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88 of 93 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding chronicle of the American historical profession
"That Noble Dream" is Peter Novick's magisterial history of the American historical profession and its alternating romance and dissaffection with "objective" historical scholarship from the late nineteenth century to the 1980s.

The German historical profession with its domineering Herr Professor and impressive array of analytical...
Published on April 15, 1997

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38 of 51 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars deconstructing decronstruction
For all the attention given in recent years to the social context of discourse, remarkably little has been given to the way in which the context of modern academia shapes the way we think about the past. One of the really satisfying things about Peter Novick's 1988 book, That Noble Dream, his history of the American historical profession, is the way-despite its tendency...
Published on October 26, 2003


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88 of 93 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding chronicle of the American historical profession, April 15, 1997
By A Customer
This review is from: That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession (Ideas in Context) (Paperback)
"That Noble Dream" is Peter Novick's magisterial history of the American historical profession and its alternating romance and dissaffection with "objective" historical scholarship from the late nineteenth century to the 1980s.

The German historical profession with its domineering Herr Professor and impressive array of analytical "techniques," Mr. Novick tells us, provided the initial model for American historiography. In Leopold von Ranke, young American scholars found a paragon of "wissenschaftlich" (interpreted as scientific) empirical scholarship. (Oddly, Ranke was neither a strict empiricist nor particularly scientific in his approach to writing history.) Transferred to the other side of the Atlantic, a mythical interpretation of German historiography served to legitimate an inductive, empirical approach to history that puported to uncover the past "wie es eigentlich gewesen" -- the way it actually was. Eschewing both hypothesis and epistemological speculation, American historians enthroned "objectivity" as the goal of their infant profession.

Mr. Novick explains that the ideal of objectivity was reinforced by an ideologically homogenous group of professional historians who used objectivity as the yardstick for career advancement and as a "prophylactic against conflict" within their ranks. Among other convictions, it was firmly believed that objective scholarship would serve to protect American students from the evils and distortions of propaganda.

It was not long before a reaction developed against these pseudo-Rankean "data gatherers," as they pejoratively came to be known. In the years before the Great War, the new progressive historians (notably Beard and Becker) questioned the idea of cold, indisputable facts and thereby planted the seeds that later would grow into the antithesis of objective scholarship, namely relativism. The new historians were denoted, somewhat unkindly, as "presentists," because of their use of history for the purpose of progressive reform.

With the entry of the United States into the the first World War, objectivity was unceremoniously displaced by propaganda, as America's historians were expected to display a sufficiently patriotic fervor. The profession of the interwar years witnessed the rise of cultural and cognitive relativism in the wake of the new scientific ontology. The quest for certainty and absolutes gave way to the "pragmatic tradition," which saw truths as multiple and perspectival. Becker and Beard, together with their loyal vassals, derided the old-school, inductive approach, which claimed that "facts spoke for themselves."

But World War II initiated a renewed courtship between the profession and its first love. With the rest of American society, historians turned "toward affirmation and the search for certainty." A considerable dosage of moral rearmament, it was believed, would be required to counter the fascist threat, and historians, like others, queued up to the podium in order to denounce the menance of moral relativism.

The totalitarian leviathan, of course, did not disappear after 1945, and Communism proved as good a reason to denigrate relativist epistemology as had fascism. The Cold War, Mr. Novick suggests, "was directly related to the celebration of objectivity as the hallmark of thought in the Free World." Once again, it was claimed that the newly objective, non-ideological historiography, as incorporated into western civilization courses, would insulate young minds against propaganda.

Such is a very compacted version of Mr. Novick's copiously detailed narrative of American historiography (complete with all the gossip on your favorite college history professor) and its flirtation with objectivity down to the Cold War. So have we come full circle? One might be inclined to think so if the story ended there. But the book's final four chapters chronicle the American historical profession of the last generation, during which, according to Mr. Novick, the structural supports of objectivity, namely universalism, nationalism, and professionalism, came under attack. A "separatist consciousness" fragmented black history and women's history into ruthlessly guarded sub-disciplines of their own. The profession became "little more than a congeries if groups" that could no longer communicate with each other in mutually comprehended terms. Fueled by a massive production of scholarly works, fragmentation and specialization proceeded at such a pace that by 1980 "in no other discipline did holders of a Ph.D. have less in the way of a common experience." As a consequence, meaningful discussion of the objectivity question on a profession-wide basis "effectively collapsed." What Mr. Novick describes is, in his view, nothing short of a crisis. He points to a handful of "ecumenists," David Hollinger and Thomas Haskell among them, who attempted to identify an "epistemological vital center" in an effort to bring together a chaotic array of hyper-relativists and hyper-objectivists. Alas, he says, precious few were listening.

