Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream

I have mentioned my more-than passing interest in historiography previously on this blog, but I thought I would spend time today talking about it more in-depth. My interest in the history of history comes from wanting to understand the intellectual roots of how we derive historical knowledge—the past is past, to borrow a cliché. How can we determine what we do or do not know about it?

Last summer, I spent a large portion of my reading time focusing on European historiography in general (check the end of this post for a bunch of books). I thought I would augment this knowledge by beginning the work that is necessary to know about American historiography: Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession. In it, Novick charts the rise and fall of “objectivity” as a goal in the historical discipline, and its roots in the work of German historians of the 19th century. I am only through the introduction and the first part, but so far it has proved a worthwhile investment of $8.50 from Myopic Books.

The first part of this text is entitled “Objectivity Enthroned”. He spends it discussing the relationship between American and German historians, and how the latter influenced the former. In summary, a German historian by the name of Leopold von Ranke rose to prominence for his insistence that an objective history was possible—if we focused on the facts, and only the facts. He sought to synthesize narratives not based on the feelings or thoughts of the author, but only what the sources talked about. Histories of this flavor were often noted as being a collection of facts that sought to derive conclusions based on observations in society. This movement was part of a more general fetishizing of science and the scientific method within intellectual, and mainstream communities.

American historians who arrived in Germany learned from students of Ranke in the late 19th century how they might seek to reform history to become more a profession, rather than simply a hobby that some people received payment for—they wanted the idealized professor, one who “would cross an ocean to verify a comma”.

Part of this professionalization saw the founding of the American Historical Association, as well as a series of schools like Chicago and Johns Hopkins being founded with origins in this German school of thought, while others like Harvard and Yale sought to reform their own curricula to fall in line. The overall hope was through this process, we might conclude the search for knowledge in history. There is a longer discussion to be had about the larger infatuation with science, but it is not of central focus here. Suffice it to say; towards the end of the 19th century, there was a sort of informal understanding that we, as people, had understood everything that might be deemed a guiding principle, or paradigm, in the words of Thomas Kuhn. What was left to learn was simply the details of those guiding principles.

If objectivity became enthroned, then Ranke became deified. As a founding father of modern history, he is someone that historians refer to with authority subconsciously. While people no longer actively ascribe to his verbose descriptions of the historian as being “gifted with a certain amount of the celestial fire”, we still hold onto the noble sense of the graduate student, and the history professor as one who works late into the night, holds an austere office, and only thinks of her work. This was a product of Ranke’s time. Prior to his influence, the academy in America was a less serious endeavor than our present-day beliefs ascribe onto it. Even if we no longer observe the pebble dropping into the pond, we still honor its ripples. For his influence, Ranke has become more than a name. He has become an individual that is necessary to read, to discuss, and to believe, if one wants to engage in the questions of modern history, regardless of where those questions are situated. Gramsci’s term, intellectual hegemony, seems apt here.

The problem is that objectivity is not as simple as people wish it could be. A simple check demonstrates this: If we use the exact same set of sources with the exact same methods, we should produce the exact same histories, but this does not occur. While there are better or worse histories, for any n-level of history, there are different accounts of what occurred. So what accounts for this difference?

Intrinsically, it was not possible for histories of the same caliber to produce the same narrative because of their origins. While people like Fogel and Engerman wrote that slavery was economically profitable, it (as they acknowledge) ignores the realities that people encounter. That is to say his emphasis on objective analysis failed to consider slavery as a holistic process of dehumanization. This emphasis is fine as a form of interpretation, but to consider his construction of slavery as more valid than one written by an individual with personal connection to the institution is incorrect. The call for objective histories did little but give a mask to academic tendencies created by the constituents who made up the newfound profession. That is to say, upper class white males looked out into the world, observed its “natural” order, looked into the beginnings of this order, and concluded by writing histories that justified this order. The rise of Social Darwinism in the early 20th century was a prime example of what could be casually accepted and considered relevant by this group of historians.

