Re: HISTORY and objectivity

Roy Domenico writes: As a history professor I'd like to comment on the running argument over historical objectivity.  Our profession has become a whipping boy for all manner of groups:  the fundamentalists hate our left wing bias, the multicultural crowd laments all of the "history" we've left out of books in order to champion dead white males; journalists sneer at us for whatever reason (and we sneer right back).  The "objectivity debate" has been ongoing among historians ever since there was a modern profession dating from the mid-19th century or thereabouts.  I urge anyone interested to look at Peter Novick's book on the subject, The Noble Dream, regarding its American dimension.  I teach a graduate class in historical method and have the students read it.  I also have them read Edward Hallett Carr's What is History? and discussions on it by G.R. Elton and, more recently, a very good book by Richard Evans, In Defense of History.  One important point to remember, and I find that many outside the profession don't always appreciate this, is that historians rarely debate the facts themselves beyond discussions over the discovery of a controversial document or something like that.  Good historians use facts and respect them.  But just to chronicle facts is not real history: that's cataloging or antiquarianism.  Historians who "make things up" are beyond the pale and their days in the profession are numbered when they're unmasked.  A recent outrageous case at Emory illustrates this.  Ninety-nine per cent of historical debate, rather, concerns the meaning of the facts, what the facts tell us. Thus, I'm not aware of many people questioning the authenticity of Howard Zinn's facts.  But they will question his interpretation and there's nothing wrong with that.  We love good arguments!

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: February 27, 2005