Relative Facts, Absolute Opinions

THE teaching and study of history have become a battleground of sorts: Old-fashioned political historians find themselves at odds with social historians and statisticians. Proponents of multiculturalism denounce traditional history as white, male, Eurocentric, and elitist. Alarmed traditionalists warn of the dangers posed by proliferation of ethnic and gender studies at the expense of core curricula.

And, to further destabilize the situation, the battleground itself may not be solid. Radical skeptics, steeped in postmodern relativism and deconstruction, have been attacking the very idea of truth itself: not just the idea of historical truth, but even the truth value of formerly uncontroversial disciplines like the natural sciences. The scientist's claim of objectivity, it is charged, is a bad-faith attempt to ignore or deny factors of race, class, creed, or gender. The principles of the Enlightenment, once self-evident, are increasingly criticized for claiming to be universal when they are ``actually'' the products of a particular time, place, and group of people.

Wading into this dispiriting morass, three distinguished historians - Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob - have collaborated on a book intended to restore some semblance of common sense to the muddle. In ``Telling the Truth About History,'' they examine some recent disputes that have rocked the discipline, explain the historical background of these disputes, and propose what they believe to be sane and sensible solutions.

Much of the book is devoted to examining the ways in which historians have viewed their role. No longer constrained to serve as court chroniclers churning out flattering accounts of kingly exploits, modern historians have seen themselves as truth seekers and nation builders - roles that are often but not always compatible. Enlightenment ideals of scholarship - freedom of inquiry, objective scrutiny of the facts, open dissemination of information, conclusions subject to testing, revision, and refutation - all promised to unlock the secrets of nature, empower mankind, and advance the cause of democracy.

But skepticism could be turned on the Enlightenment itself. Taking a leaf from the Enlightenment's own book, so to speak, recent revisionists have questioned whether scientific claims of objectivity and neutrality may not have been compromised by underlying biases shaped by a given scholar's race, gender, class, or creed. More radical skeptics have attacked the very notion of ``truth'' itself as an insidious new form of ``absolutism,'' replacing the old absolutism of monarchs!

Professors Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob stake out a sort of middle-of-the-road position. While they condemn the most extreme form of skepticism as a corrosive, nihilistic attitude that would make it pointless to study history (or anything else), they still manage to cast a mildly ironic collective eye on what they call ``The Heroic Model of Science.''

``Like Josiah Wedgwood (of porcelain fame), [steam-engine inventor James] Watt and his Birmingham entrepreneurial friends believed in the power of machines the way pilgrims had once believed in relics,'' they observe. Elsewhere, they obliquely accuse traditional historians of believing in fixed truths and practicing an ``intellectual absolutism'' on a par with ``political absolutism.''

Not content with having created this ``absolutist'' straw man, they proceed to lumber him with the baggage of Hiroshima, the arms race, and the military-industrial complex: ``By deliberately stuffing affirmative action, curricular reform, and various strands of philosophical skepticism into one kit bag,'' they allege, committing the very solecism they denounce, ``traditional- ists have adopted an offensive strategy that bears striking resemblances to the ideological marching orders of the Cold War.''

At the end of the day, however, they come out firmly on the side of truth, or, as they put it, a ``rigorous search for truth usable by all peoples.'' (Would truth then be untrue if a particular sect or group found it useless? And why ``peoples'' rather than ``people''? Is humanity to be seen as a collection of ethnic groups rather than individuals?) ``Our version of objectivity,'' the authors explain, ``concedes the impossibility of any research being neutral (that goes for scientists as well) and accepts the fact that knowledge-seeking involves a lively, contentious struggle among diverse groups of truth-seekers.''

On one hand, this sounds admirably sensible; researchers, even scientists, are not blank mirrors: They bring their own feelings, mindsets, and preconceptions to their work. On the other hand, it also sounds a little like Orwellian double-speak, as if the authors were absolving scholars from even making an effort to be objective and expecting ``truth'' to emerge instead somehow from ``lively, contentious struggles.'' (What is to prevent these from degenerating into pointless, mud-slinging melees among factions accusing one another of bias and self-interest?)

Establishing a reasonable middle ground between wild-eyed revisionists and outraged traditionalists is difficult, and Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob deserve credit for outlining a plausible plan. Despite their penchant for viewing people in groups, they are aware of the dangers of a system whereby ``truth'' belongs to the winning interest group. They support multiculturalism as a way of expanding and enriching our understanding of the world's diverse values and ideas, but they are against political correctness for limiting free discussion and, as they astutely remark, for patronizing the groups it would protect ``by assuming that their interests are too fragile for public scrutiny.''

History, the authors remind us, is about complex events, and only bringing a variety of different perspectives to bear on those events can students of history approach the truth. Multiplicity of viewpoints and interpretations does not mean there is no such thing as objective truth - merely that it takes many vantage points to provide the fullest and most meaningful picture of the past: a lesson both useful and true.

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