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Mark Noll



The prominence of history in the twentieth century's shooting wars, as well as in its culture wars, is indisputable. To be sure, it is good to remember that conflict over the meaning of the past usually does not lead directly to armed battle. Yet it is also important to recognize that historical arguments help sustain most of the modern world's major conflicts, armed or not. To whom does Palestine (or the Sudatenland or Kashmir or Mongolia or Kosovo or the Falkland Islands) really belong? What did the Founding Fathers intend as the criterion for impeachment? Was the United States once more moral than it is now? Were women better off before the pill (or World War II or the vote or the Industrial Revolution)?

While contending parties in these and many other arguments offer claims and counterclaims based on historical evidence, radical postmodernist critics have called into question the very belief that history can ever resolve important problems of the present. History, in a radical view, is just window dressing to mask the means by which the powerful hold power. It is no more than human creative imagination exercised upon the miscellaneous detritus surviving from prior generations as supposed "facts."

For the most part, practicing historians possess neither the patience nor the philosophical acumen to take up such global challenges to their discipline. One historian who does possess those virtues, however, is Thomas Haskell of Rice University. His book Objectivity Is Not Neutrality deserves special attention, for it is the most sophisticated contribution by a historian to the contemporary debate over the nature of historical knowledge. At bottom, that debate persistently circles the questions "Did it really happen?" and "Did it really mean something?" The other books examined in this essay all defend in one way or another the possibility of answering those questions in the affirmative. Christian believers have as much to learn from Haskell's careful pragmatism as they ...

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