to some, whatever that means.  My education is limited to my career field in finance – I hold a Bachelor’s Degree from Penn State University, plus two post-graduate degrees.  But I only wish my Civil War writing and expertise to be judged by the results, not what initials are (or aren’t) after my name.  If to do otherwise is important to some, then so be it – and it doesn’t bother me either way.  I know of academics who use my texts and writings in their own work, study, and teaching – and that’s good enough for me.  That’s an endorsement that’s much more important and fulfilling than any label that anyone chooses to place on me.

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Published in: on January 24, 2007 at 1:06 pm  Comments (10)  

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  1. [...] D. Petruzzi has also tackled this issue on his blog today.  Here’s his take: In the end, I think the distinction between “professionals” [...]

  2. JD:

    I suppose that Shelby Foote would also be considered an amateur by some, as I don’t believe he finished more than two years of college.(?) He did, however, receive an “honorary” doctorate from Loyola University. A PhD simply does officially (at least in theory) what solid independent research and writing a good book does unofficially – prove that you know what you are talking about. The PhD candidate has to satisfy his academic institution, the “amateur” must satisfy other historians and the public. Both, I believe, are ultimately legitimate. The PhD can call himself a “professional” historian as soon as he earns his doctorate, the latter must wait for others to do so (IMO). Personally, though I’ve been published 3 times now and have written scores of history related articles for magazines and newspapers, I’ve always been a little uncomfortable being referred to as a “historian.” I just don’t think I’ve quite earned that title yet.

  3. “It seems important only to academics, those who term themselves ‘professionals’ in the field, to make the distinction.”

    Debatable. In the last few days we’ve seen four blogs on this issue, three by non-university/college historians (Eric, Kevin, and you) and only one by a “professional” (me) that was framed in reaction to Eric’s post and which dismissed the distinction. I don’t ever recall dismissing someone’s work on the grounds that I believed the person to be an amateur; I’ve dismissed some work on the grounds that it was amateur. :)

  4. Richard,

    I understand completely, and I agree with you.

    J.D.

  5. LOL, Brooks… actually, I had this post in mind quite some time ago – and made it before Eric posted his today. I didn’t even speak with Eric until after posting it. It was the comments to Eric’s post a couple days ago, regarding the pursuit of the degree, that motivated me to put this one on today.

    I still stand by my contention that any distinction is touted more by the academics. Several academics have called me an “amateur” – one in print, in fact – but I’ve never been called that by anyone else. My impression is that for whatever reason it seems to be important for some academics (certainly not all) to be sure to identify me as an “amateur” somewhere along the line.

    Really, it’s all semantics. It’s just a word. My golf analogy reminded me, in fact, that that’s really the only field in which the distinction is important – just watch any U.S. Open and you’ll see :)

    I do think it really bothers a certain segment of authors more than others – see Eric’s post for example – but I think the true point, that I, you, Eric, Kevin, and others have made is that our body of work is really the only stick by which we can be measured. If I’m an amateur, so be it; if I’m the best amateur I can be, then I’m doing my homework and making a difference.

    J.D.

  6. Some people are best left unencumbered by higher education.

    Your body of work has without question furthered the education of we Civil War students. You can’t argue with sucess no mater what letters follow or don’t follow the name.

  7. Scholar and poet A.E. Housman’s definition of a historian: “A historian is not like a scientist looking through a microscope, but more like a dog searching for fleas. You can never be sure you have got them all.”

  8. Bill,

    I thank you for that – as I stated, that’s really all I desire. If one person likes the work, it’s worth it.

    Richard,

    I think it’s very true! If there wasn’t a hope that there was always something more out there, it’d be absolutely no fun searching.

    J.D.

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