Looking Backward Into the Present

Using the Popular Culture of the Past to Help Answer Perplexing Questions in the Present

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What Does it Mean to Be Objective?

So I have wanted to update my blog for awhile now but I’ve been, as they say, “busier than a one-armed paper hanger.”  That hasn’t changed.  However, when I was writing this review essay for class I thought it was particularly relevant to current issues Americans are facing in media circles, with the rise of partisan cable channels/blogs and also history circles, with the Texas history textbook controversy.  What does it mean to be objective?  Whose history is the correct history? If there is any “take-away” thought from this, it seems that many people confuse “objectivity” with “authority”.  Although it is a fine distinction between the concepts, my intellectual gut tells me that the two are different. 

Here’s the review:

Could Looking Backward be the Key to Reframing the Future of Post-Objective Thought in Historical Scholarship?

The title of my essay admittedly sounds parodoxical.   Yet, when I was reading Peter Novick’s 1999 edition of  That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession, I was struck by this passage: “Graduate or professional training [in History] worthy of the name hardly existed in the United States until the [nineteenth] century was well advanced” (Novick, 22).  This seemed to imply that Americans weren’t concerned with the integrity of the American historical record until the 1890s. As I read on, I was struck by another passage similar in tone:  “But the most important influence leading to the abandonment of the [Teutonic Germ] theory was Frederick Jackson Turner’s alternative explanation of the expanding frontier and the availability of free land as the foundation of American democratic institutions” (Novick, 88).  This led to a nagging question of my own which was never really answered in the book: “What about Americanist historical thought before Turner?”

It seems natural to assume that Americans in the antebellum years were concerned about the historical record in ways that would go beyond antiquarianism.  In the case of journalism during the antebellum period, which was seen in many circles as the definitive historical record, the goal was not “objectivity” but the best version of the truth arrived through vigorous public debate.  When the integrity of the debate was violated, it was referred to a system of public arbitration known as the code of honor, which sometimes led to dueling.  How history was perceived and interpreted played a critical role in this arbitration. 

To be clear, I am not advocating “history to the death”.   However, when Novick writes about “objectivity enthroned” in American historical thought, there seems to be the fewest voices participating in the debate.  Not surprisingly, in “objectivity besieged” when “the assault on objectivist epistemology…opened up a long-overdue consideration of what historical scholarship could and should do; what it couldn’t , and shouldn’t do” (Novick, 277) it seemed to destabilize the profession when more voices were added to the debate. 

What seems to be needed is a framework of arbitration that focuses not on convergence, or one historical theory supplanting the other, but whose endgame is vigorous debate.  

Modern history, although not perfect, in the end seems stronger with more voices and perspectives added to the discussion.  Although Novick in his conclusion suggests history as a profession has strayed farther than ever before from “the objective question.”  It would seem that we are closer than ever before to his definition of historical objectivity, which is not a single idea, “but rather a sprawling collection of assumptions, attitudes, aspirations, and antipathies” (Novick, 1).  With objectivity often getting confused with authority, perhaps historical truth is better served through vigorous debate.