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That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession

3.55  ·  Rating Details ·  405 Ratings  ·  33 Reviews
The aspiration to relate the past "as it really happened" has been the central goal of American professional historians since the late nineteenth century. In this remarkable history of the profession, Peter Novick shows how the idea and ideal of objectivity was elaborated, challenged, modified, and defended over the past century. Drawing on the unpublished correspondence a ...more
Hardcover, 664 pages
Published April 26th 2006 by Cambridge University Press (first published January 1st 1988)
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Jul 26, 2011 Cat rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I actually enjoyed this book. Which further proves I'm a dork.
Read this for grad class on theory, much like most of the other reviewers on here.
I wholeheartedly agree with most of the previous reviewers that no one in their right mind (read: not in a history grad program) should have any inclination or desire to pick this up. Now, I personally detest theory, my soul dies a little every time I go to my class dedicated to it... but I enjoyed this book. This may be the first theory-centric book that I did not daydream about torching. While I struggle to see
Nov 15, 2009 Matt rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Novick gives a fantastic analysis of the changing views on the questions of objectivity and subjectivity in American historiography. How Novick, a European historian, could write so comprehensively and with such depth and for almost 650 pages is amazing.

He is admittedly a historicist, which, he says, "means simply that ... thinking about anything in the past is primarily shaped by my understanding of its role within a particular historical context, and in the stream of history" (7). I was glad t
Mike Hankins
Peter Novick's only stated goal in That Noble Dream is to simply raise questions and provoke a deep level of introspection among American historians about what they are doing and how they are doing it. To that end, he traces the evolution of American historiographic thought, beginning in the late nineteenth century as history became a “professional” field, through the time of the book's publication in the mid 1980s. Novick asserts that objectivity – notoriously difficult to define – is the found ...more
Feb 16, 2011 Melanie rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, reference
Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream offers an incredible analysis of the changing views on the questions of objectivity in American historiography. Novick begins with the initial objectivity project of the nineteenth century when American historians believed they were following German historian Leopold von Ranke’s motto “wie es eigentlich gewesen” (as it really was). In actuality, Ranke was not a pure objectivist. His approach more accurately defined was to tell history not so much as it “really” wa ...more
Apr 13, 2014 Samuel rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
When history was forming as an academic discipline and profession in the United States during the 1880s, the American Historical Association (founded in 1884) championed objectivity--purging oneself of external loyalties and producing disinterested historical truth--as the key component of good history making. This "noble dream" of objective history production was accepted largely by historians as a self-evident virtue that would inevitably lead to converging historical works that depicted the o ...more
Mar 10, 2011 John rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really hope the earning of a masters in history is not dependent on understanding and/or enjoying this book...
Yikes. Run out and find me a four year old child, I can't make head or tail of this.
Perhaps once I've gone further towards becoming a master this will make more sense. I had to give up.
seven months later...
Well, I am further towards becoming a master, but I really think that the reason I hated this so much last summer was that I was bogged down in the beginning of the book. I've read
Sep 03, 2012 Katie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book - a 650-page, small-fonted book about the 20th century progression of historical theory - has absolutely no business being as interesting as it is. It's historians writing about the history of historians! Yikes!

But somehow Peter Novick manages to make is a really compelling read, one that's very much centered on the people involved in the desire to figure out just what historians can know about history, and how it fits into the history that's happening around them as they write. He br
I really enjoy history and, since so much writing of history seems so skewed by ideology today, the objectivity portion of the title capture my attention.

This is, however, an academic book and, at some points, unless you're a professional historian, get it tough to plod through.

The message the book sends is that most historians are not objective. The claim to follow their sources.

No doubt, this is a tough read for non-historians. I enjoyed the book but some nights I opened the pages when I ha
Historians and scholars of many disciplines have long grappled with the pursuit of objectivity or truths within their work. This cumbersome and unrealistic (nope sorry not a purist!) task has challenged the way historians think about history and the historical method. Novick gives us a concise history of historians' multiple attempts at answering the question of objectivity and historical method. He focuses too much on relativism vs. pragmatism...I'd like to think the question of objectivity is ...more
First off let me say this, this book is a pain to read. A very fascinating book with an insight that all history students and writers of any intellectual field should read. But it still is very difficult to read. Had to read this for a historical theory class in grad school and even the teacher said don't read much in one sitting your mind will rebel the book is just that dry. Still its a very informative book bring the reader about 100 years of the changes that have happened over the intellectu ...more
Although well-written, it is unlikely that this book will be of interest to anyone who his not directly involved in history, education, or history education.
Aug 05, 2014 V. rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Interesting. A fascinating history of the "objectivity question" and its importance in shaping American historical profession, first as an ideal, then as a contested idea.
The author identifies 4 main periods of this history and sets it back in the cultural context, exploring the influences of scientific and literary disciplines as well as the debates between historians of a same period. Drawing on the personal papers of the most famous American historians, Novick is able to provide a nuanced pi
Review for Historians and Graduate Students! No one else will ever read this book.

