Objectivity and Its Role in Historical Study

Before delving into the reading material for this module, I need to say one thing.  In reading Haskell’s assessment of Novick’s work, it immediately brought to mind a common problem I see when telling my friends/acquaintances that I’m a history major with an interest in pursuing a Master’s degree.  I am often told that they couldn’t study history “because it’s so boring”.  I cannot help but equate Novak’s perspective on history as dispassionate and detached as part of the reason many of our friends, coworkers and family members found the study of history so distasteful and uninteresting during their own time at school.  For me, and likely for many of my classmates, history is alive and full of excitement – and it’s because of the passion many of us have encountered in our readings, our interactions with other historians and our own personal path towards a history degree.

I cannot accept the view Haskell explains from Novick’s book of detachment as dispassionate evaluation.[1]  Rather, I find myself siding firmly on Haskell’s side when he explains that rather than removing passion from our pursuit and study of history, we must simply make sure that our passion and zeal puts us on a collision course with ideals and concepts that conflict with our own.[2]  While Haskell explains that Novick most likely agrees with a definition that equates objectivity with neutrality and/or indifference, Haskell advocates for historical study that is not without passion and can be seen through the lens of personal perspectives while still retaining the ideal of objectivity and intellectual honesty.[3]  While bias is present in each individual regardless of their field of study or attempts at objectivity, Haskell rightly points out that honesty, integrity and fairness can still be required without limiting or silencing individual voices or perspectives.[4]  From a historiographical perspective, it is by viewing history through the lens of individual perspectives, thoughts and bias that allows history to evolve its previous conceptions and give light to new ideas and interpretations of past events.  If there’s one thing that I’ve learned through my time studying history at SNHU, it’s that history is not static – it is fluid.  Two people can examine identical sources and come to radically different conclusions based on how they interpret those sources.  While historical facts and events can, in some instances, remain fixed, the way we view and interpret those events does not have to be fixed with no hope for differences of opinion and interpretation of them.

Within this module’s reading, I find myself firmly on the side of Haskell’s interpretation, recognizing the need for increased passion in the field of history, but maintaining the standards of objectivity within that passion, and demanding the values of integrity, honesty and fairness that many fields other than history similarly dictate.

[1] Thomas L. Haskell, “Objectivity is not Neutrality: Rhetoric vs. Practice in Peter Novik’s That Noble Dream,” History and Theory 29, No. 2 (May, 1990): 134, accessed October 1, 2017, JSTOR.

[2] Haskell, “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality,” 134.

[3] Haskell, “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality,” 131.

[4] Haskell, “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality,” 133.

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