- Who Is the Historian? by Nigel A. Raab
The number of students choosing to major in history has dropped dramatically in the past few years, a pattern seen in other humanities disciplines as well. Students look instead for a major that offers obvious post-graduate material rewards — the guarantee of a job — something a history degree does not seem to provide. Struck by this phenomenon, Nigal A. Raab suggests that as a discipline, we have been remiss in sharing the excitement we have felt as historians and the work that historians do in many different settings. In this very readable volume grounded in the author's career in teaching and research, Raab addresses the current malaise by refocusing the question asked decades ago by Edward H. Carr (1892-1982). Carr asked, "What is history?" Raab, in contrast, turns away from offering readers an exegesis on history, asking instead, "Who is the historian?"
On first glance Raab's volume might appear to be directed at undergraduates, another book for a methods class. A second glance, however, suggests that students are not his primary audience. Indeed, I read Who Is the Historian? as a cautionary tale for teachers. The history major is floundering, Raab argues, because academic historians provide students with a false view of what the historian does. It is a representation of the historian that focuses too narrowly on sacred traditions of archival research [End Page 413] and writing by the solitary individual. The monographs we produce do not show the excitement of our process. We refrain from addressing broad audiences of potential readers. Our methods classes focus on the solitary intellectual engagement with the past, rather than the exciting web of connections that defines where and how historians work. Most important, we undervalue the worth of a history major by claiming that history provides training in "critical thinking." Who is the Historian? shows us how to present history as a dynamic profession practiced in multiple arenas by many professionals, a cutting-edge discipline that works at the intersection of many fields, that looks to the future to guide practice, encompasses a web of practitioners, and adds immensely to public life.
Raab opens the book with a chapter on the physical spaces inhabited by historians. Calling historians explorers, or world wanderers, he engages readers with tales about archivals that transport readers from Russian libraries, to local museums, to the environs of the www. While Raab acknowledges the possibilities for research provided by digital archives, he encourages his readers to get out of the office in order to experience the thrill of being a historian. In these physical spaces historians become part of a web of people and the careers that encompass the historical profession — the archivist, the librarian, the genealogist to name a few. History, Raab wants readers to understand, is a team effort. It is also an interdisciplinary effort; Raab is to be commended for urging readers to look beyond history classes for inspiration.
While Raab uses the first four chapters to demonstrate the dynamism of the profession, the fifth is a reflection on how to train the next generation of historians. Training, Raab argues, must begin by replacing the critical thinking paradigm with "critical exploration" that "integrate[s] historical study with life itself" (90). Raab calls for the development of world history courses and local history courses, more language study, more integration of technology into the history degree, and classroom training that makes use of museums, multiple texts, and discussion.
In the final chapter Raab addresses the invisibility of humanists that results in undervaluing their contributions to the human experience. Humanists are invisible, Raab suggests, because the public cannot associate an individual humanist with a specific discovery (as we can with scientists), and we cannot attach the ideas of humanists to objects we touch and use in daily life. Despite the impossibility of personifying the humanist and of turning humanism into tangible objects, Raab shows that history and historians are indispensable. They have shown us how to think about oppression...