Let's All Agree We Should Aim for Objectivity





Mr. Reeves is the author of A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy. His latest book is America's Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen (Encounter, 2001).

Journalists love to talk about themselves and their profession, and the existence of 24-hour a day news channels give them plenty of opportunity. On a recent Fox News Channel program a panel of journalists argued heatedly about evidence (which is overwhelming) of leftist bias in the major media. At one point, a leading liberal contended that unbiased reporting is just stenography. Surprisingly, a major conservative columnist and television commentator agreed. The liberal then proceeded to note that a major reason for the slant in news reporting, if there is one, involves awards and prizes: they can't be won by stenographers. Panel members expressed approval. Unstated was the fact that the honors go, almost exclusively, to those on the left.

Quite naturally, I thought about my own profession, wondering if the same observations might apply to historians. It would never dawn on the media to explore that issue, but it is surely worth a bit of our time to reflect upon it.

First of all, it seems to me silly to assert that either journalists or historians could ever be mere stenographers. The reporter and the scholar face enormous quantities of often complex data along with conflicting accounts of events and people. Their job is to analyze what lies before them, make sense of it, and draw conclusions. In the process, by picking and choosing and emphasizing and labeling, they inevitably leave their stamp on what they have written. They are not recording devices. They come to their subject matter with a lifetime of experiences and beliefs that have an impact on their accounts. Sometimes too, of course, they are writing for a specific audience, and that colors their story. Articles in, say, National Review and The Progressive are going to present the war in Iraq in a very different light. The authors are never stenographers.

In the field of history, especially since the 1960s, the impact of the left has been pronounced in every area of activity. The contents of the major journals quickly reveal this familiar story, as do convention programs that would have made the modern founders of the profession gasp and blush. Roger Kimball's classic study Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, and the recent book by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage document the point brilliantly.

Even before the Vietnam War, the historical profession, especially its American branch, was devoted to liberal causes. The Progressives and New and Fair Dealers dominated the attention of leading scholars, who saw heroes and heroines everywhere in these movements. Few ambitious historians wanted to write favorably about conservative politicians, businessmen, or religious figures. The Gilded Age was largely dismissed and left to the likes of ultra-leftist Matthew Josephson to condemn.

The major differences between the historical profession in, say the 1930s and the 1970s, were threefold. In the earlier period, the extreme left, including the Communists, were in general not viewed favorably. Secondly, the certainty that the United States was always wrong, in both foreign and domestic matters, was largely absent. Thirdly, there was an emphasis upon the attempt to be objective. Graduate students in the earlier period in this country were often drilled in the quest for unbiased accuracy. Many historians were taught that evidence should not be the servant of ideology. They were trained not to be stenographers but to be as careful and as true to the facts as they could possibly be. Such a methodology often draws snickers today, especially from the younger historians, who dismiss it as undesirable, and in any case impossible.

It is now wholly fashionable and agreeable to be a radical leftist historian. The politics of the professors, as several studies show and as personal experience verifies, is more predictable than weather forecasts. And the professional rewards, as in journalism, go almost exclusively to those on the left. Follow the grants and the prizes; they tell the story.

So the journalists and the historians have much in common: the hard left, enamored of an assortment of Marxist utopias, and convinced that America is an evil empire, dominates. All talk of stenography as the alternative, it seems to me, is nonsense.

The National Association of Scholars knows this perhaps better than anyone. It was created to reaffirm the dignity and the highest ideals of objective scholarship in colleges and universities where freedom of thought and expression reign supreme. Is it any wonder that it has a great many enemies in academia and in the press.

And watch the almost daily struggles of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), as it battles against leftist fascism on American campuses. The courageous efforts of ex-radical David Horowitz should also receive widespread attention.

The production of objective and balanced journalism and history seems more important than ever in our sharply divided political and intellectual atmosphere. Let us hope that fearless journalists and historians will never submit to the false argument that such efforts are outdated, unprofessional, or impossible.


This article was first published by the National Association of Scholars and is reprinted with permission of the author.



