Calvin W. Lew

February 13, 1996



That Noble Dream:

The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession


            The goal of so-called “objectivity” in the writing of American history was justified in the past and even required today.  The consequences of not having this approach is a society that may be too splintered or divided.  The historians who advocated “objectivity” in the Post War era attempted to “defend the West” against an impending national threat and crisis.  This justification in the past is justified today in that the possible national crisis is from within; the disruption and extreme factionalization of society.  But despite all the different perspectives and sectors of the American experience, a common American culture and heritage does exist, and a somewhat universal perspective of history may be attainable.

            Although a true “objectivist” history may not exist, this “myth” has a purpose.  In Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession, Novick describes the concept of objectivity as a myth.  But that these myths have “neither...implication that the myth in question is ‘false,’ or that the venture it sustains is dubious” (p. 3).  Objectivist historians strive for an “ultimate and unitary  objective historical truth” (p. 4) which may not exist; but even a false perception of “objectivity” may be required.  Without this idea, all myriad interpretations seem equally valid.  And this may be very dangerous in certain periods of history.

            In today’s environment of relative intellectual freedom, it may be easy to criticize the leaning toward “objectivist” history, or rather the subjective history of “the defense of the West” during the early years of the Cold War.  “But in the late forties and early fifties a sense of urgent crisis, and impending Armageddon, was widespread”  (p.  314).  An example of this attitude or perception is a quote from 1950 from Boyd Shafer, later to be executive secretary of the AHA.  He felt that he had to bring his family back to the states and give up his research in France because war and the Russians were near.  He felt that war would come any minute and “the Russians would sweep through in three days to two weeks.”  And with the Chinese intervention in the Korean War, it was perceived that the Russians were ready for world war now  (p. 315).  “In circumstances of such urgent peril,...many voices...argu[ed] for the mobilization of scholarship” and “urged the much greater coordination and integration of history teaching ‘for citizenship’ at all levels”  (p. 315).

            With all the evidence of impending world crisis and initial validity to the domino effect, one may perceive why this “mobilization” and “integration” was necessary.  But with the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the ending of the Cold War, is all this still necessary?  Perhaps the objectivist history of the past did not tell the whole story, and that different perspectives are now required.  Beginning in the 1960s historians with more diverse backgrounds began to enter Academia.  Along with these voices and other “relativist” and New Left historians, the writing of history began to change.  And with them also came ideas that profoundly affected society.

            Among these ideas is the idea that every group has its own historian.  That only members of a particular group has the understanding and authority to write about that group.  Becoming “increasingly common [were] assertations that it was blacks who should be the ones to write black history” (p.475).  And “Kenneth Stamp was told by militants that, as a white man, he had no right to write The Peculiar Institution”   (p. 475).  Also, that only women had the perspective to write about women’s role in history.

            Should there be a separate Asian-American history?  A separate African-American history?  Feminist history?  May non-blacks write about the Negro experience of slavery in the American South?  These issues, among others, may have began the splintering of society into several autonomous groups; each with its own valid interpretation of history.

            But these progressive movements in Academia have resulted in liberation in thought and diversification in ideas, did it not?  In contrast, during the “objectivist era,” ideas and thought was relatively regulated and conformist; sometimes with great penalizing results to dissidents.  Is this new intellectual environment more academically and historically honest?  Afterall, few would argue that there is only one correct version of history.

            Some may also argue that the pendulum has swung too far today; that the “relativist” historians have forgotten or omitted the common threads to American history in subordination to the plethora of specific historical perspectives.  If we do not have common beliefs and interests, than some may believe that the interests of different groups are contradictory, confrontational, and antagonistic.  Some blacks and members of the NAACP believed that there was a conscious effort by white society of discrimination and “enslavement.”  Eleanor Holmes Norton, former chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) wrote that “the crisis of the black ghetto family as the center of the ‘self-perpetuating...predatory ghetto subculture...originat[ed] in the historic atrocity of slavery’”  (p. 489).

            Another dramatic example of antagonism between splintered groups occurred in the mid-1980s in the case of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Sears, Roebuck, & Co.   The EEOC attempted “to prove that Sears had discriminated among women with respect to jobs in commission sales, presented evidence concerning the company’s procedure for selecting such personnel, and alleged inadequacies in its affirmative action program” (p. 502).  “The heart of Sears’ defense was that one could only infer discrimination from this statistical pattern on the assumption that women were equally interested in commission sales positions, which Sears claimed, they were not.  Many women, Sears maintained, ‘fear or dislike...the competitive, ‘dog-eat-dog’ atmosphere of most commission sales divisions’” (pp. 502, 503).  The judge ruled in Sears’ favor.

            This fractionalization of society may not be unavoidable.  But the ideology of group versus group with irreconcilable differences may continue as long as this extreme pluralistic relativism continues.  Even if history is written by white males, is it possible for it be inclusive and universal?  A true objectivist history may not be possible, but a history that attempts to capture our “common” culture and experience and overall national perspective may be better than a history that is fragmented with no common perspective other than those of the individual groups.

            Thus, despite a lack of an external threat to national borders and ideology, internal domestic threats do exist that justify the objectivist idea or myth.  One common “objectivist” myth, be it true or not, is the idea of a common American heritage.  Common heritage does not necessarily refer to ethnicity.  Many Asian-Americans and other non-Caucasians consider George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to be their forefathers.  They are the forefathers not of an ethnic group, but of this country, the culture and principles it represents, and the citizens.

            In the battles of group differences, many commonalities are lost.  One such commonality is the idea of the American Dream, that one may achieve anything through perseverance and hard work, no matter what one’s economic or ethnic background.  This idea crosses all societal barriers.  Another is the idea of the Puritan and Protestant work ethic.  This is rather universal no matter if one is Protestant, Catholic, or Confucious.

            This common American heritage is not dependent on one’s ancestry or lineage to the continent.  America is unique among the nations of the world in that many immigrants consider themselves “Americans” the moment they set foot on American soil.  Being “American” is an idea beyond the traditional definition of national boundaries and ethnicities.  Despite initial differences, a common American experience does exist.  The experience of Asian and Hispanic immigrants today is similar to the experience of European immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

            True, the writing of history from the perspective of one of these groups may differ from another.  But, more commonalities than differences exist.  Family values are not too different between white households and Asian and Hispanic households.  World War II was fought with many Japanese, German, and Italian-Americans in the U.S. Armed Forces.

            The “objectivist” perspective in the American experience draws strength from diversity rather than suppressing it.  “Relativists” emphasize the parts, while “objectivists” embrace the whole; the writing of American history on America rather than those within, but not a part of.  From the many, comes a unified heterogeneous whole.  Claude Lévi-Strauss maintained that “the purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming...contradiction” (p. 4).

            “The e pluribus unum  in the myth of historical objectivity promised to resolve the contradiction, through a unitary convergent history which would correspond to a unitary past” (p. 5).