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Historian’s Conscience, edited by Stuart Macintrye.

November 13, 2012

The Historian’s Conscience: Australian Historians on the Ethics of History, edited by Stuart Macintyre.  Melbourne University Publishing (2005), Edition: First Edition, Paperback, 180 pages

An excellent collection of essays by historians discussing the old and new values they bring to their research and writing.

Stuart Macintyre asked a group of Australian historians to write accessible essays in response to questions about their choice of topics, how they balance fact and empathy in their work, and what they see as their responsibility as historians. These essays answers some of the questions raisedin the wake of the History Wars about what guidelines there are once historians admit their findings are never totally objective and authoritative. The essays by the fourteen historians are brief (10-12 pages each) and very accessible; perfect for students or individuals simply curious about what values ground contemporary historians’ work. The historians included are all Australians, but the points they raise are the ones being introduced and debated globally. While not all historians will agree with the views presented, these essays provide insight into the new imperatives that significant numbers of historians now follow. As for my view, I agree with almost everything they said, and I was grateful for how they explored the issues in some new ways.  My own recent blog about “Historical Truths” is my response to the questions raised in this book.

Insistence on factual accuracy and fairness run through the essays. These remain the touchstone that sets history apart from fiction and ideology. To introduce elements of feeling or relativism can never be an excuse for sloppiness or the avoidance of immersion in the archives. What has changed is that historians are realizing that there are different stories that can be told about any event and they must give up claims of being omniscience about the past. The scholars here see history as a conversation between the facts we can know and the conclusions we draw; a conversation that includes a variety of viewpoints. As Macintrye explains “History is something more than a fixed body of knowledge, …  it is a process of inquiry.”

Macintyre and Graeme Davidson both discuss the difference between iconic national stories; honored for the positive identity they provide a country, and the ongoing work of professional historians challenging national story as incomplete or factually in error. Often such challengers point out that our nations have not always acted for the good of all, especially in regard to those conquered and dominated. Davidson, who has worked with the National Museum of Australia, suggests that rather than fighting over what is “true”, we need “a pluralist history that invites visitors to share the excitement and tension of thinking about the nation’s past and future for themselves.” He points out that a pluralist approach does not dismiss accurate local or national versions of history; it simply requires that the other side also be presented.

Historians, like some of these, who entered the profession in the late 20th century, have often focused on telling the story of those our nations have mistreated. Macintyre tells of his own desire to tell “the natives” side of the story of colonization. Greg Dening and Rhys Isaac, tell how they, along with their colleague, Inga Clendinnen, turned to anthropology for ways to understand those who left few documents. I was particularly interested in Isaac’s article since his fine Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 was required reading when I was in grad school here in the USA.  The pictures with which he opens the book and his depictions of the landscape have stuck with me.  He, or anyone writing today on his subject, would include more on women and African Virginians, but the book was very radical when it appeared in the 1970s.  He later worked with Colonial Williamsburg to introduce the black slaves’ perspective into their living history exhibits.  Like the others, he was “working for a way to contribute to what we felt was both morally and intellectually necessary as a two-sided history that would incorporate narratives of the colonized along with the narratives of the colonizers.”

In her essay, Marilyn Lake explores the criticism she has encountered in her research and writing about Australian feminists. She views the women she studied as “maternal feminists” and refuses to blame or attack them for not holding beliefs compatible with contemporary feminism. Her point is that history should not be written to support a current political end, however praiseworthy, but to give meaning to what has happened in the past.

Penny Russell shares with readers an account of how she does history in which the factual and creative elements are intertwined. I found this one of the most insightful articles in the book because she is able to show how both “the verification of the real and the engagement of the imagination” are fundamental to historians.  She recognizes the tension to be navigated between the requirements of facts and the story they tell. And she is clear about the responsibility she and other historians feel.  That responsibility includes giving meaning to the factual information we discover.

We have a duty to bring forth the complex stories that lie in the archives—to engage our readers imaginatively, so they respond with empathy and moral feeling to the stories of people who are not immediately “like ourselves.” We need an empathy that crosses the divisions of our multicultural society, not a comfortable, closed recognition and reassurance that will naturalise them. If I deny myself a place in my analysis, I destroy the only base from which I can attempt to understand.

Readers of history must be able to trust that “historians make stories, but they do not make them up.” For her, trust requires “the analytical, interpretive, narrative ‘voice’ of the historian.”

Yvonne Perkins recommended Historians Conscience as an excellent introduction to what contemporary historians are thinking and doing. I am glad she did and couldn’t agree more that this little book is a gold mine of ideas and information.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone with the least interest in the values that ground contemporary historians. At least pick up the book and read a couple of the essays to give yourself a taste of the current historical conversation.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 16, 2012 2:26 pm

    This sounds like one I should check out. Yvonne’s recommendation and now yours are the best we could get, yeah!

  2. November 20, 2012 9:11 am

    Do check this out. It does a good job of explaining how historians work these days. Be sure and read Penny Russell’s essay, even if you don’t read them all.

  3. December 11, 2012 11:27 pm

    Your review covers the book well Marilyn. I bought this book before I enrolled in a history degree. It is definitely something that anyone who enjoys reading history should read. I still have it sitting on my desk as it is pertinent to so many issues historians work with.

  4. December 14, 2012 10:28 am

    Thank you, Yvonne, for suggesting it to me. Yes. so much for historians and for understanding about so much else.

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