Mr. Novick's historiographical Weltanschauung is bleak indeed. Toward the end of "That Noble Dream," he presents a contradictory image of some "cosmopolitan," "supra-disciplinary" historians moving beyond traditional boundaries toward a new, universal approach to scholarship, while other historians seek shelter behind the new boundaries of fragmented subcommunities. Interdisciplinary centripetal forces are juxtaposed against intradisciplinary centrifugal forces. Within the profession the "center cannot hold," while outside the profession, a new universalism is being forged.

Can a new common interest replace the objectivity question as a unifying force within the discipline or at least among several disciplines? Though well over 600 pages long, Mr. Novick's book contains a relative paucity of discussion pertaining to teaching. Certainly the multiple needs of students transcend the single need to be protected from propaganda. Perhaps this issue might be capable of bringing together divergent groups of the profession, if only to disagree. The recent debate over the national history standards suggests that America's historians might do well to think very hard about how best to reconnect scholarship with pedagogy. Were it to fail in this essential mission -- in effect a mission to convince the public that history has value and meaning -- the profession might likely revert to what Mr. Novick describes in the first pages of his thoughtful book, that is an association of amateurs.

Robert Ganem (rganem@nea.org)
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69 of 73 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Must read for every historian, December 9, 2003
This review is from: That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession (Ideas in Context) (Paperback)
When a professor assigned Peter Novick's "That Noble Dream" as one of the last readings in one of my seminars, I blanched. Who, I inwardly groaned, would force students to read a book this huge in the waning weeks of the semester, a time when the heavy weight of tests, papers, and grading exams rests on your shoulders? "Look at the size of that font! How in the heck are we supposed to get through that thing in a week?" wailed a fellow sufferer, echoing what we all thought as we blearily thumbed through the book. Initial skimming seemed to confirm that this would be one of those scholarly books that take years off your life even as you promptly forget what you read a mere five minutes ago. Now, I've done some power reading during my tenure as an undergraduate and graduate student; I once cruised through Herodotus in two days and Thucycdides in even less time. You learn to accept things like this in the unnatural world of the academy. With lengthy papers due at the same time I opened this book, I decided to power stuff this one. Even now I can hear the knowing snickers of graduate students across the nation who may be reading this review, seminar hardened souls amused to no end that I actually assumed I had to READ the book. I can hear the chorus: just skim through it over the course of a few hours, learn the main argument, take a few notes, and nod sagely in class.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the end of Novick's treatment of the noble profession: I rapidly discovered that this book is brilliant; a veritable cathedral of razor sharp analysis, amazing use of primary source material, and all written with one eye firmly planted on the bigger picture. What human being is capable of this Gibbonesque treatment of the American historical profession? Apparently a University of Chicago professor with a whole lot of time on his hands, a man whose primary field of research has little to do with American history. Well, Gibbon's inspiration for his enormous masterwork came from a visit to the ruins of Rome, so why not an equally impressive history from someone working outside his field? A comprehensive summary of the book is an exercise in futility here, but I think I should take a stab at it since I am studying history and often must summarize scads of material into a few precious paragraphs. My review will be inferior anyway compared to the extremely insightful essay found below on this very page.
Novick begins with an examination of the German methodologies of history---an appropriate starting point because Americans wishing to study the past on an advanced level in the nineteenth century needed to go to school in Europe---in an attempt to discover how the first generation of professional American historians approached their craft. To be sure, amateur historians like Parkman, Prescott, and Adams wrote narrative histories on such huge topics as North America, Mexico, and the early governments of the United States. But in an age where scientific methods came of age, men stood up and rejected the narratives, believing that the very same techniques could, and should, be applied to the study of history. An age of strict objectivity called for an equally rigorous impartiality in looking at the past, and the first trained historians here did so with relish. Worshipping the phrase "wie es eigentlich gewesen," or studying history "as it really was," our academic ancestors attempted to collect as much factual evidence from historical sources as possible, crafting "building blocks" of history so that in the near future men could unearth the universal truth by putting these blocks together. Amusingly, Novick discovers that the American historians misunderstood this magical phrase, that it should translate as "as it essentially is," a different ballgame altogether that means a historian should employ his intuition in his studies. Since this is the exact opposite of how our historians applied the phrase, the entire edifice of our profession balances upon a translation error! Study hard for those proficiency exams, my friends!
