Jim West has been making some interesting points on his blog about Accreditation and the ‘scheme’ that drives it. However, I must again stress that it is important to have a means in place to judge proficiency in the Humanities, particularly in the field of history.Richard Carrier explains why having the most qualified people keep track of the most probabilistic data and interpretations on the past is important:
By contrast, true historians will identity every primary source, every shred of relevant evidence, so the reader will be able to check their claims. Where the evidence is incomplete and they have to speculate, they will admit it, keeping facts and judgment distinct. They seek to understand why things happened the way they did, and will openly use evidence to support their accounts, and by concealing nothing, and by not pretending their assumptions are facts, they permit the reader to reach his or her own judgment about the truth. Above all, they open themselves to the examination of their peers, and facilitate future scholarship by checking and correcting the claims of other historians. That is why their results are far more trustworthy, far more useful, than the products of dogmatists and demagogues.
We obviously do not want history in the hands of ideologues or mythmakers who don’t care about facts, but who will simply make up whatever suits their particular agenda. We want history in the hands of skilled researchers held to high standards of evidence and argument within a widespread framework of expert peer review, criticism, debate, and openness to progress and admission of error. As in science, a willingness to accept and live with uncertainty and doubt is essential to progress toward truth in history: for you cannot approach the truth without being willing to abandon the false. Truth in history, no less than in science, is conditional on future discoveries, and is built on probability, not any sort of unachievable certainty. The dogmatists, demagogues, and mythmakers will mislead and manipulate us and try to confuse our memory, but the historians will try their best to keep our collective memory deep and accurate, and above all brutally honest. In other words, to have a sharp and reliable memory, and to enjoy its benefits, we need the scientific historian. It is essential. But not just anyone can do the job. To have such experts requires years of highly specialized training.
In truth, we rely on qualified people, certified–at least in some manner–as experts so we can at least have a better idea as to who is more reliable towards interpreting the data available. Most people are not proficient in Latin, Greek, German, Hebrew, Cuneiform, Oscan, Arabic, or Italian. Most individuals could not tell you the difference between a piece of a stele from the New Kingdom of Eygpt or an inscription from an ancient school in Mesopotamia. Perhaps they could make some good guesses and perhaps they might get it correct. But when it comes to preserving the past of civilization, of what might have come before, we should not be asking people with no background in the field of study to make a guess. If we’re going to get a guess (which, admittedly, is a good portion of historical inquiry), we should want someone who has at least proven themselves reliably proficient in the languages, in the cultural milieux, in exegesis.
I concur with Jim that it doesn’t always mean the person has to have an advanced degree (or any degree); there are plenty of bright, sophisticated amateur researchers who are honest, diligent, and deliberate in their studies on historical subjects. That said, I do however feel that those individuals should be judged according to similar practices as those who hold degrees in order to show they are reliable. Whether that be through Peer Review, or through publication of their theories, or through a period of observation from those who are credible, or some other form of verification whereby it can be shown that such individuals are not mere ideologues or dogmatists or whatever you want to call them, a system should exist (perhaps it already does? Biblioblogging–does that count?) to weigh the veracity of what a person says to the majority of those who hold credible degrees. The irony, though, is that many who hold these degrees are less credible at times than those who do not. If there is one strength to Jim’s argument (I believe there are, actually, many strengths to it), it is this. But just the same, I think I’ll stay in school and work towards those accredited degrees, nonetheless. Check out Jim’s blog post below: