History is history, right?

    “What? The idea of American exceptionalism is a myth? Well, you just burst my bubble.”
      Well, maybe, a little bubble burst.
      William J. Novak, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Chicago, intends to “burst bubbles” in his essay entitled “The Myth of the “Weak” American State.” In the article, Novak contends that America is not a “weak” country and that, at this time in history, it is an historical anachronism to consider her as such. His argument is compelling.
      Due to the idea of American exceptionalism, America is viewed as a polity that is novel and young, a new world, a place of rebirth where individualism, private rights and a free economy prevail. In this conception, even the idea of state in and of itself, becomes a mostly European invention and America is seen and perceived, according to Novak, as “free, unregulated and stateless,” (755) where individual initiative trumps collective action, private enterprise trumps state direction, non-coercive voluntarism trumps public regulation.
     Novak, the historian, sets out to debunk these ideas. Using the work of theorists and historians such as Judith Butler and Richard John as a framework, Novak argues that the very structure of the constitution does not limit power but creates power and then ‘hides’ it in it’s distribution of power, a highly complex matrix of institutions, jurisdictions, government offices, national, state and local government and so on. According to Novak, this sprawl of power is both America’s distinctive strength and it’s elusive nature. (765) Thus, America is a strong and not weak state and historical revision on the topic needs to be undertaken.
      But wait, historical revision? History is history, right?
      Well, Ranke might say that. He might encourage his students to go find the primary sources, put themselves in the time period and get down to work. While this may be better than a strict recording of events, is it short-sighted? What about the role of society, culture and economics in history? Or when a historian opens up a field of study that includes society and culture and obtaining an understanding of them, does that, by it’s very nature, become too complex? And what is the role of science in history? Can we quantify history? Or if historians go too far on the empirical/science side of things, do they risk becoming irrelevant?
      The study of history, historiography, is dynamic and not static.  It can be different from one continent to another. Lamprecht’s work in social and cultural history was denounced by fellow German historians, but “Progressive Historians” in the United States proved to be more open to his ideas of social history. It can march through time towards an end, as Marx theorized. Historical articles show the change as portrayed in articles about Christopher Columbus. Early historical articles portray Christopher Columbus as benevolent savior while later ones portray Columbus as a villain bringing death, forced labor and disease to the indigenous population. One thing is for sure, the study of history certainly will continue to be in flux and change over time.
      And what about the why? Why do we study history in the first place? John Tosh in his book, The Pursuit of History, suggests history as being predictive, socially relevant, elucidative, and insightful. But how about just studying history for its own sake?
     Well, to answer these questions, the authors of our reading present multi-faceted, but rather obtuse and opaque dichotomies fashioned to engender didactic…Oh I’m sorry,… I guess too much theory, too much Iggers, too little sleep. In honesty, I don’t know the answers to all the questions I’ve posed in this post.
     In fact, I’m a lowly first year graduate student with blood shot eyes and big words dancing in my head looking just to talk about it a bit.


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8 Responses to History is history, right?

  1. Tiny

    Faith, I am glad to see that there is someone else out there that has an interest in a different point of view, i.e. the part of your post referencing the revisionist history. I like the way that you put it: “History is History, Right?” If new found research, evaluation, evidence, and interpretation has light shed upon it, then why is it often “poo pooed” as being revisionist history, if it is well researched and clearly documented? I hear professors and historians saying this a lot and I am always intrigued by this, because, isn’t that exactly what Iggers and Tosh are both saying? History is evolving everyday, time marches on, and there is nothing we can do about it. If a new historian uncovers some new piece of evidence that proves something that we have been taught all along, as being fact, then why is it not taken seriously much of the time? This is very perplexing to me…

  2. Tiny

    ***CORRECTION – “If a new historian uncovers some new piece of evidence that disproves something that we have been taught all along, as having been fact, but is now something different, then why is it not taken seriously much of the time?

  3. Laura


    I felt the same sense of utter befuddlement while reading through Iggers, in particular, and I agree, I am unable to answer many of the questions you raised myself. I think I can, however, touch a bit on the idea of revisionist history you explored in your post. This is an issue that is highly interesting to me.

    I like to think of myself as a rather straightforward person. And as a child, I always loved history because it seemed to be straightforward as well: facts are facts and there is no argument there. Unlike other subjects like science and English, where it seemed scholars simply argued back and forth and never agreed, it appeared that history was vastly different. It could be pinned down with specific dates, names, places, people, etc. Imagine my shock when in college I first learned precisely what historiography is and that history, as a subject, is chock full of interpretation. Fortunately, I have been able to adjust to this system shock and I enjoy the subject of history more than ever these days. And yet, I am still often times bothered by the fact that there is so much leeway, so much room for argument and for change. It almost begs the question: why study history in its simplest, “dumbed-down” form? Why don’t we begin teaching children in elementary school to study history with a critical eye rather than memorizing rote facts and dates? This is what frustrates me the most as a future educator and I know it will be something I will struggle with in my own classroom one day.

  4. I love how seamlessly Faith weaves her response to the salient threads of Novak into her analysis of the other three readings. You’ve managed to lay out the implications of the shift from historicism to post-modernism in just a few sentences in a way that makes perfect sense AND highlights the significance of history as conversation — between historians, their audiences, their agents and each other over time. Bravo! I bet this post will help several people come to terms with the way Novak engages a complicated and old historiography to pose important (and revisionist!) questions about the nature of American state power.

  5. Carmen Bolt


    This post provides a fairly accurate description of what was going on in my own mind as I was reading the text for this week. I think the most intriguing and most confounding question I have, you identified with the statement, “History is history, right?” It is astounding to me that the reason I was first interested in history was the same as Laura noted–the facts. The indisputable (so I thought) evidence of events and people throughout space and time, that all fit into their own spot on a coherent timeline. I experienced the same surprise and discomfort in finding out the controversial arguments and questions surrounding concepts I once thought were set in stone. And yet, ironically, it is the never-ending quest to perfect the study of history and discover the most absolute truth that has sustained my interest in history. It is dynamic and perplexing and contingent on so many levels, and it is all I can do to attempt to keep up with all of the directions the field is moving in.

    I agree with Laura though, these concepts are the ones that need to be introduced from the onset in education. Curriculums revolve around teaching the soundness of historical record, and yet, my entire post-primary education has been focused on breaking down those “facts”. Is it beyond the capacity of primary school children to understand the complexity of history? Perhaps it is a fear that children will be unnerved to learn that the discipline and field are so complicated, however, I think it is more unsettling to have to restructure a certain way of established thinking at a later point. Preparing students to engage in critical thinking about the subject at an earlier point might result in greater strides in understanding the complexity and dynamism of history.

  6. davidatkins


    I love the “History is History, right?” Some would say a fact is a fact, right? Unless someone or something comes along and disproves it. Then what happens to the new fact? In most cases it is probably doubted and thoroughly questioned. The research is torn apart by other historians trying to find fault with a new idea or concept. Only after this scrutiny is the new work accepted and even then there are most likely some who refuse to accept the work. When does a fact become an accepted fact? If historians cannot agree on a subject is it a fact or just a well supported argument? These are all questions your thoughts and the readings brought to mind, and I am not sure some of these questions even have a right answer. Thanks for the thoughts Faith and listening to mine.


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