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Can historians be objective and should they be?

Oct 23, 2014

Dr. Shih-chieh (Jay) Su, a DelVal assistant professor of liberal arts, takes a look at this question in his new book.

Leopold Von Ranke

When we read history, we don’t often think about the person who wrote it and what he or she was thinking, feeling or going through while capturing a nation’s past. In “Modern Nationalism and the Making of a Professional Historian: the Life and Work of Leopold von Ranke,” Dr. Shih-chieh (Jay) Su, an assistant professor of liberal arts at Delaware Valley College, takes looks at a historian’s personal life, analyzing the diary and letters of a man who captured German history and the personal conflicts he struggled with while doing that.

Ranke, who is considered one of the founding fathers of “objective history,” was hired as a professional historian for the Prussian monarchy. The book tries to understand the conflicting idea of being a professional historian, but at the same time providing a service to your own nation state. Dr. Su studied Ranke’s personal documents trying to solve the problem of how a professional historian becomes an official narrator of national memory, while at the same time upholding the historian’s professional goal of writing objectively.

“Being a professional historian you have to be objective, but as a public intellectual you feel obligated to serve your society,” said Dr. Su. “From his diary and his private life you can actually find reasons why he intentionally forgets certain parts of history. This forgetting is part of the construction of modern identities.”

Dr. Su earned his Ph.D. in history from Brown University. In his new book, which he spent seven years researching, he argues that the modern notion of a national identity is created by the historian’s narrative.

Dr. Su argues that historians construct national identities through the books they write and the parts they choose to leave out to meet certain goals. As “official” narrators of national memories, professional historians’ narratives become in some ways their nations’ identities.

“You constantly see historians’ personal struggles, not being able to secure funding, worrying about censorship in other countries,” said Dr. Su. “For Ranke, all this anxiety coincided with the constant struggle to support the Prussian-led German unification. He was relieved when his efforts finally paid off in 1871.”

He said Ranke’s work is just one example of reconstructing the past to meet the goals of the present.

“Rankean historiography has facilitated the construction of modern nation-states,” said Dr. Su. “This paradigm has been applied since the 19th century in the historiographies of modern Japan, China and Taiwan, the new nation-states of the former Soviet bloc, and the postcolonial nation-states of the non-Western world.”

“On the surface we as historians are saying, ‘we are doing academic research, everything should be objective,’ but you can see a tiny subjective agenda related to how someone understands him or herself through history,” said Dr. Su. “There’s usually a reason historians are interested in certain topics. You can’t take one identity out. If you look at personal identity, national identity and the way we understand ourselves as professional historians, you can see a lot of conflict between those identities.”

He said historians are left to just do their best to provide an authentic past, but at the same time this past is in their imaginations.

“We intentionally forget,” said Dr. Su. “We look for what we find meaningful. It is not possible to truly be objective, but you have to call it objectivity to have an official depository of a national past.”