Eric Marcarelli

Software Developer, Writer, Painter

Review of That Noble Dream

August 08, 2010 by in Books, History, Writing

Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession traces the intellectual and institutional developments of the American historical profession from its inception in the late nineteenth century up to the late twentieth century. The central theme of the book concerns the changing attitudes towards the concept of historical objectivity. Novick describes objectivity as “sprawling collections of assumptions, attitudes, aspirations, and antipathies” (1). The essential idea of objectivity is that there is a true past that can be discovered by historians, and that the facts associated with that history are not dependent on the values of the historian that discovers or interprets them (1-2). The narrative Novick crafts out of the hundred years he covers is, despite his apologetic statement about discussing only the more prominent historians, both comprehensive and cohesive. His research is consistently strong throughout the book. While not the liveliest of authors, Novick’s presentation is always clear and approachable. Altogether it is a remarkable piece of scholarship that should serve equally well as an introduction to the history of the historical profession and as resource for more serious researchers.

Any attempt to succinctly summarize Novick’s massive work will necessarily leave out the intricate details that provide it its power, but following his treatment of the historical profession’s development will convey some sense of his mastery of the often complex and messy subject. Novick opens the book in the 1880s when “the United States remained a net importer of ideas” (21). The ideas it imported with regards to history were those of Leopold von Ranke, however imperfect Americans’ understanding of the German scholar’s ideas may have been. The largely homogeneous group of early professional historians, influenced also by the general prestige of science, rallied around a belief that if history was done carefully as a scientific endeavor it would gradually progress ever closer to the objective truth of the past.
The belief in objectivity faced its first serious challenge in the wake of World War I, during which many historians had been caught up in patriotic fervor and used their work as tools of propaganda for the American cause. The quality of historical writing during the war deteriorated to such a degree that Herbert Heaton recounted stories of historians spending their time “furtively buying and burning all of the copies they could find of their war-time utterances” (127). Between the two world wars, the focus shifted for many historians from a pursuit of absolute truth to theories that were “useful” or “successful” (138). Charles Beard and Carl Becker offered the most prominent critiques of the attainability of objectivity, though Becker came at the relativist argument more enthusiastically, and Beard only with a sense of resignation.

Historians’ involvement in World War II turned out to be quite different than their involvement in the First World War. Rather than providing propagandistic support, the detached and objective “willingness to voice unpleasant truths” was most valued (303). The war caused many historians of a relativist bent to reexamine the idea that there were multiple true perspectives on every issue. In the atmosphere of the cold war that followed, an “abandonment of dissidence” occurred among intellectuals in general as they accommodated their thinking to the “new postwar culture” and focused on those things that united rather divided Americans (323). While debate over objectivity continued, it was muted, and as some of its proponents softened their claims by substituting terms such as “fairness” or “balance” in place of “objectivity,” the partially incorporated concept of relativism began to be seen as a historical rather than contemporary position (409).
The ideological consensus of the postwar years fell apart during the 1960s and 1970s. Novick notes that the American historical profession saw “substantially and systematically ‘oppositional’ historiographical tendencies” for the first time during this period, as even the former agreements on fundamentals broke down (417). In contrast to the consensus and unity brought about by the early years of the cold war, the emergence of cold war revisionism “threatened the myth which defined and justified postwar American polity” (453). During these decades some radical historians went so far as to question the institution of university system itself. This period also saw the emergence of “assertive particularism” among black and feminist historians who sought to separate and shape their respective groups’ histories outside of “mainstream” historical scholarship (470). By the 1980s consensus had not only evaporated, but the supporters of the competing ideologies were themselves suffering declining confidence in their own frameworks.

Partially as a result of this state of confusion, a new set of thoughts and approaches that can be loosely grouped under the term “postmodernism” began to become influential in the profession (523). These new approaches challenged the fundamental notion that any sort of objectivity about the past was attainable. Opponents saw such arguments as a form of sacrilege, and E. D. Hirsch deemed them attacks on “the essence of civilization” (564). Novick notes, however, that rather than presenting more powerful responses, most opponents took a position akin to “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” (567). At the same time, there were concerns that history was no longer a “coherent discipline” (577). History had expanded into new realms, and pushed out its boundaries into other disciplines. Many began to wonder exactly what constituted “historical understanding” as the amount of material in even the narrowest fields grew beyond the capability of a single person to consume it (582). Novick ends his work with the profession in this state of disarray, and leaves it to a “bolder spirit” to make predictions about what the future will hold (628).

The breadth of Novick’s work would be worth little if it was not based on solid research. He makes virtually no substantial claims without either providing immediate evidence or, at the least, a footnote indicating where it can be found. Lengthy quotations from primary sources are a staple of Novick’s writing. One example comes from Novick’s discussion of regionalism during the interwar years. To illustrate the situation at Harvard, he provides a long excerpt from a visiting professor that clearly portrays the regional and conservative bias of the faculty at that time (181). Similarly, no treatment of the student occupation that occurred during Mark Naison’s oral exams could have been as powerful, or as entertaining, as the first hand account Novick included (428). While these two stuck out as examples, one needs only to open to random pages to find countless other quotes of comparable quality.