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mark nevin - 7/19/2004

As an aspiring historian, I find Oscar Chamberlain's comments a breath of fresh air. If doing history is nothing more than a form of the "will to power" than I want nothing to do with it. Fortunately, it is not. I have read a great many works of history in the last year and a half and have found something "good" in all of them. Sure there are ideologues on the left and right who do history to advance their own political agendas. But the overwhelming majority of historians I have had the pleasure of working with and learning from in my admmittedly short career place their scholarship first. As Chamberlain eloquently states it, the best historiography aspires to "always accuracy, often knowledge, and perhaps wisdom and perhaps--more controversially here--a better world."


McParlan - 1/14/2004

This is silly, of course. It is almost always those on the political left today who claim that "there is no such thing as objective history" a la Howard Zinn, who self-consciously says, in effect: "Well, it is impossible for me to know or tell all of the truth, so I will just tell that part that I like and if a reader wants to hear the other side they will just have to look elsewhere." Such an approach to history is, in my view, totally irresponsible.


McParlan - 1/14/2004

This seems bizarre. In my view, "objectivity" does not mean that one may never form or entertain an opinion about goodness or evil or moral responsibility. Objectivity simply means that one consciously delays forming such opinions or moral judgments until after one has completed a careful search for the facts, so that one understands as best s/he possibly can, the actual facts of the matter before judging them. Objectivity is refusing to put the cart before the horse. It is a matter of mental self-discipline. I suspect that historians who say "there is no such thing as objectivity" are often not so much asserting a metaphysical conclusion as announcing their rationale for abandoning the rigorous demands of their discipline. They may feel justified in this because they actually perceive themselves as a moralists, with "history" serving as a subordinate tool to be used to achieve an end, rather than being a valuable end unto itself. Alas, those who offer great moral insights about the world while loudly proclaiming that "there is no such thing as objective truth" are rarely successful either as moralists or historians. Their work is rarely penetrates outside the confines of the academy.


Bud Wood - 1/12/2004

It would be surprising if the writings of those mentioned were other than subjective. But then subjectivity is not necessarily incorrect. Suspect perhaps but not necessarily incorrect

One might suggest that the famous location in Gotham City, "Benedict Arnold Square" is merely fiction.


rg - 1/11/2004

I think you people have degenerated into word games. You will eventually end up trying to figure out what the definition of "is" is.
I think the underlying issue that Reeves was addressing was one of basic intellectual honesty. As a 46 year old adult I am fully aware of when I stilt a presentation in one direction or another. Unless the lberal media (and conservative talk show hosts) are a pack of total morons or idiots, they do to. The gist of he article seems to be that the liberal left is attempting to gloss over rabid partisanship under the guise of not understanding (or lying by pretending that no one is capable) of unbiased objectivity.
I think true objectivity in their profession is a goal that an intellectually honest journalist/historian should aspire to.
Rather, Jennings, so-called higher academics, etc. should quit sniveling and run for office. The root of the problem is we now have overt partisians trying to pass themselves off as journalists/historians.







Bill Heuisler - 1/10/2004

Mr. Wood,
Since the winners in modern Sub-Saharan Africa seem to be the Buthelezis, Amins, Mugabes, Mbekis and Mandelas, to mention only a few, must we then assume the take on Colonialism is rather subjective and possibly wrong?
Bill Heuisler


Bud Wood - 1/10/2004

One might observe that regarding international (as well as intra-national) conflicts, the winners most often write the history.


Derek Catsam - 1/8/2004

Bill --
In all honesty I was simply loking to make a point about "objectivity," a chimera at beat, and a odd ideological cudgel as it has been wielded here.
Sure, on the whole colonialism is trickier than, say, apartheid because all that is wrought was not purely wrong or evil. But most of those good things came under the penumbra of something that is fundamentally wrong -- that is to say imposing one's will against people and denying them those rights that at least we Americans see as "self evident." It's the old "Mussolini made the trains run on time argument." In weighing the good and evil of colonialism, the colonial powers could well have introduced many good things to Africans, say, without denying them pretty rudimentary rights such as self ruile, freedom, safety, property, and in some cases, life itself. That said, for the purposes of my argument, I could well tighten it and simply include most of those other things that I am quite certain Professor Reeves would self-evidently see as not worthy of "objective" treatment.
Good to hear from you, Bill.


