What makes you a historian?

Following the big blow up around Jacob Rees-Mogg’s new book and his title of ‘historian’, it’s high time we had a talk about what actually makes a historian.

There has been a big blow up in the history community recently around Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg’s new book on the Victorians (for my international readers, Rees-Mogg is a divisive politician here in the UK, who has gone from a back bench MP to one in the spotlight, thanks to being incredibly posh, having a ton of kids and having a world view from a bygone era)

Unsurprisingly, the book has not been met with positive reviews. With many calling out the fact that it is more fantasy than fact, ignores recent scholarship of the subject and is badly written and dull. But, of course, that won’t stop the book selling, it won’t stop Rees-Mogg being invited on historical and literary panels and it most definitely won’t stop him from calling himself a historian.

And that right there is the crux of the issue. What makes a historian and who gets to call themselves one?

Unsurprisingly that is a tough question to answer. Because being a historian isn’t like being a doctor. There isn’t a set in stone list of qualifications and training you need to be allowed to practice. At least not technically. There is however a unofficially agreed path you need to tread before being allowed to call yourself a historian. And that is:

  • Undergrad degree in history or similar
  • MA in a more specific field or area of history
  • PHD
  • Published academic papers

Now, you might have spotted two really big things there:

  1. It is years worth of studying
  2. It takes a lot of money to do (in the thousands)

And that isn’t including the optional additionals, such as learning new languages, studying abroad, volunteering and ‘free’ internships and apprenticeships (and so many more!)

So yes, being a historian takes a lot of hard graft and sacrifice. And so it should. Sifting through the past and telling it’s story is a really tough thing to do and there’s a lot to learn to be able to do it well.

BUT (and it’s a big but) that leaves a huge amount of people excluded from ever being able to become a historian.

For a career path that focuses on the old, it’s a young mans game. At least when getting into it. Once you have kids, work, bills to be paid and especially when you’re doing all that without a finical safety net (which many people now are) the prospect of going back to years of education, matched with a hefty price tag and at the end of it probably taking a nice big pay cut to make this a full time gig (at least at first) makes becoming a historian not so much a mountain to climb but a fiscal impossibility.

That’s not to say people don’t still manage it. And a huge hats of to those people! But they are the exceptions. And it’s not just because ‘they wanted it more’, it’s because there will always be anomalies.

We can’t rely on a system that only permits those in a position of -lets face it – privilege, early on to be allowed to tell history. Who are then followed by a trickle of exceptions to the rule. There lies ruin. A lack of diversity and a whole host of voices completely lost.

During the Twitter storm that has raged following Rees-Mogg’s book, Historian, Dr Frank McDonaugh (who quick aside, I love), got into an exchange with a person whose dad is having a history book published, despite having no history qualifications. With McDonaugh explaining:

‘There are some exceptions but my general point is that training is necessary and advisable to understand how to do it correctly. It’s not like riding a bike, nor should it be.’

It is a cracking point. But who decides who the exceptions are? Is there panel of historian elders who take this up on a case by case basis?

We’re now living in a world where the track we once set to become a historian is simply no longer tangible. To have a variety of voices and more areas of history explored. We need to collectively expand our view on what it means to be a historian.

I’m not saying that anyone can watch the History channel, write a book on their top ten historical figures and call themselves a historian. But I am saying that if you write a book about the history of your local area after spending years researching, sifting through records, piecing things together and working that all into 300 pages. Then yes, you get to call yourself a local historian.

Because becoming a historian is a learning curve. That includes going out and spending years at university working your arse off for qualifications. But it also needs to include the people who self-study. Who spend years learning how to read historical data, research and delve into mountains of documents for that one nugget of information.

And yeah, there’s not piece of paper to prove that the work was done. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t count.

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