What is a historian? Is it someone who writes about the past? Or is it someone with three PhDs to their name? There are some interesting things happening in the world of books about military history. There are now some excellent and highly accessible histories coming out from the world of academia. While full-time writers have to knock out a constant stream of books to support themselves, academics have more time to produce their books and often enjoy better access to research material – and the help of bright young research assistants.
But does that mean than anything not written by an academic has no worth whatsoever? I think not. Universities are too often dens of orthodoxy. As the costs of a university education skyrockets they are filled with people from much the same increasingly narrow background, range of experience and outlook on life. It always was a myth that any bright Scottish kid could go to university and make full use of the brains that they were given. Things are only getting worse. The world will be a sadder and less informed place if history can only be written by people from a very narrow section of society.
I know of one writer whose contributions to an on-line encyclopaedia were expunged by some self-appointed moderator because he was not a “historian”. Who says? Was it the lack of a PhD? I have a feeling that Winston Churchill won a Nobel Prize for one of his histories. And yet I don't recall which university he went to. Perhaps if one is a minor member of the aristocracy, one does not need a degree to be considered a historian. I'm going to suggest that there is a lot a good history out there that's not written by a professor. The late John Prebble's histories are not above criticism but his contribution to many Scots' understanding of their country's past was and still is immense. I think he was a historian. I would hope that his books got a lot of people interested enough to find out more and maybe even form their own opinions on past events. My experience as a reporter convinced me that going to university made no difference either way, for better or worse, to someone's ability and skill as a journalist. I suspect the same is true of historians.