Novick's scrupulous treatment of the succeeding years of the profession reveals metatectonic (a word that appears throughout the book, and frankly, I love it and use it whenever possible) themes, but the biggest one may be that big social changes lead to big changes in the academy. While many scholars like to think they create rather than react to societal transformations, Novick proves them wrong repeatedly. War, for example, served to bring about sea changes in how historians studied history. The nightmares unfolding at places like Ypres and the concomitant moral discord after that war led to a short period of "doubt casting" in every field of western human endeavor. Things that seemed indisputable before millions died in the mud suddenly assumed a worrisome etherealness, a hazy uncertainty that ushered in the beginnings of relativism. The Second World War and the subsequent Cold War, with its need for absolute convictions (Hitler and Communism bad, Us good), temporarily quashed proto-relativism in favor of consensus. We are where we are at now, in an age of unbridled relativism, "social construction," and "deconstruction" because of the Vietnam War and the rise of the New Left historians. Novick outlines it all in one page after another, pages rife with the words of the historians who were there when it happened.
A short review fails to relate the impressiveness of this work. There are a few omissions here, one being the pedagogical functions of history as mentioned in a previous review. The other problem concerns the shortage of information about earning credentials in the profession. For information on how much fun that process is, you need to look at Theodore Hamerow's curmudgeonly treatment of life in graduate school, "Reflections on History and Historians."
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38 of 51 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars deconstructing decronstruction, October 26, 2003
By A Customer
This review is from: That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession (Ideas in Context) (Paperback)
For all the attention given in recent years to the social context of discourse, remarkably little has been given to the way in which the context of modern academia shapes the way we think about the past. One of the really satisfying things about Peter Novick's 1988 book, That Noble Dream, his history of the American historical profession, is the way-despite its tendency toward relativism and complacency-it turns the armamentarium of critical historical scholarship against the activity of critical historical scholarship itself. One can't read the book and not come away with a deep sense of how much our sense of the past has been hopelessly muddled by the internal imperatives of the profession. It is by endless cycles of cutting and slashing, revising and revisioning, "neo"ing and "post"ing, interrogating and all the rest of the tedious professional jargon, that reputations are made, empires are built, careers are jumpstarted, and-not to put too fine a point on it-tenure is won and promotion secured. The dynamic of revisionism, a dynamic of churning, incessant novelty, serves the cause of academic careerism even more than it does the cause of political correctness. And such careerism and specialization has the effect of stamping out an appreciative sense of the past.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Incredible Tour De Force, December 24, 2010
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This review is from: That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession (Ideas in Context) (Paperback)
So many of my graduate school cohorts were so intimidated by this great work that they could not even read it. Many of them talked about how it was too complex, too complicated, and boring. I, however, completely disagree. I picked up this book and began to read from the beginning and literally could not stop. It is stunning to get so much information about the profession of history, the process of professionalization, and many of the great personalities in the field of history. Novick walks the reader through the development of the profession with clarity and nuance. Everyone who thinks they are a student of history simply is not until they have read this magnificent work whether you agree with his conclusions or not.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, though not for everybody, October 3, 2008
By 
Miguel Aguiar (Santiago, Galiza) - See all my reviews
This review is from: That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession (Ideas in Context) (Paperback)
Novick's book on the "Holocaust and Modern Memory" is a perfect example of craft and honesty by a great historian. "That Noble Dream" is a much more ambitious book, a summing up of American Historiography. It's a great book, but probably only interesting to historians and even historiographers at that. It's focus in American Historiography (though tens of pages are devoted to the German, English a French roots of Historical Knowledge)may also shy away non-Ivy League readers. Still, a must for those interested in the field.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Detailed account of the american historical profession, March 24, 2010
This review is from: That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession (Ideas in Context) (Paperback)
Peter Novick's That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession is book of tendencies. Examining the writings of many notable historians is shown to reveal a rich story about the trends of their thought. It is a work of historiography tracing the development of the American historical profession, identifying the professional norms of their practice, and presenting a series of arguments about the profession's aspirations and anxieties over the "Objectivity Question".