At the time I was forced to read this, I developed an unfair distaste for Peter Novick and blamed him for the loss of a fraction of my soul. However, as I developed as a grad student in History, I came to see the value of his work. I even referenced it in the conclusion of my Master's thesis. So for all of you grad students being forced to read it today, know that his message will eventually click - and that he's s
Gillian Bourassa
Novick explored the history of the American history profession, especially the idea of truth and concensus in historical analysis. The book was a bit dense, and some parts seemed tangential and without relevance to the larger point of the book. I most liked his analyses of how the profession's views of certain historical events, such as WWI or slavery, changed over time and in response to changing political and social circumstances. I will be looking for ways to incorporate some of this latter i ...more
Derek Ide
Mar 01, 2014 Derek Ide rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Exhaustive review of the various transfigurations and transmutations of the American historical profession as historians grappled with the objectivity question. Lots of gems in here. Slightly too dense at times, and the writing style can be distracting and somewhat unclear, but that may also be a result of the utterly esoteric nature of some of the discussions and debates. Overall, though, definitely worth the read!
This book is a slog. It is a great source if you need to write a historiographical essay on what seems to be any subject in US history. You can use it to find works on your subject, and see what someone else thought about them fairly easily. But I do not recommend attempting to read this book unless you are forced to for a class. Someone that isn't at a graduate level for historical reading will struggle exceedingly with this work, and even for grad students it is not easy.
Oct 04, 2013 Kate rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I recognize the importance of this book for students of historiography, and Novick does an excellent job mapping out the course of the objectivity ideal throughout the history of the historical profession. However, this was a boring read to me. Possibly because I don't plan on becoming an academic, so the progression of the historical academic profession just isn't interesting to me.
Courtney Homer
Chronicles the quest for (or acceptance of its elusiveness) objectivity within the American historical profession. It's good food for thought - do we seek after objectivity or accept some presentism in our work? What is the goal of writing history? But the writing is dense and jargony and the book feels long. An interesting perspective and reference professionally, but not a light read.
Todd Stansbury
Feb 25, 2014 Todd Stansbury rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is an excellent examination of how historians tried to develop both objectively and as a profession starting in the 1890s and moving to the 1980s. While dense it never feels bogged down to me. What makes it thoroughly enjoyable is Novick's mastery at a turn of phrase and some of the greatest footnotes it has ever been my pleasure to read.
May 26, 2008 T.J. rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: history grad students
Peter Novick writes an AMAZINGLY clear, concise study of the development of American historiography since the late nineteenth century. A must-read for all grad students. In history. If you're doing physics or something, I think you're excused.
Jul 02, 2015 Ioana rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Engaging, lively, and often comical (but very long) history of the history profession in the US since its birth in the 19th century; only wish it had an updated chapter for the 90s and today in the new revision.
Oct 10, 2015 zack rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
novick is a huge negative nancy but the amount of work that went into this is incredible; aside from Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob's far more optimistic approach, this is probably one of the best historiographical works out there
Mar 29, 2008 Noel rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
The author went on and on about all of the things he knew. I was constantly looking forward to coming across the points that the author was trying to make. He's very arrogant and tries to tell the world that he knows he's smart and well read.
Jul 12, 2011 Karen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If you have any interest in American historiography then I suggest this book. It can be a bit dense but it's interesting to see how the practice of American history formed.
Melissa McHugh
Sep 05, 2016 Melissa McHugh rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I wish there were words for how amazing this book is. I wish it had been required reading as an undergrad but thrilled to have read it all.
Dan Snyder
Dec 20, 2012 Dan Snyder rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Surprising (or not) account of American reverse chauvinism; ideas of foreign provenance are superior whether you understand them or not.
Aug 08, 2011 Christina rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A study of the central doctrine of objectivity in the American historical profession. An important read for anyone who wishes to understand the American historical profession.
Maggi Smith-Dalton
If you don't have this on your historiography shelf, you're simply not getting the whole picture. Essential, totally essential reading.
Jun 17, 2007 Peter rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: history buffs
This is an extremely long and often daunting book, yet I found it readable and engaging and learned a lot from it.
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