History: anyone can do it?

In my previous blog post, I showed that history can be – and indeed has been – used as a source of inspiration by writers producing fiction. Perhaps this gives the impression that history and its related disciplines, as such, are easily accessible. That anyone, in fact, can call themselves a historian. All you need is the ability to read.

Physicist Ernest Rutherford (1871–1937) is said to have decreed that “All science is either physics or stamp collecting,” or words to that effect (as with all attributed quotes, there are usually multiple versions, and it’s never entirely clear if said person actually ever uttered those words). The meaning, of course, is that the only real scientific pursuit is the study of nature, in its broadest sense, through understanding its physical properties.

To some extent, this line of reasoning is still current among some people (including a fair number of politicians). After all, you’ll need a thorough grounding of maths and years of university education to get to grip with the mysteries of the universe, such as learning the finer points of quantum mechanics or string theory. Other natural sciences are equally held in high regard. What to think of chemistry, for example? Just watch a few episodes of Breaking Bad and it’s obvious that chemistry is Science, with a capital S.

On the other hand, if you want to know about the Persian Wars, all you have to do is read Herodotus, which requires a skill we acquire as children. The humanities and other “soft” sciences, including history and archaeology, are therefore usually regarded as easy when compared to the “hard” sciences. Indeed, the Dutch government has, starting when I attended high school (and perhaps earlier), so from about the later nineties onwards, stimulated students to pursue the natural sciences and computer sciences in universities.

The effects are easy to see. Humanities faculties generally receive less funding and often have fewer students than those devoted to the natural sciences. A student who’s reading, say, Italian, History, or Archaeology sooner or later gets asked the question of what they ever intend to do with their degree. You know, how are they ever going to find work when they’re done wasting their time in class rooms? Why didn’t they study chemistry or computer science? Or if numbers are not your strong suit, why not study Law or something?

After all, as I wrote earlier, all you need to do to become a historian is be able to read, right? You can give Thucydides the once over and produce the next leading publication in the field on the Peloponnesian War! Well, no. Of course it doesn’t work like that. There’s a reason it will take you years to get your degree in History or Archaeology, and all that time is not spent just reading some texts or shovelling away some dirt to retrieve buried treasure.

In fact, if you study something like Archaeology, a lot of time is actually spent on studying the history of the discipline, its methods and techniques, and the theoretical frameworks that you might employ. Archaeologists don’t just walk around the countryside and decide to go dig somewhere at random. Archaeologists use years of experience – experience that you often get once you’ve obtained your degree – and resources gathered by peers and predecessors to determine where to dig (and if it’s even necessary to dig there), how to best excavate the site, what to do with the results, and so forth. And after excavation, the data has to be sorted out and analysed – in the storehouse, in the laboratory, in the museum, or behind a desk.

More generally speaking, higher education will also train you in how to think critically, to ask those questions that those without training are less likely to ask. Why, to return to my earlier (historical) example, did Herodotus write about the Persian Wars? Where did his information come from? Who did he write for or, to put it differently, who consumed his work? Can we check the information that he gives us? What other sources are available? And just how has his work come down to us, and does this have any bearing on the reliability of his work?

As ancient historian Jona Lendering puts it, “The study of history is not just a story based on sources.” In fact, a true scholar should be able, as he points out, to explain where his story comes from. If you are interested in learning more, you should read the page on theory over at his Livius.Org website, which lists a number of methodological issues, including such classics as the Everest Fallacy and the Positivist Fallacy.

Studying History or Archaeology or other “soft” sciences at university isn’t any easier or harder than, say, reading Physics. They are different, of course, but I hazard to guess there are more similarities than differences insofar as students’ grounding in scientific approaches are concerned. Calculating the average albedo of a planet might not be that different, in principle, from understanding the finer points of Herodotus, after all.

None of this should be taken to mean that you absolutely have to have a degree in History or Archaeology in order to be able to properly analyse ancient sources or the material culture of past societies. Remember, these disciplines were originally created by what we might call gifted amateurs. Some of the authors who write for Ancient Warfare magazine and who are not professional historians or archaeologists are also ample proof of that. But college or university training certainly helps in giving you a more complete and thorough understanding of the disciplines in question.

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