TRUTH IN HISTORY by Oscar Handlin


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Why study history--and how. Harvard professor Handlin discusses just such difficult and enduring questions in this worthy collection of essays. Reflecting on his lengthy career and major achievements (including Boston's Immigrants and The Uprooted), Handlin expresses dismay at recent trends within the profession. He contrasts an earlier shared commitment of historians, and a community among them, to the current careerism and the politicization of historical thought. With the assurance--and vengeance--of an Old Testament prophet, he inveighs against ""the erosion of the basic skills, atrophy of familiarity with the essential procedures,"" and ""dissipation of the core fund of knowledge."" Intolerant of shoddy work, he includes essays on how to read a word and count a number. The computer is no substitute for hard thought, Hamlin maintains; flashy social science methods must not tempt the historian from searching for the truth. He is most strongly critical not of neophytes but of masters, among them Michel Foucault (Madness and Civilization) and Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman (Time on the Cross); and the several topical essays included provide object lessons on how the job is to be done--properly. Much importance is ascribed to criticism, ""the lifeblood of science, of literature, of thought itself,"" but the dominant theme is that historical research calls for work--and not just meticulous care with the record but also imagination, self-understanding, and openness to new perspectives. In ""Living in a Valley,"" Handlin tells us that there's more than one way to view a mountain, and even for those living halfway up it's a long way to the peak. So why bother with the climb? For Handlin the answer is the truth in history: his and our recognition that ""men and women walked the earth"" and that ""though it takes a whole world of knowledge to know them, they are knowable."" A precious, hard-won recognition.

Pub Date: Sept. 29th, 1979
ISBN: 1560009519
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press