American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 23

Teaching the Humanities:

Essays from the ACLS Elementary and
Secondary Schools Teacher Curriculum
Development Project


Moving to the Other Side of the Desk:
Teachers’ Stories of Self-Fashioning

Linda Wells

Transforming Canons, Transforming Teachers
Edward L. Rocklin

Shaping the Multicultural Curriculum:
Biblical Encounters with the Other

Lois Feuer

Nationalism, History, the Chicano Subject, and the Text
Darlene Emily Hicks

Ms. Higgins and the Culture Warriors:
Notes Toward the Creation of an
Eighth Grade Humanities Curriculum

John G. Ramsay


Eve Kornfeld

Toward a “Curriculum of Hope”:
The Essential Role of Humanities Scholarship
in Public School Teaching

Paul A. Fideler

Works Consulted

History and the Humanities:
The Politics of Objectivity and the Promise of Subjectivity

Eve Kornfeld
San Diego State University

For those who wish to reflect upon the politics of claims to historical objectivity, the classroom scenes in Luis Puenzo’s 1985 film, The Official Story, are particularly instructive. The film’s heroine, Alicia Marnet Ibanez, is a history teacher in an Argentinian academy in 1983. As the film opens, Alicia is the unquestioning bearer of the official story of Argentina’s recent past: at home, she happily mothers as her own a child, Gaby, “found” at birth in 1978 by Alicia’s husband, Roberto, a financier and government supporter; at school, she teaches history mechanically according to the official texts. The scenes in Alicia’s classroom, which punctuate the story of her reluctance to confront the question of Gaby’s parentage, reveal the powerful ways in which Alicia’s claims to historical objectivity reinforce her private comfort and blindness.

The first classroom scene shows Alicia greeting a new class with her customary demands for order and discipline. Later, she expresses her disapproval of a teacher of literature (of course!) who uses exuberant role-playing to engage his students’ imaginations and to foster freedom and creativity. As her students attempt to question interpretations or to open up issues left firmly closed by the textbook, Alicia silences them by noting that history is not a debate and that she requires them simply to memorize and recite (or at least to summarize) the official texts. In a highly charged scene, her students plaster the classroom with clippings about the “disappeared.” Alicia grimly removes this alternative (and impermissible) sort of historical evidence, and moves to discipline the outstanding rebel by reporting him to the authorities. Only the intervention of the literature teacher saves Alicia from this further blind complicity in the repression and disappearance of the Argentinian opposition. Alicia’s life, teaching and historical vision are strictly bounded by the official story. Further, the film suggests through brilliant juxtapositions of home and school, it is decidedly in her interest to uphold the boundaries — indeed, not even to recognize their existence. Such are the politics of objectivity.

Very well, we might comment, but that was Argentina at a particularly repressive moment in its recent history. Surely the democratic, multicultural United States of America fosters no such private or public repressions. Perhaps not in those exaggerated forms. But as the government develops national history standards to be enforced through nationwide “objective” testing of schoolchildren, it is hard to conclude that we are completely free of an official story. As “history wars” rage in public schools and universities around the country, it is difficult to dismiss the power of the myth of historical objectivity. And as advocates of “traditional” historical scholarship and teaching lament the “politicization” of the discipline, it is impossible to ignore the politics of objectivity. This essay seeks to reflect upon these issues in light of recent scholarship on the American historical profession, and to suggest a possible alternative to the fallen myth of historical objectivity, contained in the promise of subjectivity itself.

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In tracing the emergence and ascendancy of the myth of historical objectivity, it is well to note the broader cultural context. Not only did this founding myth of the American historical profession arise in the midst of a general European and American love affair with science (as Peter Novick discusses so well in That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession), but it also found fertile ground in a nation in whose own founding myths that of a neutral, objective “rule of law” figured centrally. American presidents from Thomas Jefferson to George Bush based claims for American exceptionalism or “uniqueness” upon this concept of a rule of law, grounded in objectivity, fairness and impartiality. If this founding myth managed to ignore the fundamental omissions (of women, people of color, the poor) in American constitutions and laws, and to reinforce, legitimize and naturalize the social power of dominant Americans, so much harder to shake were its claims to political objectivity.1

