A profession is defined as “a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation.” This was certainly true of the historical profession during the late 1800 and early 1900s as the university system began to spread and history acquired its own methodology and set of standards. Instruction in historical research and writing became more academically rigorous, causing not only the decline of amateur writers but affecting how history was written, especially in the United States. As academic history became more widespread, it assumed the basic form that continues today, particularly the emphasis on scholarly research, critical analysis of primary sources, and most importantly, the use of the thesis as a stepping-stone and “rite of passage” to becoming a full-fledged university professor.
The debate about professional versus amateur historians also continues to this day. While amateurs are no doubt looked down upon by some academic historians, the fact is that within their particular topic of interest, many amateurs, particularly correspondents, have written outstanding works, including Rick Atkinson, who won the Pulitzer Prize in History for An Army at Dawn in 2003. The skills of research, collation of sources, critical thinking, and incisive writing take time and practice but are not confined to the historical profession. The primary difference between amateurs and professionals is the intended audience. Although I have read outstanding works by history professors, I have also read just as many sharp works by enthusiastic amateurs, particularly in the fields of military and political history. In my opinion, academics often write truly scholarly, but dreadfully dry and boring articles for publication in peer-reviewed journals. Amateurs want to sell books, so they write for a more general audience and try, sometimes with mixed results, to write outstanding narrative history that gets the “facts” right, but tells a story that Romantic historians would no doubt approve. Although they were not PhDs, I would postulate that few American history professors could write history like Shelby Foote or David McCullough.
The continuing disputes about historical objectivity also seems a little baffling to me—the whole point of history should be to strive for the truth as best the sources can tell you. When new sources are discovered, then the historical truth should change without invalidating the overall calling of the historian to seek objectivity.
World War II history is a good example of this issue. Almost all military history written about the European Theater had to be rewritten after the disclosure of the Ultra code-breaking program in the 1970s. However, that didn’t necessarily mean that history written before knowledge of Ultra was useless or false, it merely didn’t tell the whole story.
The professionalization of history was necessary to bring some accepted standards and consistent methodology to the practice of history. However, the amateur still has their place in the highly specialized and prolific writing of history today.