The details of the objectivity question are slippery like the ungraspable facts it seeks as answers. According to Novick, objectivity is not a single idea, but "a sprawling collection of assumptions, attitudes, aspirations, and antipathies" (Novick 1). In other words, objectivity is a collection of conflictions. Paradoxically, these conflicts run deep enough to even contradict its conflicted nature. For instance, the basic components commonly associated with historical objectivity are nailed down by Novick as a "commitment to the reality of the past, and to truth as correspondence to that reality; a sharp separation between the knower and the known, between fact and value, and, above all, between history and fiction" (1-2). Certainly a historian is holding ideals like this in his mind when he claims to strive for objectivity.

The return of American historians from Germany in the nineteenth century brought new meaning to objectivity and the way historians thought about their profession. Objectivity was the common ideal American historians held above all others. Novick also argues the consensus gave rise to norms of professionalism and courtesy in the academic discipline. Yet the early agreement was founded on a misconception. Or it was a misrepresentation according to Novick, as "Ranke's epistemology was "naturalized" into an English empiricist idiom. His "wie es eigentlich gewesen" was read as meaning that truth was accurate representation - the merest common sense in the English-speaking world, but a view not held in Germany since Kant" (31). The American historical conception of objectivity was simply not what their idealized leader Leopold Von Ranke had meant. The irony of historical objectivity based on a misunderstanding is hard not to chuckle at, and it did not bode well for the consensus on the quest for certainty.

The profession's attitude regarding the objectivity question has been constantly vacillating since the consensus first broke under Becker and Beard's relativist critique as World War I ignited Europe. Novick nails this bigger-picture point home most obviously in the four-part structure of his book; Part One deals with the creation of the objectivist norms in the profession; Part Two describes the breakdown of the norms and historians' faith in objectivity; Part 3 chronicles the attempts to reestablish objectivity during World War II and the Cold War; and Part Four is the ongoing decline of objectivity starting in the 60s. This back-and-forth swaying trend of the objectivity ideal amongst professional historians is the most obvious tendency to readers. The "plot" of the book is loosely the framework for this pattern, but Novick refines it to crystal clarity through the extensive evidence documented by the personal writings, letters, and substantive historical works of historians from each time period.
Novick claims his work has no unifying thesis (17). While this and other attempts at full disclosure are generous, his stated purpose reveals his intention to do more than simply inform the reader. "The book's aim is to provoke my fellow historians to greater self-consciousness about the nature of our work," Novick wrote of his motivation (17). Without trying to be too postmodern about interpretations, it is apparent that Novick will attempt to convince historians that they should be more self-critical of their work and thought. Implicit in this argument is the underlying assumption that historians are not very good at reflecting on the philosophy of history, and it is in the interest of the profession to improve on this shortcoming.

Ethical opinions, moral considerations, and epistemological musings are rarely present in the formal writing of professional historians. An author like Peter Novick will hold personal beliefs and opinions, but he will probably not make it the central argument to any work of historiography. However, a postmodernist might ask: can we be sure that Novick's opinions did not seep into the emplotment and representation of the past?

If the problem of representation is without a solution, then in an effort to reduce deception and misconception it would be best for the author to be forthcoming about his epistemological underpinnings. For instance, Peter Novick notes his relativist perspective in both his Introduction "Nailing jelly to the wall", and his reply to critics of his book in the American Historical Review, "My Correct Views on Everything". If perspective informs how a historian treats his research, then it should also be the responsibility of the historian to account for potential limitation from perspective by including in the substantive historical analysis the other side of the story. In other words, historians should be aware of the mistakes of the past and critiques of the present. This awareness may tone down any epistemological allegiances, present self-reflective alternatives, and allow for academic debate to take place over the substantive analysis.