Bill Heuisler - 1/8/2004

Derek,
Do you accept that your statement on Colonialism is, at best, unfair? After your extensive work in Africa, can you be objective about a Western imprint on, say, Kenya? Correlative means one implies the other and (we've had this argument before; I'm treading very lightly) when you say Colonialism implies Apartheid, don't you ignore the technical, legal and cultural advances the better of the Colonial Powers brought to Africa.

Was Colonialism in Africa different than Colonialism elsewhere? Were its intentions and results wholly bad? I'm not looking for a fight, only trying to understand your statement.
Bill


Derek Catsam - 1/6/2004

Silliness, this whole diuscussion. We all want objectivity where objectivity is the simple answer. I'm of the young generation of historians of which Clayton Cramer speaks. Here is a whole array of areas where I think what I think, objectivity be damned:
Jim Crow was evil and wrong and is a blotch on the American escutcheon. I am not giving it a fair hearing.
Stalin was a murderous bastard responsible arguably for more deaths than any human in the last century and perhaps in the history of humankind.
Apartheid was evil. So was its corrollary, colonialism.
Hitler -- was so unbelievably bad that dumb people (my fellow liberals too often, I am sorry to report) use him as shorthand for things they disagree with as being "bad."
Saddam: I am glad he's captured. May Osama be next.

Here's what I think. When it comes to American history, we should be objective if objectivity is appropriate. I do my damndest to give each era of American history (by which I often mean each president) a fair trial. But I KNOW how Professor Reeves feels about Stalin and Hitler. I doubt I need lectures about "objectivity" from someone who, rightfully, is not objective at all about these and other trogledytes from our past.


Clayton E. Cramer - 1/5/2004

Reeves captures one of the most important problems facing the profession today. The problem is not that the profession used to be balanced politically, and has recently been taken over by the left; it is that a older generation of historians, largely on the left, tried very hard to be objective. They did not always succeed, but at least that was considered a goal worth striving towards.

I had the good fortune to study under a bunch of professors who ranged from liberal to socialist, but they were of the generation that believed that there was some objective truth out there, and that historians should, as much as possible, strive for that objective truth. I took perhaps six classes from one of my professors before he ever said anything that revealed his political opinions to be democratic socialist. (Even then, this was outside of class.) Up to that point, he could have been a conservative Republican for all I knew. (At this point, some of you are going to say, "So what's the point of teaching then?" You reveal your interest in history right there.)

The Clinton generation seems to have largely abandoned the notion of objectivity, infected with the postmodernist virus. Michael Bellesiles seems to be pretty typical of a whole generation of "historians" for whom political motivations drive the entire process of selecting (and in some cases, altering) the documents that they use.

The only consolation is that a younger generation of historians--the ones now trying to get tenure--seem, on balance, a good bit less trapped by the need to turn every piece of writing into a political weapon. There are younger historians, I'm sure, who are still convinced that there is no objective truth, so they are free to manipulate it as they find it convenient, but all in the all, I think the profession may recover once the Vietnam generation retires.


David Salmanson - 1/2/2004

I think both sides of commentators here are actually closer than they appear. What most folks here would call objectivity, I suspect Rees would call historical methodology. That is, is your data verifiable via footnotes, are you actually quoting what the sources said or misquoting them to suit your ends and so on. Thus the problem with holocaust deniers is not their particular bias, but the fact that their data, once you look at it, is either, bogus or outweighed by a signficant mass of other data. We do not use the term objectivity at the high school I teach at. We use the term point of view. Granted, we are mostly talking about primary sources here, thus "what do you think the point of view of this author is." For example, I recently gave my 10th graders a packet of sources on the Lowell mills including a billboard with working hours, various descriptions of life in the mills by shop girls and women, some at the time that they worked, some remembering their days long after, and some anti-Lowell descriptions written by social reformers. Of these, only one document was "objective" the time schedule. All the rest required the girls to know something about the author and the time frame in order to draw some useful evidence and meaning out of the document. In one sense, this assignment seems an exercise in learning about objectivity. And if I asked which source is the best, it would be. But, I did not ask that question. Each of these sources had value depending upon what questions were asked of it. The questions I asked had to do with, "what can we learn from this document" and the equally important, "what are the limits of this document." Further, we were spending a fair amount of time on Lowell, as opposed to, for example, the Transcendetalists, because I teach at a girls' school and we think the history of women working is important, and because I think the rise of industrial America is a more important story than the differences between Thoreau and Emerson. And because I built my course around two questions: what does it mean to be an American; and who gets to be one? These are not in any sense objective questions although they are, I think, extremely important questions. And I think the rise of Lowell is one of those defining moments when the answers to those questions get shifted around. Is what I am doing objective history? I do not think so. But is methodologically honest, teaching the girls how to interrogate sources to get at some truth of the past? I do think so. I hope most of us would.