Similarly, the myth of historical objectivity was embraced enthusiastically by a profession of elite, white males without an ostensible or acknowledged political agenda. For most historians, this was undoubtedly a myth in which they believed; for some, perhaps, it was a regulative fiction. Still, with all charitable motivations ascribed to these historians as individual scholars and teachers, the politics of objectivity for the group are hard to deny. Certainly the notion of objectivity was very useful for the professionalization of the discipline, and the disciplining of the profession — or, to put this another way, for the regression and disappearance of amateurs and other outsiders. This is apparent in Novick’s treatment of the years between 1890 and 1900 (when the myth of objectivity prevailed more often than not), as well as in Jacqueline Goggin’s subsequent study of women historians and the American historical profession between 1890 and 1940. Goggin cites various instances in which women were rejected for professional appointments or research funds on the grounds that they could not be sufficiently objective. For example, when asked to recommend a historian to write about the women’s suffrage movement in 1916, J. Franklin Jameson put forward a man, noting that a woman at Smith who was interested in the topic might not be able “to take an entirely broad view of the subject” (Goggin 782). And so it went.

The myth of historical objectivity shaped not only the professional identity of historians, but also the nature of historical evidence. History, the myth held, like all social sciences, could and should operate scientifically. A verifiable hypothesis should be checked against all of the “facts” in all of the archives. Competing bits of written data should be weighed (objectively, of course) and all of the bias of the writers and historical actors emptied out. Then, and only then, could a point-of-viewless story be told: the truth. The supposed congruence of this process with both Western science and American law, as well as its utility in regulating a nascent profession, doubtlessly added to its inherent intellectual attractions of coherence, simplicity and totality.

If the wider cultural context bolstered the rise of the myth of historical objectivity, broader intellectual and social currents also contributed to its decline and fall. In American political culture, one need only mention the jolt from the consensual 1950s to the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, when various groups of social outsiders demanded voice, recognition and rights — and eventually the acknowledgement of separate cultural identities and subjectivities. The objectivity of American law, the neutrality of original intent, and even the fairness of the founders’ vision were questioned by scholars and activists alike. The sacred realm of science itself was subjected to critiques of gender and racial bias, as well as its unexamined relations to the power of the state.

Within the historical profession, the same period saw the complex diversification and fragmentation of the profession and the discipline. The entrance into the profession of women, working-class men and people of color combined with the demand of “every group [for] its own historian” to shake the old, easy assumption that a historian from a dominant group could speak for all. As in literature, art, music and other humanistic disciplines, newcomers to the historical profession often brought new perspectives, questions and methods, and challenged the historical canon of great events, great men and great deeds. The canon, some suggested, was less a manifestation of objectivity than a teleological justification of established social hierarchies. Indeed, the (slow) diversification of the historical profession also raised the political issue, profoundly troubling to many traditionalists, of whether a middle-class, white male historian could speak for outsiders at all, without appropriating and distorting the stories of those whom the canon had traditionally silenced. Echoing developments in the larger culture, the discipline of history suffered separatism and schism into sub-fields, as historians in different areas tended less and less to read each other’s work or to value each other’s methods and approaches. The unified, “objective” story of the past seemed to slip away forever, leaving only the clamoring voices of former outsiders and the lamentations of former insiders.2

At the same moment, the instability of historical evidence was exposed, and the “scientific” assumptions of the founding myth assailed on all sides. First, cognitive and social psychologists challenged the possibility of ever locating an objective observer or historian. Selective perception and subjective judgments were inevitable, they argued, with the greatest gaps developing between individuals inhabiting very different social spaces. If one’s life experience prepared one to credit certain stories or “facts” and to discredit others, then an objective stance was an impossible dream. This challenge, coming as it did from a “scientific” discipline with case studies and control groups, was particularly difficult to ignore.3

Second, poststructuralists and postmodernists from a variety of humanistic disciplines attacked historians’ (and other social scientists’) naive views of facticity and narrative. The troubling questions from this quarter came fast and thick; can any “facts” or social “reality” exist without prior construction and interpretation? Can any narrative escape rhetorical strategies and subjective choices? If not, what separates fact from fiction in the archives, or in our historical writing? The belief in the solidity and objectivity of historical narrative, as opposed to slippery, subjective literary interpretation, eroded with each successive question — at least among those historians who heeded the postmodern discussion in the humanities of the politics of narrative.4

