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.

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