Charles V. Mutschler - 1/2/2004

Well stated, Mr. Schmitt. When one dismisses out of hand all the work by people who have a different perspective - be it political, economic, social, whatever - one misses an opportunity to expand ones own knowledge and understanding of the subject.

People work in areas of history which interest them. Each is selecting to address a very small part of the totality of knowledge. It is not humanly possible to know everything about the subject of history. There is simply too much material there. So we are selective about what field we specialize in, what the subject of our next research will be. Professor Rees is correct on that point. However, where I would be concerned is if I decided that I don't need to address the research and data that relates to my subject, because it doesn't fit the thesis I had when I began my research.

Unfortunately, the tendency to politicize everything tends to make civil conversation, let alone learning from people with different perspectives much more difficult. For instance, Mr. Schmitt notes that Mr. Reeves may have needlessly politicized his essay. True enough, but Mr. Rees' response to the effect that he didn't think a conservative could be objective suggests that the problem runs in both directions. If we can all try to be more open minded and - gasp - objective - we can learn a lot from each other. It is better to hold a dim candle over the dark abyss than to run around in the dark.

Charles V. Mutschler


William H. Leckie, Jr. - 1/2/2004

That Ms. Bowles is a woman and agrees with Reeves doesn't alter the movement, now rather Establishment and mirroring consumer advertising, for inclusion of groups otherwise excluded, though it's acurate for her to write she "defies" it, I suppose. She doesn't disprove its reality or worth.

But it's unfortunate that discussion of the "objectivity problem"--which has a long history predating our "culture wars"--has been tainted by the same mobilization of of pseudo-ideological labelling that has contaminated US political language. Indeed, in their usual, almost guileless way, right-wingers have fallen into the postmodernist camp by indignantly complaining that history's being done by avatars of just another "hegemonic master narrative." The ironies are delicious.


Ed Schmitt - 1/2/2004

This is an interesting and vital discussion. It seems to me Professor Reeves is right in his general charge but then politicizes his argument unnecessarily. As Professor Rees has argued, I believe subjectivity is unavoidable as a result of the selection problem, but it goes beyond that. Subjectivity is inherent in the historian's condition because of the limits of human perspective. As W.S. Holt has said, "History is a damn dim candle over a damn dark abyss." I personally believe there is an objective truth to history, but it is too complex and multifarious for any single individual to see in its totality - to use an analogy, if a historical problem is a mountain, an individual can come at it from one of countless angles based on many constraints - the milieu in which they are writing, available sources (critical, of course), etc. That's why history is a collective enterprise and much can be learned - must be learned - from the perspectives of other historians on any given topic. This is a question bigger than liberals vs. conservatives, and it goes to the heart of the historian's craft. In this conception of history, liberals and conservatives can even learn (gasp!) from one another.


Charles V. Mutschler - 1/2/2004

Very nicely stated, Professor Luker. I think that is precisely the point that I feel has been missing from this discussion. What I find interesting is that the argument that objectivity is a myth is seldom brought to bear in discussions about matters like Holocaust denial. Which brings me back another variant of my question - if objectivity is a myth, does that imply that David Irving's theory of what happened between 1939 and 1945 is as vaild as my understanding that the Nazi regime murdered several million people? Irving believes he is correct. I think an objective (there's that word again) study of primary sources discredit's Irving's view. So is my view simply a myth as claimed by some Holocaust deniers? I think not.

