Expert Historians

In the recent kerfuffle over David Barton’s book on Thomas Jefferson being recalled by Thomas Nelson, it’s publisher, Anthony Bradley has shared his thoughts regarding history writing. His point is that only experts should be doing history and those non-experts, in this case pastors, should keep to their own profession. Bradley cites Doug Wilson as an example of this sort of “pastoral omniscience” (I confess to being hard-pressed to draw the link between Barton and Wilson as Bradley does, but be that as it may). His post got me thinking about the following quote from James Banner that might provide better balance:

Yet even many of those who practice history without having been formally trained to do so or who may not be compensated for the historical work they produce can be, and I believe ought to be, considered professional historians in the way I use the term. After all, in the role of historian—whether as writers of history, schoolteachers of history, or docents in museums of history—they know deeply (or at least should know deeply) one or more of the same bodies of knowledge that academic scholars have mastered. They are judged (or at least should be judged) by the same governing norms of historical research and presentation. Surely they are affected by the same institutional structures and realities of historical pursuits as are more conventionally defined historians, and they are expected to conduct themselves by the same ethical standards that govern the historical work of those to whom the term “professional” is customarily applied. Are we to consider them lesser historians and their endeavors lesser historical practices by virtue of their not possessing a doctorate in history or not devoting themselves full time on a college or university faculty to Clio’s discipline?

James M. Banner, Jr., Being a Historian: An Introduction to the Professional World of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), xiii.

If this is so, then Bradley’s case against Wilson (in this instance) is overstated. The problem is not with non-experts doing history per se, rather any historian not adhering to the norms set by good history writing. Barton, it has been shown through the writings of Throckmorton, Fea, etc., does not follow the standards that make for reliable history. In the case of Doug Wilson, maybe Bradley could do the more effective job of offering a thoroughgoing critique—say, in the vein of Throckmorton—and allow Wilson his proper response. Historians, as broadly defined by Banner, could then be the judge.

On a separate note, I would be interested to know Bradley’s thoughts on historians who step out of their fields of expertise. Carl Trueman penned a book on American politics, was that inappropriate?