Wednesday, January 19, 2011

That Noble Dream by Peter Novick (Book Review)

The work establishes the question, “Is objectivity possible in the writing of history”, as the central proposition of the development of the American historical profession since

The work portrays the vagaries of a narrow, and increasingly isolated, craft guild which appears to produce historical research primarily for members of its shrinking guild, having dismissed involvement with: (1) general education at the secondary and lower levels, (2) the general lay audience with an interest in history, and (3) public history. (Pages 362, 372,373,513)

The better question for historians to ask might be, “What is history for?” Can history be used as a tool for socialization within society. . . and if so how and what are the legitimate parameters for teaching? Can history be used as a predictive tool? The study of military history suggests that history can teach predicative lessons. What about other fields?

“Good history” is as subjective a term as “good law”, both are subject to the shifting values of the time and subject to the vagaries of advocacy. Advocacy history appears no more suspect than history that is refereed by “peer review”. The peers in a peer review are either coming from one homogenous point of view (as in the early Anglo-Saxon, Social Darwinism days of 1884, the year of the founding of the American Historical Association) which makes their world view suspect in terms of it universal application, or they are coming from diverse ideological-social/racial-gender backgrounds, which make their peer review comments very much like the existing system of American legal advocacy. Just as there is “Enough law for every clients position”, so too there appears to be enough history to serve a multitude of worthy ends if one doesn’t insist on one eternal, immutable and knowable Truth. Worthy ends such as: (1) History as art (fact based expositions of the human condition much like the fictional exposition of the human condition found in novels), (2) history as predictive tool (e.g. Sun Tzu’s ART of WAR),(3) history as socialization instrument ( an inclusive and expanding public mythology for an immigrant nation).

Since his death along the bluffs overlooking the Little Bighorn River, in Montana, on June 25, 1876, over five hundred books have been written about the life and career of George Armstrong Custer. Views of Custer have changed over succeeding generations. Custer has been portrayed as a callous egotist, a bungling egomaniac, a genocidal war criminal, and the puppet of faceless forces. For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values. Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history. This book presents portraits of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they have appeared in print over successive decades and in the process demonstrates the evolution of American values and priorities.

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1 comment:

charlie said...

My graduate students are reading this book for tonight's class, and your excellent essay will be a nice supplement. Thank you!