Ultimately, those epistemological opinions should fall beyond the margins of historiography, and therefore the judgment of any work of historiography should not be predetermined by an ideological or epistemological disagreement. Novick's perspective on the objectivity question undoubtedly guided his book, and very subtly perhaps. However, his beliefs are unable to create the past. Even the most severe personal beliefs and bias can only skew the image we see of the past - assuming they prescribe to the norms of historical scholarship.

The norms and tendencies of professional historical practice must be strictly adhered to. The case of David Abraham is a frightening lesson to any scholars who plan on failing to adhere to the stringent expectations of the historical profession. Abraham, who left the historical profession after the brutal treatment his work The Collapse of the Weimar Republic: Political Economy and Crisis received at the pens of other academics, was the perpetrator of sloppy note taking and lax documentation. Prof. Gerald Feldman, who had joined Prof. Henry A. Turner Jr. in attacking Abraham, had actually "served as one of the referees of Abraham's manuscript" (614) and did not catch in Abraham's work what has since been characterized as malicious fabrications of history. Instead, Feldman recommended the manuscript be accepted in spite of his "severe reservations about the argument and method" (615, Gerald Feldman, as quoted in Novick). The main source of disagreement was Abraham's use of "Marxist concepts and terminology" (615).

Historians use weaknesses in the rigor of writing and research as a pretense to fight in a war over which philosophy or ideology should reign over the historical profession. Turner, who was about to publish a similar book of similar subject, had only found issue with Abraham's book after Abraham was received favorably - which Turner even admits angered him (613). In other words, it was only when Turner had a vested interest and developed a bitterness towards Abraham did someone cross-check deep enough to figure out that a few of Abraham's citations were non-existent or inaccurate. Despite Abraham's response to his critics and corrected citations in a revised edition of his book, he was thoroughly ostracized from the historical profession. Novick may have been afraid or too well-mannered to say it, but it seems as if Turner and Feldman used Abraham's serious mistakes as an excuse to condemn him for what was actually a philosophical disagreement.

It seems far more historians are attacked and have their works attacked based on the philosophical disagreements between historians. These philosophical disagreements are prime concern of Novick, as he puts it, "I spend a good deal of time talking about what historians do worst, or at least badly: reflecting on epistemology" (15). In other words, historian's most contentious issue is the issue which they are least qualified to argue. Further, the philosophical weaknesses lay the groundwork for philosophical disputes to be based in and fought over superficial differences. If Novick is correct, and historians find themselves in conflict due to their inability to maturely analyze the epistemological ideals of their work, then it would be of great use for a history student to be aware their weaknesses.

Tendencies of the profession's stance on epistemology and the objectivity question also may be more dependent on the environment than any systematic philosophical analysis. For instance, the initial decline of the objectivity norm is commonly associated with World War I and other circumstances in the world. Novick does not show any evidence to indicate historians were oblivious to world events and instead chose to study philosophy - nor does objectivity appear besieged by any philosophical treatise. When it comes to deciding on their epistemological system, according to Novick, "Historians "reasonably," if not by the most desiccated standards, "rationally," concluded, on various grounds that one or another posture toward objectivity "felt right," or had more congenial implications or consequences" (264). Epistemological opinions are not arrived at very systematically. As a result, it is unreasonable to use epistemological disagreements as a basis for attacking someone's work. Unfortunately as we can see from the case of David Abraham and the constant epistemological shifts and disagreements this is hardly the case. Novick is well justified in concluding that historians are terrible philosophers.