It is at this critical juncture at which we now stand — if a “we” can still be said to exist. In the midst of this disciplinary confusion and professional schism, is there any hope for the future? In the face of the demise of its founding myth, can the historical profession survive and historical scholarship and teaching be strengthened? In spite of all of the division and lamentations, I believe that we can glimpse the promise of new approaches and intellectual frontiers. But all depends upon historians’ willingness to forsake the founding claims of objectivity and social science, and to embrace enthusiastically the possibilities contained in subjectivity and the humanities. Here I can only suggest three of the many avenues we might pursue: a deliberate shift to interdisciplinary models; the inclusion and emphasis of new types of evidence (especially those traditionally considered too modest, just as popular culture has been seen as too lowly to enter the literary canon); and, perhaps most important for teachers of history, the cultivation and development of our powers of empathy.

The first area of promise might come from the blurring of disciplinary definitions and boundaries themselves. As disciplinary solidity and hubris break down, new interdisciplinary conversations appear more possible and fruitful than ever before. In particular, interdisciplinary connections within the humanities promise to enrich historical texts, which are now seen to be alive with different interpretative possibilities, inner tensions, and intertextuality. Indeed, our very conception of a text might expand considerably. Interdisciplinary work might also further enliven historical contexts, now apparently filled with contestatory individuals and social groups, and previously unrecognized relationships of power. Paradoxically, as historians abandon claims to historical objectivity, our services are increasingly sought by “new historicists” in a variety of humanistic disciplines. Assuming that linguistic gaps can he bridged and methodological tensions contained, interdisciplinary connections might prove more exciting and sophisticated than ever before.

The unexpected pleasures and rewards of interdisciplinary conversations are already becoming apparent in the work of some adventurous historians. For example, out of a long teaching collaboration with the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, Robert Darnton began pressing at the boundaries between history and cultural anthropology (that most humanistic strain of anthropology). Darnton’s celebrated book, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, attempts to do “history in the ethnographic grain” (3), as it explores the systems of meaning behind eighteenth-century French peasant folktales, artisanal apprentices’ jokes and ceremonies, bourgeois urban topography, and intellectuals’ epistemological strategies. Sharing the cultural anthropologist’s sense of excitement at “capturing otherness,” Darnton finds his point of entry to the archives in the unfamiliar: “When we cannot get a proverb, or a joke, or a ritual, or a poem, we know we are on to something. By picking at the document where it is most opaque, we may be able to unravel an alien system of meaning. The thread might even lead into a strange and wonderful world view” (Darnton 5). His anthropological emphases on the interpretation of systems of meaning and on the unfamiliar complement Darnton’s historical interest in change over time and place, as he attempts to historicize the insights of cultural anthropology.5

Throughout his book, Darnton’s goal is “to show not merely what people thought but how they thought — how they construed the world, invested it with meaning, and infused it with emotion”(3). Everywhere he registers his recognition that “ordinary” people “think with things, or with anything else that their culture makes available to them, such as stories or ceremonies” (4). Therefore his concept of historical “texts” is very broad indeed, including folktales, rituals, ceremonies, role-playing, jokes, proverbs, and popular medicine. But Darnton also insists on the importance of broader contexts for understanding individual maps of social reality. He believes that at all levels “individual expression takes place within a general idiom, that we learn to classify sensations and make sense of things by thinking within a framework provided by our culture” (6).

Darnton’s method, then, is to examine “ethnographically” the language and structure of his various texts, and to relate them “to the surrounding world of significance, passing from text to context and back again until one has cleared a way through a foreign mental world” (6). This rather imprecise and subjective method cannot produce a systematic or “objective” account, and Darnton admits as much. He hastens to deny any claim for the typicality of his peasants or artisans, as he readily reveals that his chapters “are meant to interconnect but not to interlock like the parts of a systematic treatise” (262). But his contextualized analyses of texts with disguised symbolic meanings and multiple layers of deference and rebellion yield an intriguing, if undeniably subjective, historical interpretation informed by interdisciplinary perspectives.