I think Mr. Luker's point is well taken. I do believe that there are facts which are learnable, and historians search for these, and write history drawing from what they find. Scholarly work includes footnotes so that other scholars may evaluate how well the first historian has done the work, or to locate the original source material to satisfy their skepticism about the use of the source. Or to go beyond the work of the first scholar.

No one can ever hope to attain absolute objectivity. We are, for better or worse, products of the times we grew up in, and the world we live in. When we conduct historical research we are looking at other times and people, who we can never know or understand as fully as ourselves. We did not (for the most part) personally observe the events we study, and we have an imperfect and incomplete body of evidence to work with. All we can do is try to treat the information thoughtfully. However, it seems to me, that if we stop trying to be objective, it becomes easy to drift into the realm of the propagandist.

Additionally, most people are NOT the two-dimensional caricatures that are often implied, especially in today's politcal arena. They are neither saintly, or satanic, but a combination of mixed motives and behaviors, some good, some bad, much of it ambiguous. I think it is best to keep an open mind, and look at the evidence behind the scholar's work as carefully as the analysis, then draw my own conclusion. In other words, rather than presuming that Michael Bellesiles had to be correct, because he was a Ph.D. bearing historian at a good university, check his conclusions against his sources. As I mentioned earler, two scholars did so, and they both concluded that _Arming America_ was a very poor book. The fact that one is a political "conservative" and one is a political "liberal" suggests that objectivity is not based on ideology. In fact, it should NOT be ideologically based.

Professor Rees places himself squarely in the Humanistic camp. I come from a slightly different background, having spent a great deal of time observing geologists at work, and I have a great deal of respect for the scientific method of handling evidence. I have found that idea of objective, open-minded inquiry has been very satisfying to me as a historian. I want to know what happened, and why, I am not trying to serve any particular ideology. I have political views, and I have tried to keep them out of my writing. I won't pretend to attain perfect objectivity, but I concur with Mr. Luker: Objectivity is the unattainable goal that is worthy of constant attention. I am still trying to get there, but I DO recognize that it is in an ultimate sense, impossible.

Thanks for reading.

Charles V. Mutschler


Charles V. Mutschler - 1/2/2004

Very nicely stated, Professor Luker. I think that is precisely the point that I feel has been missing from this discussion. What I find interesting is that the argument that objectivity is a myth is seldom brought to bear in discussions about matters like Holocaust denial. Which brings me back another variant of my question - if objectivity is a myth, does that imply that David Irving's theory of what happened between 1939 and 1945 is as vaild as my understanding that the Nazi regime murdered several million people? Irving believes he is correct. I think an objective (there's that word again) study of primary sources discredit's Irving's view. So is my view simply a myth as claimed by some Holocaust deniers? I think not.

I think Mr. Luker's point is well taken. I do believe that there are facts which are learnable, and historians search for these, and write history drawing from what they find. Scholarly work includes footnotes so that other scholars may evaluate how well the first historian has done the work, or to locate the original source material to satisfy their skepticism about the use of the source. Or to go beyond the work of the first scholar.

No one can ever hope to attain absolute objectivity. We are, for better or worse, products of the times we grew up in, and the world we live in. When we conduct historical research we are looking at other times and people, who we can never know or understand as fully as ourselves. We did not (for the most part) personally observe the events we study, and we have an imperfect and incomplete body of evidence to work with. All we can do is try to treat the information thoughtfully. However, it seems to me, that if we stop trying to be objective, it becomes easy to drift into the realm of the propagandist.

Additionally, most people are NOT the two-dimensional caricatures that are often implied, especially in today's politcal arena. They are neither saintly, or satanic, but a combination of mixed motives and behaviors, some good, some bad, much of it ambiguous. I think it is best to keep an open mind, and look at the evidence behind the scholar's work as carefully as the analysis, then draw my own conclusion. In other words, rather than presuming that Michael Bellesiles had to be correct, because he was a Ph.D. bearing historian at a good university, check his conclusions against his sources. As I mentioned earler, two scholars did so, and they both concluded that _Arming America_ was a very poor book. The fact that one is a political "conservative" and one is a political "liberal" suggests that objectivity is not based on ideology. In fact, it should NOT be ideologically based.