It's not clear how long historians will be haunted by the objectivity question. What is certain though is that I returned from Novick's That Noble Dream in the early twenty-first century and I am bringing with me a new meaning to my conceptions of objectivity and the way I think about my historical writing. It is a careful and extensive account of historian's tendencies epistemological stance on their discipline, and is a useful lesson for any student of history. The historical practice has much to gain from examining its unquestioned epistemological foundations and the philosophical disagreements it inspires in the debate over substantive history. Hopefully any mistakes I made in this discussion were not as severe as the American's historical profession's initial misunderstanding of objectivity.
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20 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyed by this layman, December 1, 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession (Ideas in Context) (Paperback)
In this book, Novick says that he finds the idea of historical objectivity "essentially confused", that many of the philosophical assumptions behind it are "logically and sociologically naive", and that the whole concept "promotes an unreal and misleading invidious distinction between, on the one hand, historical accounts `distorted' by ideological assumptions and purposes; on the other, history free of these taints." (p. 6) But _That Noble Dream_ does not contain detailed philosophical or logical arguments aimed at supporting these claims; as Novick says in his introduction, "this isn't that sort of book" (p. 6). The sort of book it is is a detailed account of how various persons in the American historical profession over the last century or so have viewed "historical objectivity".
I think that just about everyone who reads this book will come away with a feeling that "objectivity" is, at the very least, problematic--much more problematic than many critics of "subjective" historians seem to believe. Someone seeking a philosophical critique of "objectivity" can probably find what he's looking for in the many sources mentioned in Novick's footnotes.
I started reading this book with a little trepidation, because someone had mentioned to me that Novick has radical political views, but his political biases really aren't apparent for most of the book. About 4/5 of the way through, however, (when he's worked his way up to the time of McCarthyism, Reaganomics, etc.) you can tell that he's beginning to talk about things he has deep feelings about. In the preface, Novick had said that he felt that sticking "[sic]"s all over in quotations when it was clear what the author meant was "mean-spirited" (p. xii), and the book is remarkably free of "[sic]"s. But Novick does use "[sic]" in some rather curious places (i.e., where there is no mistake in spelling, grammar, or usage) when the person he's quoting is expressing conservative views. (See pp. 450, 463.) Novick also laments how, in the 80s, Reaganomics "deliberately redistribute[d] income from the poorest to the richest segments of society." (p. 466) Well, that's one way to look at it. Another would be that the government decided not to confiscate as much of the rich segment's money as it had been doing. Or maybe Novick wasn't talking about Reaganomics at all; maybe he was referring to state lotteries!
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4.0 out of 5 stars Required reading for any aspiring historian..., July 24, 2014
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This review is from: That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession (Ideas in Context) (Paperback)
Peter Novick, in That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession, details the history of the American historical profession since its establishment in the late nineteenth century, focusing particularly on the critical role played by objectivity as a foundational cornerstone. For Novick, objectivity constitutes the “rock” on which the “venture” of the American historical profession was established; it is essential that historians act as a “neutral, or disinterested judge” in adhering to the idea of objectivity – what he calls “that noble dream” (p. 1). Novick indicates the concept is difficult to define – uncomfortably, he admits it is like “nailing jelly to a wall, not a single idea, but rather a sprawling collection of assumptions, aspirations, and antipathies…the exact meaning of which will always be in dispute” (p. 1). In a well-researched and well-written four-part narrative of the first one hundred years of the profession, Novick traces the ever-changing, ever-shifting role of this confusing notion – objectivity – within the profession. Initially celebrated along with consensus as the ideal that established the profession and separated it from amateurs, later challenged by relativism during the inter-war years, it re-emerged during World War II only to recede once again in a new historical climate after the early sixties. Novick also considers the role of consensus within the profession and the importance placed upon it by the founders of the profession to arrive at a convergent universal truth.

American historians established the American historical profession in the late nineteenth century using objectivity as a means to separate themselves from amateurs and drawing great inspiration from Europe, specifically Germany, as well as such popular notions as the scientific method. Interestingly, American historians looking to the German model for guidance often misunderstood German concepts of historical professorship and work, particularly those advocated by Leopold von Ranke. Early professional historians tapped into the power and necessity of facts. They drew largely from Francis Bacon, who warned against forming hypotheses in scientific study, and avoided the writing style of the very influential Sir Walter Scott.

Historians made significant progress in establishing their profession prior to World War I. They emphasized academic awareness, as opposed to intellectual, and avoided murky moral and political questions, finding no place for them in the academic world. They established graduate programs at universities and promoted the earning of a PhD as a prerequisite for teaching at a respectable university. They also created the American Historical Society and the American Historical Review and offered a reward system within the field, namely fellowships, prizes, evaluations of books in journals, and so forth. Many refused to participate in criticism within the profession, as was common in other academic and scientific professions. Some struggled with the newer notion of healthy criticism as opposed to the older more genteel ways. In any case, there was an overwhelming resistance to criticism and an embracement of almost universal consensus.