For the most part, objectivism in this sense is what the historian calls her heritage. And it seems a reasonable question to ponder its origins, is a main goal of historiography. However, in my personal experience, it appears that historiography is one oft glossed over when it comes to the instruction of undergraduates. Rather than focus on how history is written, what histories are written is considered more important. But the very process of instruction hides these problems under an authoritative guise, and leads to research later on that is problematic. As Novick puts it admirably, “Ranke’s abstention from moral judgment, rather than manifesting disinterested neutrality, was, in its context, a profoundly conservative political judgment. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that in his reaction to Enlightenment historiography he adopted a slogan from that epoch: ‘Everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds'”. While it is true that what the American historians brought back of his philosophy was distorted—both by intent and translation—this did not shatter the spell that Ranke and his peers had upon the American historical profession.

In practice, this meant that the academy became entrenched in its ways—by claiming objective neutrality, and desiring “wie es eigentlich gewesen” (show what essentially happened). As a result, beliefs rooted in fundamentally false concepts are perpetuated to be examples of the “beginnings of history” and thus, ought to be excused as being part of its time period. We toss out any necessity to rigorously investigate why we consider these histories to be our origins and the context that allowed us to give rise to them. And when students need to have discussions about the present-day, and utilize historical examples in practice, the beginning of those conversations has to be on deconstructing origins, of those historical examples rather than their relevance to the present-day.

I am not claiming this is what the discipline looks like today, nor am I trying to say being a historian within the academy automatically makes you pro-kyriarchy—indeed, the newfound emphasis on postmodernism, and challenges towards the status quo has seen beginnings of real discussions on history rather than the pseudo-discourse formatted by Western influence. What I am saying is there is a need to re-evaluate the origins from which our beliefs come.

There is a last point to be considered as we move forward with our discussions of origins, and their importance. This point is surmised by William Rainey Harper, first president of the University of Chicago: “It is all very well to sympathize with the working man, but we get our money from those on the other side and we can’t afford to offend them”.

This can be readily dismissed as anecdotal evidence, to be sure, but one cannot ignore accusations of elitist bias within the academy. Consider the legacy student, or the student whose parents who donated a library. These provide reasoned assessments of how affluence allows more access within the higher realms of education for individuals. To consider their influence over when the student enters graduate school makes no sense—capital does not stop being a force when discussing academic journals, books, appointments, or projects. Even now, the one thing I hear from graduate students consistently is a fear of graduation stemming from the lack of jobs. Would one so readily reject the hypothesis that people would gear their ideas towards acceptance by people with the capital to hire them? This is a toning process, one that prevented change in the profession until the mid-twentieth century. Even then, it was only with the blessing of these individuals that historians like Zinn became accessible.

Random sources on Historiography that I really liked and/or sources alluded to here. Most of these texts are reasonable cheap on amazon’s used book shenanigans:

Bentley, Michael. Modern Historiography: An Introduction: New York: Routledge Press, 1999.

Bernal, Martin. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. Rutgers: Rutgers University Press, 1987. Okay, this is less about historiography, and more about the construction of historical models that are more appealing to the predominant identity of the academy (White, male, etc. etc.), and his linguistic arguments are a little bit wrong, but still a fascinating read.

Breisach, Ernst. Historiography: Ancient Medieval, and Modern. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Collingwood, R. G. The Idea of History: Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Fogel, Robert and Engerman, Stanley L. Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Slavery.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995. I want to re-iterate: the problem with this account is less that they use sources to assess the profitability of slavery, or even that they minimalize the actions against slaves based on available data. Rather, it is that this has somehow become a definitive account of slavery (not necessarily at the emphasis of the authors).

Iggers, Georg G. Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1997.

Momigliano, Arnaldo. The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. (Also Studies in Historiography, but I was incredibly lucky to get a hold of that work. If interested, google away)

Novick, Peter. That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005.


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