In the beginning of the American historical profession the “noble dream” was the belief that it was possible to find an absolute objective truth of the past. With each historian contributing to the absolute whole, the cumulative efforts of the historical community would eventually be able to know everything that could be known about the past, a grand narrative that would reveal the reality of the human experience. The American historical profession began in Germany as intellectuals with a passion for history traveled to learn from Leopold von Ranke. Ranke taught that historians should approach history in a disinterested objective manner and write history “as it actually was” or “wie es eigentlich gewesen”. History was to be as a science, historical documents to be analyzed and contrasted with others, and the historian immune to biases and ideologies that would cloud objectivity. Despite the fact that Ranke’s empiricism was partially projected upon him by his American students, his teaching inspired new universities in the United States as well the establishment of organizations such as the American Historical Association.

The noble dream came into crises during two periods in which the belief in objectivity was contradicted by other historians and ideological movements. In the 1920s and 30s, revisionist historians such as Charles Beard and Turner argued that social factors influenced historical events. Beard’s Economic Interpretation of the Constitution revealed the self-interest of America’s founding fathers, while Turner’s Frontier Thesis was controversial for giving an, “alternative explanation of the expanding frontier and the availability of free land as the foundation of American democratic institutions.”[1] The ‘impartiality’ of early historians presented an account of the American Civil War and the Revolution based on pseudo theories of scientific racism. Novick nots that historians, “could simultaneously demonstrate their own detachment and render valuable public service by furthering the goal of reconciliation between North and South and between the United States and Great Britain.”[2] These theories began to fall apart as revisionist historians continued to ask questions.

The conflicting views about American history threatened the idea of objectivity as revisionist historians interpreting historical events differently with the same sources. Historians such as Beard and Carl Becker, known as the “new historians” or “progressive historians”, argued for relativism over an absolute objective truth. To attack the idea of Objectivity was to attack the profession as a whole. One historian, “attacked Beard for seducing historians away from the “noble dream” of the founders of the profession, the disinterested search for objective historical truth.”[3] After World War II the historical community found new purpose in the “noble dream” and argued that relativism was responsible for weakening the United States leaving it unprepared for war. In the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, relativism was a heresy against the objective views of the conservative historians, and many historians with leftist views or those sympathetic towards communism were punished occupationally and academically for their political views. Historians in favor of the status quo and opposed to relativism believed that, “unlike other academics, they [communists] were incapable of impartiality or objectivity. They were enslaved in the straitjacket of party-line dogma in a way which, again, in implicit contrast to others rendered them incapable of changing their minds.”[4]

Historian Charles Beard

The counterculture of the 1960s and 70s brought new strength to Marxist historians who like their counterparts on the Right, believed in an objective interpretation of history, only theirs was the scientific truth of Marxism, and the interpretation of history from the bottom up of society. Similar to critics of relativism during the 50s “Leftist historians were convinced that what they were offering was not just objectively true, but that it was the truth.”[5] In the following decades after the United States became the greatest western power, while the Soviet Union ascended to power in the East, the historical community in the U.S. became a microcosm of the ideological struggle of the Cold War. The idea of Objectivity was eroding from both sides. The irony of the New Left movement is that, “historically the posture of objectivity had always been closely associated with values of civility, moderation, and order.”[6] However,  the idea of objectivity gave the most radical historians cause to attack the status quo of American society and academia.

The Civil Rights Movement inspired black historians to write a history for the African American community that was not meant to be integrated into the existing American historiography but rather be a history of their own. Racial tensions arose when white historians wrote about slavery and colleges and campuses began to accommodate the demand. Novick says, “The consciousness which substituted ‘black’ for ‘Negro’ history merged with the broader movement for programs in ‘Black Studies’ in college and universities, many of which became bastions of militantly separatist black nationalism.”[7] The political environment wherein groups like the Black Panthers saw within the United States a separate nation, carried over into the intellectual decline of the idea of an absolute truth. Similarly, the feminist movement inspired research in the ways women were oppressed in Western society and in doing so “revealed the depth of male-centerless, complacency, and even misogyny in the existing historical literature, the result was often further alienation of feminists from the profession.”[8]

After its brief resurgence in the postwar years, that “noble dream” was lost for good. The fragmenting of historical homogony was partly the result of the success of the historical profession. The number of professional historians and the diversity of their ethnicity, sex, and political views, resulted in a fragmented historical community. Specialization among historians resulted in particular fields of study so narrow in their focus that they lost connection with the general history of all historians. Novick describes how, “As a community grows beyond a certain point it ceases to be a community. It breaks down into subcommunities, which themselves, in time, may subdivide, so that an effective community can be re-created.”[9] Scarcity of teaching jobs for history majors in 70s led to different forms of employment for historians such as working for local historical societies and museums, oral history projects, and historical film making. Academic historians criticized those whose jobs fell under ‘public history’ as they saw it ‘private history’ or, “historical work in the service of government agencies, businesses, or other organizations with very particularist agendas inconsistent with universalist norms of disinterested objectivity.”[10]


Bibliography

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


  • [1] Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 88.
  • [2] Novick, That Noble Dream, 61.
  • [3] Ibid, 259.
  • [4] Ibid, 326.
  • [5] Novick, That Noble Dream, 423.
  • [6] Ibid, 437.
  • [7] Ibid, 477.
  • [8] Novick, That Noble Dream, 499.
  • [9] 580.
  • [10] 513.