Professor Rees places himself squarely in the Humanistic camp. I come from a slightly different background, having spent a great deal of time observing geologists at work, and I have a great deal of respect for the scientific method of handling evidence. I have found that idea of objective, open-minded inquiry has been very satisfying to me as a historian. I want to know what happened, and why, I am not trying to serve any particular ideology. I have political views, and I have tried to keep them out of my writing. I won't pretend to attain perfect objectivity, but I concur with Mr. Luker: Objectivity is the unattainable goal that is worthy of constant attention. I am still trying to get there, but I DO recognize that it is in an ultimate sense, impossible.

Thanks for reading.

Charles V. Mutschler


Ralph E. Luker - 1/2/2004

Someone else, if don't recall who, helped to resolve this debate for me, at least, some years ago when he or she said that objectivity is the necessary/ impossibility -- necessary as a goal, lest we become mere propagandists; impossible of absolute achievement, because, well, it's impossible.


Jonathan Rees - 1/2/2004

My point stems from the definition of the word objective. You cannot be a little bit objective. You either are or you're not. If we both are claiming to be objective and we have different stands then we are left arguing over each other's objectivity rather than the arguments that matter. Therefore, I suggested that claiming to be objective is simply an automatic attack on anyone who doesn't agree with you.

If you don't believe anybody is objective or neutral, then you are more willing to entertain opposing points of view because you recognize that your own view is just your opinion. If you can muster a lot of evidence then it's a probably a good opinion, but an opinion nonetheless. That's why I trust people who think this way to be open minded. I was not saying I never trust conservatives or that they aren't necessarily open-minded. Only that if you are willing to question yourself you are likely to be more open-minded than most.

By the way, this all gets to the is history a humanity or social science question. I'm firmly in the humanity camp. And there's no way that I'm going to try to muster objective evidence if I don't believe in objectivity.

This is fun, but I'm leaving tomorrow for vacation until school starts again. I hope someone out there continues my side of this interesting argument.


Jeff Rodgers - 12/31/2003

The broader critique of the Ryan's indiscriminate and undefined use of "left" and "right" does not depend on the merits or demerits of any individual. If you care so much about Horowitz, how about you giving us some examples of his intellectual "courage" ?

Jeff


Suzanne Geissler Bowles - 12/31/2003

Excuse me for defying your generalizations, but I am a woman historian & I agree with Professor Reeves.


Elia Markell - 12/31/2003

In responding to me and Charles on the objectivity/neutrality issue, Rees claims:

"Both objectivity and neutrality are myths."

In so claiming, not only does he duck the issue entirely, he also refutes himself. Since he won't deal with the issue, I won't spend more time on it either, except to ask him of the above statement, is this assertion objectively true (as it is framed to suggest) or is it just your opinion (in which case we can all safely ignore it)?


Charles V. Mutschler - 12/31/2003

Professor Rees,

You still have not answered my question to my satisfaction. I understand that you don't believe in objectivity or neutraility. Fair enough, we will have to agree ot disagree.

Objectivity and neurtraility are not the same. I think most of the scientific community would understand the concept of objectively verifiable data. Which is what I am looking for. You have not offered me anything of the kind to back up your thesis, just a re-statement of your opinion. As I noted above, Cramer and Lindgren provided independenty verifiable (i.e. objective) data to support their interpretation of events. You have not supported your argument with anything except your opinion, concluding, "People who claim to be objective or neutral do so only to automatically discredit any opposing argument. That's why I trust liberal historians to be open-minded more than I trust business school profs or historians like Mr. Reeves."

Again, this is not the kind of evidence I was looking for. Please show me some evidence that people claim objectivity to automatically discredit opposing arguements. Isn't your concluding statement a good example of dismissing an arguement because you dislike the viewpoint of the person holding it? How is that open minded? To dismiss the writings of people who are conservative because they are conservative strikes me as utterly failing the test of open-mindedness.

Respectfully,
Charles V. Mutschler




Jonathan Rees - 12/31/2003

Both objectivity and neutrality are myths. The reason is selection bias. Not only can we not know everything about history, it is also impossible to get everything we know about history into a readable or teachable format. Yet leaving something out inevitably tilts the picture of history you present in some way. All historians have to deal with the problem of selection bias whether or not they make obviously political arguments. Some of us acknowledge this inherent subjectivity. Mr. Mutschler doesn't.