Consensus, the professional historians felt, was essential in the pursuit of objectivity. It was a relatively easy venture: most historians of the age had similar backgrounds – lower middle-class Protestants of English descent from small towns… They jostled three dominant ideologies (dominant, accomodationist, oppositional) but remained firmly a body of consensus (excepting to a limited degree the New Historians). The profession, largely dominated by New Englanders, dedicated its writing to more compromising positions on such divisive topics as the American Revolution, the Civil War and the issue of race. History became less social and sectional, although more narrow and bigoted. Textbook writing was constructed in a more balanced manner. Those historians who seemed attuned to confrontation and activism were directed toward the realm of social science. And yet amateur historians – most of whom were high income, high status gentlemen who did not usually make a living writing about history – remained very popular.

World War I and the ensuing spirit of nationalism significantly altered the U.S. historical professional. With the outbreak of the Great War, American historians no longer maintained what Novick calls “a posture of disinterested objectivity” (p. 111). While some fought in the war, most wrote anti-German propaganda. Ironically, many accused the German historians of forsaking objectivity for not accepting blame in instigating the war. For the most part, American historians replaced objectivity with nationalistic fervor. In later years, they were generally embarrassed by their war-time writings.

Objectivity was seriously questioned in the interwar years. First, many historians acknowledged their failure to remain objective during the recent conflict. Second, there were significant new scientific developments in the realm of physics, specifically Einstein’s “General Theory of Relativity,” which over-turned the idea of a certain world of “unambiguous truth” where “knowledge was definite” and “independent of the values or intentions of the investigator” (p. 134-135). Many historians felt lost in their views of “history as science” as science became less empirical. The entire notion of “fact” was questioned. Many historians came to view “history as art,” as opposed to science, while others regarded it as a hybrid: its recovery as a scientific venture, its presentation lying within the artistic realm. Social scientists, journalists and Legal Realists also offered challenges to the idea of objectivity. Cultural anthropology, for instance, held that it was impossible to understand societies without studying them “in their own terms” (p. 143). All together, these new perspectives challenged the notion of facts, objectivity and a single, convergent truth.

At this time, relativist (or pragmatic) historians led by Charles Beard and Carl Becker emerged within the historical profession to criticize the “profession’s founding myth” of objectivity (p. 133). They sought to explain how so many historians could study the same material and still disagree. For relativists, “historical interpretations always…would be relative to the historian’s time, place, values, and purposes” (p. 166). There was no single universal truth; instead, there were ever changing truths, “and what was true for one purpose was not true for another” (p. 152). It was important, then, to clarify one’s “values and purposes” in writing history (p. 271). Additionally, history was inexorably connected to the time in which it was written and served a purpose (as opposed to “history for history’s sake”). It was crucial that historians “descend from the ivory tower and contribute to social needs” (p. 272). For the most part, relativists contributed to polarization within the field. Their writings were treated as “anathema” by the “older generation” (p. 268).

There were a few improvements within the historical profession during the interwar years: an increase in the number of PhDs awarded, an expansion in the size of university history departments, and the establishment of more journals, university presses and fellowship programs. However, for the most part, historians suffered significant setbacks during the interwar years. They suffered a loss of prestige, status and salary, and were more eager to engage in conflict with one another. There was less scholarly productivity; teaching and writing trumped research. Many complained about the quality of historical work. Historical literature of the period tended to be dull, most confined to “proper” textbook writing, generally trumped by what was offered from amateur historians and foreign authors. Some called for more social history (cities, immigration, women). Others were frustrated by low quality recruits at the university level; most hailed from the bottom classes. Anti-Semitism was prevalent. Historians failed to establish control over history in schools, which taught less history to a burgeoning enrollment. Additionally, they lost their sense of superiority over history teachers in schools, largely due to the ideology of relativism.

Most importantly, interwar historians – whose ideological consensus was already besieged by relativists – were further splintered by the question of “war guilt” regarding blame for World War I and along regional lines regarding issues surrounding race, the Civil War and Reconstruction. This latter debate was particularly bitter. The Southern Historical Association and Journal of Southern History were established to oppose the “control of the profession by a northeastern elite” (p. 181). The end result was a rift between those who clung to ideological consensus and the reform-minded who stressed conflict and divergent interpretations. Further divisions within the historical community erupted when many chose to abandon neutrality and objectivity during the thirties and employ history for political purposes.