A second model for new interdisciplinary connections appears in the recent work of Joan Wallach Scott. Her groundbreaking collection of essays, Gender and the Politics of History, was inspired by discussions with literary scholars at the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women. As Scott admits, seminars over the years there virtually forced her to come to terms with poststructuralist theory and its implications for her field of French social history. She found this process of discovery both rewarding and difficult. In transgressing disciplinary boundaries, she encountered “problems of language and translation, of the adaptability of reigning disciplinary paradigms, and of the significance — if any — of supposed oppositions between the methods and projects of history and literature” (Scott 1). Not simply abstract theoretical issues, these problems shook Scott’s sense of professional and political identity. She emerged determined to apply the poststructuralist insights of literary scholars and philosophers to historical study through a series of essays on gender and the politics of historical research and writing.

Like Darnton, Scott examines the construction of meaning rather than facts or causality — the how rather than the what or why. To study the “conflictual processes that establish meanings” or “the ways in which such concepts as gender acquire the appearance of fixity,” Scott must pose new questions that upset the basic narratives of traditional history: “The story is no longer about the things that have happened to women and men and how they have reacted to them; instead it is about how the subjective and collective meanings of women and men as categories of identity have been constructed” (Scott 5, 6). Her texts are decidedly not limited to those usually associated with women’s history, for she finds gender, the social organization or knowledge of sexual differences, to be centrally present in political and diplomatic history as well as in social history. For Scott, “gender is, in fact, an aspect of social organization generally. It can be found in many places, for the meanings of sexual difference are invoked and contested as part of many kinds of struggles for power. Social and cultural knowledge about sexual difference is therefore produced in the course of most of the events and processes studied as history” (6).

To explore gender in such disparate texts, Scott must also develop a new way of reading, a new historical method. The “literal, thematic reading” typical of history will no longer suffice (6). She turns to the methods of literary deconstruction, to learn from its emphasis on textuality, or “the ways arguments are structured and presented,” and its governing assumption “that meaning is conveyed through implicit or explicit contrast, through internal differentiation” (7). Moving a step beyond Darnton, Scott regards contexts themselves as unstable texts, full of contested and shifting meanings. While Darnton uses the work of French social historians as context for his interpretation of peasant folktales and other puzzling texts, Scott subjects the work of French social historians to textual analysis, for it, too, constitutes power through knowledge. Social reality is forever slightly out of focus, as the lens moves from text to text, rather than from text to context.

Despite these methological experiments, however, Scott remains a historian. She attests to her fundamental interest in “historicizing gender by pointing to the variable and contradictory meanings attributed to sexual difference, to the political processes by which those meanings are developed and contested, to the instability and malleability of the categories ‘women’ and ‘men,’ and to the ways those categories are articulated in terms of one another, although not consistently or in the same way every time” (10). Thus Scott, too, offers a daring, if “inevitably partial,” attempt to open an interdisciplinary conversation without losing her historical soul (11). Paradoxically, her approach promises to introduce a new epistemological rigor into the historical discipline, by borrowing from that openly subjective neighbor, literature.

Subjectivity also promises us an opportunity to uncover and value new kinds of historical evidence, as old demands for “facts” and objectivity wane. We might follow the pioneers in African-American and women’s history in placing greater value on oral histories and personal, subjective lives and letters, without advancing claims of universality, typicality or representativeness for them. An excellent example of this subjectivist stance comes in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s introduction to A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812. Noting that Ballard’s diary was long neglected by historians who found it too trivial and subjective, Ulrich argues that it actually restores “a lost substructure of eighteenth-century life” and thus “transforms the nature of the evidence upon which much of the history of the period has been written” (27).

Martha’s diary reaches to the marrow of eighteenth-century life. The trivia that so annoyed earlier readers provide a consistent, daily record of the operation of a female-managed economy. The scandals excised by local historians provide insight into sexual behavior, marital and extramarital, in a time of tumult and change. The remarkable birth records, 814 deliveries in all, allow the first full accounting of delivery practices and of obstetrical mortality in any early American town. The family squabbles that earlier readers (and abridgers) of the diary found almost as embarrassing as the sexual references show how closely related Martha’s occupation was to the life cycle of her own family, and reveal the private politics behind public issues like imprisonment for debt. (Ulrich 33)