People who claim to be objective or neutral do so only to automatically discredit any opposing argument. That's why I trust liberal historians to be open-minded more than I trust business school profs or historians like Mr. Reeves.



TD - 12/31/2003

Although versions of the phrase objectivity is not neutrality have been bandied about in this discussion, I'm surprised no one has mentioned Tom Haskell's book by that title. It's an excellent read on the issues raised here (as well as others).


Charles V. Mutschler - 12/31/2003

Professor Rees is not sold on opbjectivity. However, I think Mr. Markell makes the point which needs to be made: Professor Novick failed to consider the difference between objectivity and neutraility very effecively in _That Noble Dream._. While no historian can ever know*all* the facts relating to any event, objective handling of the evidence is required to write accurate history. The footnotes then allow the skeptic to verify the accuracy of the work. As we have seen in the case of _Arming America_, an objective analysis done by persons who might be called "liberal" in the current political shorthand, like Mr. Lindgren, and by persons who might be called "conservative" like Mr. Cramer both proveded careful analysis, and showed Mr. Bellesiles' scholarship to be wanting. Both of these gentlemen were, in my book, following the effort to objectively evaluate Mr. Bellesiles' book. Objectivity does not imply a lack of opinions. Unfortunately, I think too many graduate students read the wrong message in Professor Novick's book, and concluded that objectivity was passe.

Professor Rees states: "No matter how long your collection of PC horror stories happens to be, I suspect liberal history professors are a lot more fair to Bush-backers in their classrooms than business school professors are to trade unionists and Communists. " This is an interesting thesis, Mr. Rees. Would you care to follow the examples of Mr. Lindgren and Mr. Cramer, and provide us with examples and (and footnotes) to give us supporting evidence that one group or the other is more respectful to persons with differing opinions.

Thanks in advance,

Charles V. Mutschler




NYGuy - 12/31/2003

I believe Reeves comments should be reviewed and heeded.

It reminds me of projecting earnings on Wall Street. For example, let us assume that the correct earnings projection for a particular company next year is $1.00 per share. Some analysts wanting to sell the stock to institutions will raise their projections to $1.10 per share. Other analysts wanting institutions to sell the stock will project earnings to institutions of $0.90 per share.

I think this brings home Reeves point. As the portfolio managers says, don’t give me your prejudices, give me your best estimate of what you think the true value of earnings ($1.00 per share) is, and I will make my own adjustments. This is what Reeves is asking for. Let us get an objective answer of the true value first then each one can inject their own prejudices.


Michael Green - 12/31/2003

It might not occur to Professor Reeves that another difference in the historical profession between the good old days of "great man history" and the present is that more women and racial and ethnic minorities now write and teach history. They also are found more often among the student body. This has tended to make those of us who specialize in political history try to broaden our horizons. Perhaps it is not so much that history is now the work of a bunch of leftists as it is that history now focuses not only on rich white guys who had no reason to complain, but also on people who had great cause for complaint. What is more disturbing, though, is how Professor Reeves lauds David Horowitz, whose sole reason for existence seems to be the slandering of anyone who disagrees with him. Perhaps Professor Reeves is falling into the right-wing trap of demanding an open marketplace of ideas for anyone who agrees with him, and the rest of the world can just forget about it.


Elia Markell - 12/30/2003

When I look for a head of lettuce at the grocery store, I also must sift through "enormous quantities of often complex data" in order to pick out a good one. This does not mean in the slightest that I have no objective way to do this. And believe me, if I come home with a head of lettuce with too much brown tinging the outer leaves, my wife will not put up with any whining about some supposed lack of objective standards.

Nor should anyone put up with your whine about it here. The selectivity historians face is a selectivity among verifiable facts and data, which absolutely CAN be described and dealt with objectively -- or unobjectively.

Your complaint mixes up objectivity with neutrality. Of course historians are not neutral -- especially the fakers who adopt a tone of neutrality (as do the media Olympians such as Jennings, Rather, etc.) But a committed Marxist and a committed Burkean conservative are equally capable (or incapable) of handling the data objectively even while refusing to hide behind the fig leaf of neutrality.

