In my rather odd life, I have most recently been a professor, of what, I won’t say; it could be part of a conspiracy. I have, however, taught history, a subject I never studied beyond high school. You think that’s strange? I think it’s typical of Academe. There is a pervasive but deeply buried assumption among the professorate that anyone smart enough to earn a doctorate can teach any subject. Believe me, it is entirely unwarranted, and bespeaks only the remanent arrogance of a life once restricted to the aristocracy. If I ever begin to succumb to this delusion, I need only to look in the mirror. All the same, I think that in time, I became an adequate teacher of history, although there doubtless remain some perfectly competent individuals out there who believe the most preposterous things on my account.
What is history, anyway? That’s a question that has sent alternating waves of apprehension and boredom through countless classrooms. Little did my students suspect that, initially, at least, I asked it partly in hopes of finding out, myself. Too bad for me. Mostly I heard it was a narrative of the important things that have happened in the past, and that our version of it was objective, while theirs was biased, or vice-versa, for budding politicos.
Objectivity, of course, is impossible, if only because it implies a thoroughness that would take longer to describe by several orders of magnitude than the events themselves took to occur. Write an objective account, if you can, of everything that has happened in your neighborhood while you were reading this blog. Just your neighborhood. Don’t leave anything out because you think it’s unimportant; that would be bias, and be careful to hide your opinion of it. Don’t forget the pigeons, either, or the cockroaches. Even if you intend to write only the history of humans in your neighborhood, they might well have a bearing on that. Then there are all those minute occurrences of which you are utterly unaware. Fall a bit short, did you? Try for the entire world since the dawn of agriculture some 12,000 years ago.
Just that fact alone, that you can’t write all of it, dooms any semblance of real objectivity. What to leave out?
So why do people keep on about it? What do they mean when they say something is “objective?” Non-historians generally mean it’s agreeable to them, it fits their world view. Historians tend to avoid the subject, but what passes for objectivity among them is consensus. Don’t let them tell you otherwise; all that citation and vetting of primary sources is nothing more than an attempt to arrive at what the consensus was at the time of the occurrence they happen to be writing about. Occasionally, someone does stray from the pack. Maybe a new source is uncovered, or a discredited one is taken at face value. In that case a process begins to either expel or integrate the upstart view, so as to preserve the appearance of objectivity. Rarely does it occur to anyone that seemingly contradictory accounts may. in fact, be legitimate from differing points of view. We, historians and otherwise, are obsessed with what really happened, as if everyone involve had the same stake in the outcome.
Please don’t confuse this with the increasingly common view that any opinion is as good as the next! This is another difficult point for some people: an opinion can be dead wrong, even ridiculous. I often hear that all opinions have the right to be heard. Opinions have no rights, friends.
So, what do these opposite approaches have in common? Both seem to make life easier. In neither case is it necessary to think too much. Consensus is no guarantee of accuracy, and relativism just despairs of it. They each in their own way avoid the disturbing conclusion that history is a subjective review of the past, that may be plausible, true, false, or all of the above, depending on where you stand. Know where you stand, but also where others stand, and you may find history endlessly fascinating. Perhaps even useful.