Ballard’s diary is certainly full of trivia and subjectivity, Ulrich concludes, but it is also “an unparalleled document in early American history. It is powerful in part because it is so difficult to use, so unyielding in its dailiness” (33). Rather than obscuring these qualities under a veil of objectivity, Ulrich chooses to emphasize the subjectivity both of the evidence and of her interpretation, by transcribing 10 long passages of the diary. “In each case,” she explains frankly, “the ‘important’ material, the passage or event highlighted in the accompanying discussion, is submerged in the dense dailiness of the complete excerpt. Juxtaposing the raw diary and the interpretive essay in this way, I have hoped to remind readers of the complexity and subjectivity of historical reconstruction, to give them some sense of both the affinity and the distance between history and source” (34). Thus the personal and subjective became the stuff of an explicitly subjective historical interpretation — and were awarded a Pulitzer Prize!

Finally, the promise of subjectivity might be realized through a new appreciation and cultivation of the power of empathy. One of the most novel approaches to historical understanding, empathy represents a way of knowing that was soundly rejected and despised by objectivists as dangerously subjective. Indeed, the concept was so dangerous that it was gendered: empathic understanding was traditionally associated with women (who could feel intuitively but not judge intellectually, it was said), and was first rescued from academic oblivion by feminist psychologists such as Carol Gilligan and Nancy Chodorow. As they and their followers define it, empathy involves three basic phenomena:

(1) feeling the emotion of another; (2) understanding the experience or situation of another, both affectively and cognitively, often achieved by imagining oneself to be in the position of the other; and (3) action brought about by experiencing the distress of another (hence the confusion of empathy with sympathy and compassion). The first two forms are ways of knowing, the third form a catalyst for action. (Henderson 1579)6

Relying upon admittedly subjective feelings and imaginations, then, historical empathy would invite students, teachers and scholars alike to attempt to recreate a fuller range of past human experience than objectivity would ever allow. We might approach this type of historical understanding through primary sources with affective layers, such as music, art, literature, films, diaries, letters, or even court cases, as long as we are careful always to ask questions that elicit empathic responses. Student journals are particularly effective here, as a private prelude to class discussion. Thus, students in a Western Civilization course might ponder Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit; students of colonial America might respond to the court case of the indentured servant, Charity Dallen, who was beaten “more Liken a dogge then a Christian” in Virginia in 1649; students in U.S. History surveys might compare the depictions of American slavery in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the dramatization of Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey, the story of a free African-American kidnapped into 12 years of enslavement; and graduate students in an introduction to historical methods might view and reflect upon the portrait of the discipline in Luis Puenzo’s Official Story. Class discussions might invite students to compare their empathic responses, and to use their new insights to comment upon the historical interpretations that they have been offered.

A complementary approach to developing our powers of empathy might make greater use of oral histories in our research and in our classrooms. We might turn to those major oral history projects that have been collected in libraries and archives around the country, or to those smaller ones that we and our students can create through interviews with grandparents, recent immigrants, migrant workers, or civil rights activists in our local communities. Few other pedagogical methods engage students’ emotions and imaginations more directly, or teach them more forcefully that we all make history. Moreover, oral history is especially valuable in our attempts to understand those people who leave few or no written historical records, and are often silent and invisible in traditional histories.7

A third approach to empathic understanding — and my personal favorite — comes through historical role-playing, in which students read primary sources and then adopt the views and personalities of historical characters. Settings involving conflict, moral dilemmas, or role-reversal (where a male student plays a woman, or a white student a person of color) often prove most thought-provoking and instructive. Role-playing can he employed in class debates and discussions as well as in papers; a combination of the two over a semester creates a potent empathic learning experience. For example, in my introductory survey of early American history, a student might write an essay in the voice of a seventeenth-century Amerindian slave, offering advice to a new captive. She might then adopt the role of an Antifederalist in a class debate on the desirability of the U.S. Constitution of 1787, and attend a convention of American reformers in the 1840s in the persona of Frederick Douglass, Margaret Fuller, Angelina Grimke, Henry David Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson. In a final paper, she might reflect upon the question of American “exceptionalism” from the perspective of a new immigrant, a Northern worker, or a former slave following Reconstruction. In each of these exercises, imagination as well as sources guide the process of historical discovery and interpretation.7

