Friday, March 18, 2005

History's Most Misunderstood Concept

The Chronicle of Higher Ed asked four scholars to explain the most misunderstood concepts in their fields in "The Short List: Misunderstood Concepts." Robert J. Norrell, a professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville offered that it was the concept of objectivity:
The most misunderstood concept in history is objectivity. I entered the academic world in the aftermath of 1960s idealism with the faith that the truth would set me, and society, free. I thought, 'Let's study the past, identify the wrongs done, and correct them' -- an idea that presumed confidence in both human authority in the world and our ability to objectively establish what was wrong in society.

Objectivity as an ideal for historians, however, soon lost favor. In the 1970s, historians began a quest to include those who had been left out of our typical narratives: blacks, women, the working class. Influenced by the countercultural influences of the 60s, those practicing this 'new history' often dismissed old history as biased in favor of white, male elites in the West, and tended to celebrate those forgotten people without subjecting them to the same tough-minded criticism that they were applying to the old elites.

Postmodernist thought in the 80s continued to undermine historians' notions of objectivity, and for many younger historians, the pursuit of truth held about the same importance as looking for the Loch Ness monster. They presumed instead that all reality is constructed according to internal or group perspective, mainly by class, race, or gender. With reality so fractured by our limited perspectives, they felt, it is therefore impossible to determine an objective truth -- and is, in fact, misguided to even try.

The problem was that the academy's dismissal of objectivity set us against the larger public that likes to read history and think historically. The average nonacademic person believes that historical truth can be established, or at least approximated, and that the value of history is its ability to teach us actually what our experience has been. This divide between academic history and what the public understands about the past has resulted from the intellectuals' too-casual dismissal of the human capacity to seek truth, which has undermined our ability to shape understandings of the past outside the academy.
While I am by no means a strong believer in post-modernism as a historical "method," I do believe that the repercussions of post-modern thought have forced historians to look in new places for sources and to re-evaluate the old sources. As Norrell mentions though, the critical eye should properly be fixed on the new groups who benefitted from post-modern historical analysis. Thus, many disparate truths can be combined into a whole. It is obvious people have different perceptions of what happened. Usually it is a combination of many factors that best explains "the truth."

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