Reeves' absolutely justifiable complaint is directed at the far too many lefties in the academy today who do NOT respect the demands of objectivity but who hide their political biases behind a rhetorical screen of neutrality none the less.


Elia Markell - 12/30/2003

OK, Mr. Clarke, just one fact backing up this slander, pease.

"the notoriously intellectually bankrupt David Horowitz"

I see ad hominem attacks on Horowitz all the time, from people like you who think their bigotry is so self-evidently true they do not need to back it up. I'd like to see what you know that you can use to back this up. Otherwise, I will simply conclude that the phrase describe you far more than it does Horowitz.


Jonathan Rees - 12/30/2003

I am tempted to get out my copy of That Noble Dream and use it to explain to Mr. Reeves why objectivity is a myth, but I notice that his own words make the same point for me. Reeves writes: "The reporter and the scholar face enormous quantities of often complex data along with conflicting accounts of events and people. Their job is to analyze what lies before them, make sense of it, and draw conclusions. In the process, by picking and choosing and emphasizing and labeling, they inevitably leave their stamp on what they have written."

If this is true, why aren't liberal/radical scholars just doing their job as Reeves describes it? The answer is that Reeves doesn't like their conclusions. Conservatives picking and choosing historical evidence that justifies their worldview is acceptable, but liberals doing the same is somehow a threat to democracy.

Eric Alterman, writing in the context of the media, has a good phrase for what Reeves is doing: "working the refs." Cajole, intimidate and invoke objectivity to defend the status quo and reporters/historians might be more sympathetic to conservative points of view than they might be otherwise.

I doubt this will work as well with historians as it has with the media. For one thing, there's tenure, a concept created with precisely this kind of intimidation in mind. And just because you're a liberal, you aren't necessarily close-minded or unfair to conservatives. No matter how long your collection of PC horror stories happens to be, I suspect liberal history professors are a lot more fair to Bush-backers in their classrooms than business school professors are to trade unionists and Communists.


Peter K. Clarke - 12/29/2003

A call for "objectivity" by one employing empty generalizations about "the left", and referring to the notoriously intellectually bankrupt David Horowitz as "courageous", is worthless, dysfunctionally-biased hypocritical garbage of the type all too commonly found on this website.


Oscar Chamberlain - 12/29/2003

I'm sure there are exceptions--there always are--but I think a good academic has to have a bit of idealism. He or she has to have a sense that what they do matters and is in the pursuit of something good.

In the case of history, that "good" is always accuracy, often knowledge, and perhaps wisdom and perhaps--more controversially here--a better world. Even the most cynical academics I have known carry a vestige of this.

When I read Thomas Reeves' postings, they hurt. I mean that. They hurt because there is no idealism in them at all. All academia is hell. All leftists are dishonest. All pretenses of teaching are just that, pretenses.

In short, all of us who are in it are part of a lie.

Look at this message. What is left in the academic world but struggle. And it's not a struggle for truth; it's a struggle for supremacy, pure and simple. As best as I can tell from this, he would welcome--or at least not oppose--right-wing ideologues of equal dishonesty to those he describes on the left.

Does that mean I am denying the existence of Leftist ideologues who abuse their position? I don't. Does that mean that I don't know that "fashion" and grant money can bend scholarship? I do know that.

But Dr. Reeves, that is not all that happens out here, and if you think it is, you have become deluded. There are campuses where scholars work together (as well as scholars have ever worked together). There are places where people do their damndest to teach well and to have standards in the midst of ideological conflicts and in the face of the commmodification of our profession. (The last is hardly a leftist conspiracy)

Is this "stenography" on my part? Obviously not. It is opinion based upon my own observations tempered by my own peculiar combination or ideals, idealism, and skepticism.

Am I saying that Reeves is devoid of idealism in all his works. I have not read any of Reeves works in entirety, but the excerpts and reviews that I have seen do speak to ideals, often disappointed, sometimes dashed, but still alive. I assume he brings that into the academic setting when he goes there.

But all of what I have seen here, at HNN, suggests a man who is at war the entire academic world and has given up on anything but scorched earth.

It reminds me of the poet, Robinson Jeffers, who in his love for nature, came to wish for the destruction of civilization.

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