Being a Historian: An Introduction to the Professional World of History

February 28, 2013

Author: James M. Banner Jr.
Edition: First
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Pages: 288
Price: £55.00 and £18.99
ISBN: 9781107021594 and 697287

Charles Dickens’ oft-quoted line from A Tale of Two Cities, that “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, characterises the historical profession today on both sides of the Atlantic. The best: the quality of historical scholarship has never been higher. History steadily increases our understanding of the complex lives of ordinary people everywhere. First-rate online publications and courses reach large numbers of students and the public. The worst: the market for historians seeking traditional permanent academic positions continues to shrink. Even the best graduate departments cannot place many excellent candidates. Meanwhile, more and more people, not least some 2012 US presidential candidates, know shamefully little about the basic history of their native land and are seduced by pseudo-historical tales, movies and television programmes. Here’s hoping that, in portraying the 16th US president, Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln will end up trumping Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in enlightening audiences.

The central argument is that history as a discipline is routinely and properly pursued in various fields

James Banner’s Being a Historian analyses the present situation. He provides no panaceas but does offer a useful - and optimistic - perspective. A former tenured professor at an Ivy League institution who left academic life to promote history in other ways, Banner repeatedly reminds us that in both the US and the UK, history has long been pursued outside academic departments - in museums, government agencies, historic sites, journalism, publishing houses, corporations and law firms. These realms would become more attractive options for many young historians if, as Banner hopes, they cease to be marginalised within the historical profession as supposed fallbacks.

No less potentially appealing, Banner argues, are the growing number of serious historical films, television programmes and social media productions. Whatever the alternatives sought, academics’ long- standing opposition to “public history” must at last end, starting with current historians’ postgraduate education. He observes that professional historians work in both academic and public realms. Hence this book’s compelling central argument: history as a discipline - a distinct area of knowledge - is routinely and properly pursued in various fields. Perhaps, then, one ought to drop the common yet misleading phrase “the historical profession”.

It is hardly news that gifted history storytellers such as David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin write bestsellers, and that more analytical but equally talented academic stars, among them Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama, also sell well. Some scholarly books even become television programmes. Rather than fending off any supposed declining general interest in history, historians should take advantage of ordinary citizens’ persistent keen interest in the past, yet without romanticising or distorting it. As the philosopher Moses Maimonides might have put it, Banner’s Being a Historian is a most timely guide to the historically perplexed.

Who is it for?
Anyone interested in what it means to be a historian today, not just aspiring or active historians.

Clear, concise and accessible. Its footnotes are helpful but not intrusive or overwhelming.

Would you recommend it?
Definitely. It is at once a compact guide to the evolution of the discipline in the US and UK and a balanced appraisal of its needs and opportunities.

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