A third approach to empathic understanding — and my personal favorite — comes through historical role-playing, in which students read primary sources and then adopt the views and personalities of historical characters. Settings involving conflict, moral dilemmas, or role-reversal (where a male student plays a woman, or a white student a person of color) often prove most thought-provoking and instructive. Role-playing can be employed in class debates and discussions as well as in papers; a combination of the two over a semester creates a potent empathic learning experience. For example, in my introductory survey of early American history, a student might write an essay in the voice of a seventeenth-century Amerindian slave, offering advice to a new captive. She might then adopt the role of an Antifederalist in a class debate on the desirability of the U.S. Constitution of 1787, and attend a convention of American reformers in the 1840s in the persona of Frederick Douglass, Margaret Fuller, Angelina Grimke, Henry David Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson. In a final paper, she might reflect upon the question of American “exceptionalism” from the perspective of a new immigrant, a Northern worker, or a former slave following Reconstruction. In each of these exercised, imagination as well as sources guide the process of historical discovery and interpretation.8

One excellent example of the promise of this empathic approach for historical scholarship can be found in Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre. Davis’s attempt “to make historical sense” of the puzzling case of identity in early modern France was based not only on exhaustive archival research, but also upon her observation of French actors and actresses recreating their characters’ emotional, affective lives for the film, Le Retour de Martin Guerre. As Davis notes, “Watching Gerard Depardieu feel his way into the role of the false Martin Guerre gave me new ways to think about the accomplishment of the real impostor, Arnaud du Tilh. I felt I had my own historical laboratory, generating not proofs, but historical possibilities” (Davis viii). Once possibilities rather than proofs are considered the stuff of history, empathy becomes a valuable tool for historical research and teaching.9

In lesser hands, of course, empathic understanding might not yield quite so stunning a result. Indeed, there are potential pitfalls in this novel approach, including the claim of knowing too easily and possessing the Other, or of ignoring complex historical differences in a search for essential human nature. We must take great care not to allow a new type of intellectual imperialism to be born under the mantle of subjective empathy. But it seems to me that the possible benefits are worth the risks. For developing our powers of empathy seems to promise us a chance to achieve a fuller understanding of history’s “inarticulate,” who left few traditional written records. Empathy also offers the possibility of breaking through the walls of misunderstanding and mistrust between individuals in different social groups, an essential prerequisite to a juster distribution of social power. For all of its difficulties, empathy might constitute a source of intersubjectivity that we cannot do without.

* * * * * * * * * *

Such was certainly the case for Alicia Marnet Ibanez. As The Official Story unfolds, Alicia’s life and historical vision (or blindness) are profoundly disturbed by the power of empathy. Slowly and painfully, as her old friend Anna forces Alicia to listen to the haunting story of her imprisonment and torture for suspected oppositionist sympathies, and as Alicia meets Gaby’s real grandmother and learns of the violent “disappearance” and probable torture of Gaby’s mother, her perspective widens. Empathizing with these suffering women of several generations who have been rendered silent and invisible by the official story, Alicia finally confronts Roberto’s knowing and her own blind complicity in their oppression.

In a critical scene in the midst of Alicia’s transformation, she encounters an alternative vision of the past in her classroom. Contrary to the express wishes of his teacher and the clear, authoritative account in his textbooks, her most rebellious student, Costa, offers Alicia an alternative narrative in an examination paper. Previously, when Alicia had pressed a nervous student to supply “facts” from the textbook to support his unlicensed reading of Argentina’s revolutionary history, Costa had declared in his classmate’s defense that one could never find the truth in the textbook, for “history is written by the assassins.” Shocked by his lack of respect for her and for historical objectivity, Alicia had promptly silenced and dismissed Costa from the classroom. He had been a thorn in her side for months. Now he writes that the jailors of a republican hero of 1810 cut out his tongue to silence him.

When challenged by Alicia to present the documentary evidence for his contention (from the official texts, of course), Costa replies that texts are not the only sources of knowledge; his sympathy leads him to his conclusions. Alicia protests mildly that without a seance to communicate with history’s ghosts, Costa couldn’t really know this. Then, to the utter amazement of all, she praises Costa’s abilities and awards the paper a high grade. Both the grade and the cautionary comment, which seems by implication to invite the class to ask those martyrs who are still alive for their stories (much as Alicia herself is doing privately), validate a new, broader recreation of Argentina’s past. Her students have taught their teacher a fundamental lesson about history and its possibilities. Under their prodding, Alicia admits the power of empathy as a part of her historical pedagogy, and thus begins to rewrite the official story with her students.