World War II, for the most part, caused professional historians to reject their interwar tendencies and return to consensus and objectivity. Consensus was a natural outgrowth of the war, wrought by “national mobilization” and “foreign involvement” (p. 321). Consensus was, for the most part, achieved, although not in the sense of the existence of “a single truth.” Objectivity resumed with modesty; historians firmly “rejected, contained and trivialized” relativism but were unsure of their ability to replace it with “value-free, objective” history (p. 321). It was “a period of compromise and conciliation, synthesis rather than polarization” (p. 358) – a time when historians, optimistic that their disagreements would narrow, refused to claim their version of history was the only truth while panning a colleague’s version.

Initially, historians were united by their opposition to totalitarianism. Their framework of pitting the “free world” against totalitarianism – the latter represented principally by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany – was only briefly interrupted by the alliance brought on between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. during the Second War. There was such consensus among historians at this time that propaganda was deemed unnecessary (unlike during World War I). Charles Beard, a primary critic of President Roosevelt and of his interventionist policies, was largely ostracized by the historical community.

After the war, Counterprogressive Historians emerged within the profession; they sought to revise or refute Progressive theories of the previous era. Counterprogressives sought consensus on such unifying issues as “defense of freedom” with a focus on “what had united Americans rather than what had divided them” (p. 333). To an extent, there was a loss of ideology – rather than an agreement upon it – within the profession. Events such as the American Revolution and Constitution were re-interpreted as conservative moments in history, barely revolutionary at all. Historians were determined to resist “presentism,” the idea that their historical writings were corrupted by “contemporary preconceptions and preoccupations” (p. 321). And yet they fully participated in the condemnation of Communists, who they felt were “incapable of impartiality or objectivity” (p. 326). They were quick to defend their own, however. Many were critical of loyalty oaths.

In the post-war years, history was firmly realized as an autonomous profession. There were other new trends within the profession. There was, for instance, more diversity among historians, more democratization of hiring historians at universities, less racism toward African Americans and in regard to such issues as slavery and Reconstruction, more optimism and self-confidence among historians, less concern with a lay audience, a loss of control of pre-collegiate history education, freedom from social science and philosophy, an inward turn among historians and a quelling of anti-Semitism. Additionally, there were more historians from the lower classes, less women, less regionalism and less influence from science. Historians were very much involved in teaching but were more liberated to conduct research than in previous eras. Many elite historians found work in government agencies and assisted in national mobilization and intelligence analysis; this was a sustained effort, much different than those who had served similar capacities during World War I.

In the early sixties, the “culture of consensus” that dominated the historical profession in previous years was replaced by “polarization, then by fragmentation; affirmation, by negativity, confusion, apathy, and uncertainty” (p. 415). New Left Historians were a diverse group of individuals, seldom associated with the leftist student movement, divided by a generation – those who received their doctorate in the late fifties or early sixties (“culturally straight”) and those who came along thereafter (“countercultural sensisitivity”) (p. 419-420). These historians were largely cultivated at Columbia and Wisconsin. This development was connected to trends in other disciplines, namely science (with its emphasis on self-understanding), literature and philosophy. Unlike the previous era of historians, leftists felt they offered truth. They hoped their work would replace that generated by earlier historians. Most historians of this era opposed the Vietnam War and often had to choose between activism and academy work. Some taught at black colleges and participated in the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and disruptive campus protests. Social history largely replaced intellectual history. Diplomatic history was generally concerned with the idea of some concept of self-identity for the United States. There was some revision regarding the Cold War. Surprisingly, leftist historians were seldom a majority within the profession – typically over exaggerated in strength. Many of them found campus life stale and chose to exit the profession. Still, any “conservative currents” that existed at this time were overshadowed (p. 464). Particularist historians specializing in women’s or African American history also challenged consensus and a universal truth. The new historians contributed to the creation of a “splintered” historical community where there appeared to be no “vital center” among the differing factions with no single “king” to rule over their domain and where objectivity remained elusive.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This should be a graduate school primer, June 3, 2011
This review is from: That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession (Ideas in Context) (Paperback)
If you want to be an academic, you probably wrestle with your own validity to touch on subjects as an "expert." This book helps you sort through all of this.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Comprehensive and Accessible., March 17, 2014
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Great book for historians. Explains the origins of American academic histories better than any other book I've found. It was very helpful for my lit review on narrative history. I also appreciate that the language and prose are accessible to the general public.
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