Novick is careful to make fair and precise use of his sources. He notes, in response to claims that professional historians besides Becker began to question the pursuit of objectivity before World War I, how easy it is for quotes to be “taken out of context, or read too literally” and he seems to consciously guard against this tendency in his own work (103). At various points, such as in characterizing the response within the profession to the work of Becker and Beard, Novick notes the difficulties involved in his research. Not only did many historians remain silent on the issues he is investigating, but even “[w]hen historians expressed themselves on the issue, they often did so with less than complete frankness, out of politeness, opportunism, or other motives” (251). These statements indicate that Novick treated his findings with the appropriate care, and resisted taking some of them entirely at face value. When he is discussing the various opinions about objectivity in the seventies and eighties, Novick emphasized that his generalizations were necessarily of an “arbitrary and slippery” nature only suitable for “heuristic purposes” (593). Novick is also careful to put his discussions of sources in their proper scopes. After recounting a drawn out debate over history as an art versus history as a science, Novick qualified the preceding pages by emphasizing that this argument involved only a few participants, and in the “era of consensus and comity, most historians were happy to collapse the distinction” (386-7). In addition to treating the evidence fairly, Novick often provides additional commentary on his sources in his extensive footnotes.

Throughout the book Novick deals with intellectual arguments that have passionate defenders on conflicting sides, and he is consistently successful in presenting both sides fairly. During the interwar debate about war guilt Harry Barnes and Bernadotte Schmitt took opposing sides. While Schmitt argued that Germany held primary responsibility for the war, Barnes believed Germany tied with England for last place in terms of responsibility (214). Both believed in the attainability of objective truth, so it seemed obvious to each that the other was behaving in a way less than objective. Novick quotes from Barnes’s attack on Schmitt which alleges that Schmitt “made up his mind before examining the documents” and stuck to the “approved doctrine” of war guilt out of the personal interests of his career (216). While Novick goes on to show that professional opinions at the time were largely on Schmitt’s side, he presents Barnes’s attack fairly, in Barnes’s own words, and even dedicates a long philosophical digression to considering whether the attack was actually “illegitimate in principle” (219).

Another notable case occurs when Novick discusses the debate over whether members of the Communist Party were suitable for academic positions (326). As Novick shows, both sides of the issue claimed objectivity in their reasoning. He first presented the argument of those against the Communists. To them, Communist scholars were “incapable of impartiality or objectivity” because they were “enslaved in the straightjacket of party-line dogma” which made them “incapable of changing their minds” (326). Novick then goes on to back up these generalizations with quotes from various proponents of those arguments. From there he moves on to the opposing argument, which rested on the idea that even Communists could adopt the “proper classroom posture” of “value-neutrality,” and Novick similarly provides documents that argue this side of the debate (326).

Novick’s use of language is as careful as his treatment of evidence and ideas. Words for Novick are presented as tools that must be properly tuned to their uses. Perhaps the best example is Novick’s extensive definition of ideology. He notes that “[t]he word ‘ideology’ has been so loosely used and variously defined in recent years that I should, at the outset, make clear how I will be employing it” (61-2). To do this Novick breaks the term down into three numbered components and from there is free to reference these elements fully assured that his precise meaning is clear.

Novick’s command of language is not, however, limited to technical specificity. He is also adept at selecting words in an artful manner. In describing two separate assaults on objectivity, Novick deems the unruly, student driven attack the “Dionysian,” and the more reserved and scholarly approach the “Apollonian” (522-3). As an example of a type of discourse that made specialized works harder for other historians to comprehend, Novick choose to use the playful term “Derridese” (589). In keeping with his mastery of language, Novick makes effective use of metaphors to illustrate various topics. The most prominent example is the objectivist conception of the historical profession as a massive stone building, to which all historians can contribute their respective bricks, confident that together they will construct a unified structure (56). He returns to this metaphor several times in the face of the relativist and other challenges to objectivity. While Novick’s stretching of the old camel and straw metaphor to the point of autopsy was probably unnecessary and certainly a bit odd, it did effectively convey the extensive fragmentation of the historical profession by the 1980s (579).

One minor but irritating aspect of language that Novick does not handle as well is his use of words and phrases from other languages that he often lets stand without translation. For example, Novick quotes Buffon as saying “Le style c’est l’homme meme” (44). While this quote (“the style is the man himself”) was not all that significant to his argument, he gives no indication of what it means. Inconsistently, he does translate Voltaire’s “una fable convenue” which he uses in a similar way (250). There is a range of German terms that Novick employs throughout the book. He leaves them in German to avoid the imprecision of translation, and near the beginning he does indeed offer both the accurate and the misconstrued translations of the terms. But having to hunt down these translations later in the book, or worse, reading past them with only a vague recollection of their meaning, impedes the readability of his work and a short glossary would have been a worthwhile addition.

In the introduction Novick describes his “deepest methodological commitment” as the “‘overdetermination’ of all activity,” and he attempts to examine situations from as many perspectives as possible throughout the book (9). Some of these asides, such as the digression into novels and other forms of art, as well as those about the political developments of the 1960s, were helpful in placing intellectual developments into their larger context. Others range from interesting, though perhaps superfluous, to simply tedious. While it is probably a matter of personal interest more than anything else, Novick’s several digressions into the depths of psychoanalysis stood out as particularly in the latter camp for me.

At the very end of the book Novick makes a humble pronouncement about his goals for the work, saying that “[a]t moments I think I may have succeeded; much of the time not” (629). He then goes on to quote a philosophic statement about the impossibility of creating a work that is truly successful in the creator’s eyes. Regardless of Novick’s cagey qualms about its ultimate success, That Noble Dream is an excellent work of scholarship both for its research and presentation. With the right combination of interest and effort it has a tremendous amount to offer to its reader.

Work Cited

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

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