The Duty of the Historian

How many historians today fulfill the following few simple criteria, making them worthy of their calling as historians? How many even try to follow them?

“The first duty of the historian, which comprehends all others, is fidelity and justice. He must reproduce the history itself, making it live again in his representation. His highest and only aim should be, like a witness, to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and, like a judge, to do full justice to every person and event which comes under his review.”

–Philip Schaff

“[H]istory is to serve present society as its cultural memory, and . . . this can best be achieved by carefully reconstructing past epochs and events in their full variety and complexity, by artistically telling the stories, and by writing it all in ordinary, jargon-free language for the general reading public.”

–Edwin J. VanKlay

“[T]he qualities to be cultivated and cherished most by the historian are intellectual honesty in searching for the truth about the past; intellectual humility regarding the limits of human insight and understanding; judiciousness in making assessments; a healthy skepticism of sources; painstaking workmanship; a compassionate spirit; and a sense of balance and proportion. . . .”

–Donald A. MacPhee

“Because every historian has both a point of view and a purpose, some partisan distortion is inevitable in the process of selection. Yet despite the inevitability of bias, an historian should continually compensate for such tendencies with a degree of detachment that will permit him to weigh all available evidence and to present a balanced account of what happened even if it does not readily fit his preconceptions or prejudices.”

–George M. Marsden

True; enjoyable and uncomplicated; honest and humble; and detached, balanced, and unbiased. If we could strive to live up to these criteria–even if in our human frailty we could not always attain them–how much better, truer, and more enjoyable to read our work would be!

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