Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Objectivity Question

Most people believe that history is fact, is capital T Truth. Is that possible? With the various biases of sources and historians, can a historian ever write the objective, complete, and unbiased truth of what happened in the past? If so, how? If not, what are the implications?

Few children want to be historians when they grow up. Though I'm not claiming to be an expert in children's dreams and wants, I do work at a day care and the general rule is that younger kids want to be profession athletes, performers, civil servants such as firefighters, or marine biologists. Heck, I've seen more kids dream to become a twin or a fish than become an historian.

Thankfully sometime between kindergarden and graduate school, something happens to a certain portion of the population that inspires them to become the next generation of historians. In Junior Seminar, most of us were inspired by a teacher or even a particular subject of history. For me, I was inspired by an author: Sarah Vowell. Sure I had always done well enough in social studies and I might have become a historian without her, but for my money the day I read Sarah Vowell for the first time was the moment my passion for history was lit. For those not in the know, Sarah Vowell is an ironic, glib, but ultimately deep author who began her career working at NPR. Though her books are typically focused on historical events, calling her a historian would be like calling her friend Jon Stewart a news-anchor: true or false depending on perspective—subjective.

Subjectivity is everywhere, or least I and most of my generation seems to think so. I grew up knowing to take everything with a grain of salt, to challenge what others told me. If Fox News tells me that the Gay and Lesbian Alliance is a national epidemic, I don't wonder if they are right or wrong, instead I ponder why would they think such a thing. I think about possible experiences their anchors and audiences have had that would lead to such a bias. The question isn't if the statement is true, because the lack of objectivity is a given. Of course a news station isn't going to be objective. But should our historians be objective?

I have a friend, Tyler, who is a great supporter of postmodernism. Often when talking to him about, well, anything he will quip “that's not necessarily true.” His whole hearted embrace of postmodernism makes him a good conversationalist but when he tries to write a thesis driven paper, he often gets writer's block. I would guess that his writer's block is not because he can not think of a possible argument, but because an argument is a personal thing and though Tyler loves the subjectiveness that comes with postmodernism, he has been instilled with the belief that a professional, thesis driven paper should be objective.

Really I don't believe that a thesis paper, or a history paper, should be objective. I don't believe it can be objective, so historians should accept subjectivity. I believe this makes for better history anyways, as I said before arguments and theses are personal, a good historian is moved by their research and feel compelled to write. Conversely, if historians think they can and should be objective then they must snub out their emotions and passions. This would also make history a very dull discipline with littler discussion or community. A community of subjective historians care about their subjects and are constantly communicating with each other, not just interacting but actively relying on each other.
Because if objectivity is no longer the goal, a community of rational historians are required to keep history respectable and plausible. Just because we agree that history is a subjective discipline does not mean it is no longer a discipline. Try as I might, I shouldn't be able to write a professional thesis describing how dragons where used effectively by Russia to keep Napoleon from Moscow. Others might argue that without objectivity history becomes the same as literature, fiction. I believe that just because history can't be Truth there is no need to go diving into the pool of fancy. Historians should strive to produce histories that are plausible and historians should be the ones who judge what is plausible. In another way: I am a big fan of peer reviewing.

Not only should historians be plausible, but they should be honest about their biases. As previously mentioned I don't really trust anything until I mull over it a bit, but what about the less paranoid? For example, when I watched The Birth of a Nation I understood the biases behind it: That Thomas Dixon wrote the movie's inspiration as a response to Uncle Tom's Cabin and that both Thomas Dixon and D.W. Griffith, the director, grew up in a failing post-Civil War farm and whose father was a Colonel in the Confederacy. But what about less informed people who might agree with President Wilson that “it is all so terribly true”? There are several ways to be honest about your biases. Most historians talk about it in their introduction or in a preface. Others mix their research with their personal reactions to their research. Both are fine and are really more of an atheistic decision and secondary to the decision to be honest about their subjectivity in the first place.

Being openly subjective is a hard thing to be. It requires a historian to be accepting of their subjective nature, bucking against the German tradition and the Enlightenment in general. It also makes writing history more personal, a historian is more open to not only attacks about methodology, but also personality and value. To collect old census records and hide behind the falsely objective social science born of the data found is a lot safer than taking that data and be honest that the final project is subjective, is a product of a individual's imagination, creativity, and reason. In the end, I believe that the risk and extra effort is worth it. I believe subjectivity creates more compelling writing and a more intentional, personal community of historians. How you feel is up to you, but I won't be putting the works of Sarah Vowell on my American Fiction bookshelf, but in American History.

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