I delivered an earlier version of this paper under the title, “Historical Evidence and Objectivity,” in a lecture series sponsored by the Master of Arts in Liberal Arts program at San Diego State University. I would like to thank the program’s director, Howard I. Kushner, and the lively audience at the lecture. I also wish to acknowledge the contributions of my colleagues in the ACLS Elementary and Secondary Schools Teacher Curriculum Development Project in San Diego, and of my students in History 601, the graduate seminar in historical methods at San Diego State University. Finally, I must express my appreciation to my fellow ACLS post-secondary fellows for their generous responses to my work and their support. It is a rare pleasure to collaborate with such thoughtful and dedicated teachers and scholars.

1. Novick, parts 1 and 3. Appropriately enough for a European historian venturing into American historiography, Novick is often stronger and more insightful about the European intellectual background than the American cultural context. For a fuller discussion of the American “rule of law” and its recent critics, see Kornfeld, “Out of Order.” [return to text]

2. “Every group its own historian” is the title of Novick’s fourteenth chapter, which I find to be the most charged and revealing in the book. The chapter’s rhetorical strategy in one motion introduces Black history and women’s history as unrelievedly separatist (or “lesbian”) and dismisses both as self-destructive; Novick suggests that the unintended effect of Black history was to draw attention away from the worsening plight of the African-American family (in reaction against the Moynihan report), and that of women’s history was to work against equal opportunity for women (in the Sears case). This structure, as well as the chapter’s unusually strident tone and lack of references to (or knowledge of?) women’s history, seem to place Novick among the lamenters of the decline of “objectivity,” notwithstanding his (curious) desire to stand above the fray. For a sample of the controversy surrounding Novick’s own intellectual/political position, see the forum on his book (with contributions by J. H. Hexter, Linda Gordon, David A. Hollinger, Allan Megill, Dorothy Ross and Novick himself) in American Historical Review 96:3 (June 1991), 675–708. I believe that the rift between social and political historians, or between social and intellectual historians, is deep enough to qualify as a schism, as the ideological confrontations at many historical conventions make clear. See also the forum on “The Old History and the New” in American Historical Review 94:3 (June 1989), 654–698. [return to text]

3. Among the pioneering psychological studies of selective perception and cognitive mapping were Dornbusch et al.; Hastorf, Schneider, and Polefka; and Abelson et al. [return to text]

4. Foremost among those historians who did heed the postmodern challenge and attempted to translate it for their colleagues were European intellectual historians, including Hayden White and Dominick LaCapra. Their efforts in this area include White, Metahistory; LaCapra, Rethinking Intellectual History; and LaCapra, History and Criticism. Recently, American intellectual historians have also begun to discuss and respond to “the linguistic turn,” even in featured forums in the journal of the American Historical Association. See, for example, the forum on the subject by David Harlan and David Hollinger in American Historical Review 94:3 (June 1989), 581–626, and the response by Joyce Appleby in American Historical Review 94:5 (December 1989), 1326–1332, or the forum by Russell Jacoby and Dominick LaCapra in American Historical Review 97:2 (April 1992), 405–439. [return to text]

5. For an introduction to Geertz’s approach to cultural anthropology, see The Interpretation of Cultures. [return to text]

6. See also Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering and Gilligan, In A Different Voice. [return to text]

7. For an introduction to the concerns and methods of oral history, see Thompson, The Voice of the Past. Dunaway and Baum, Oral History, contains essays by historians and scholars in related fields about the interpretation and design of oral history projects, the application of oral history to local, ethnic, family and women’s history, and the use of oral history in schools and libraries. The International Journal of Oral History and the Oral History Review are also valuable guides to ongoing projects and issues; the Oral History Association can provide directories of archives and oral history projects throughout the United States. [return to text]

8. For a fuller discussion of empathy and its pedagogical possibilities, see Kornfeld, “The Power of Empathy” and “Representations of History.” [return to text]

9. Davis was not without her critics; see the exchange between Robert Finlay and Davis concerning the quality and nature of the scholarship informing The Return of Martin Guerre in American Historical Review 93:3 (June 1988), 553–603. [return to text]