Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History (New York:  Norton, 1995).

Study Questions


What is the topic of this book?

What is the authors' main argument?

In what ways do the authors think the democratization of education has changed the writing of history?

What do the authors mean when they use the term "old intellectual absolutisms" that have been "overthrown" since 1945?  What do they see as the impact of this "overthrow"?

Are the authors "relativists"?  Explain.

What evidence do they present to show that history is still relevant and controversial?

What kinds of questions about the purposes of history do the authors raise?

What do the authors mean by "skepticism"?  Do they see skepticism as the same as relativism?  Explain their point.

What do the authors mean by "post-modernism"?  Do they seem to agree entirely with the perspective of "post-modernists"?  Explain.

What is the purpose of this book?

Do the authors believe that there is one true history?  Do they reject the idea that history can be objective?  Explain.


Part One of this book is called "Intellectual Absolutisms"--why?

Chapter 1

The authors tell us at the start of this chapter that they are going to "put heroic science into a historical context and assess the way that it has molded Western thinking."  Based upon your having read the ENTIRE CHAPTER,

a) What is the model of "heroic science"?

b)  What main elements of its historical context do the authors consider most important and why?

c) What are the authors' main conclusions about its impact on western thinking?


Chapter 2

The second chapter of the book examines the development of "scientific" approaches to history.  Answer these questions AFTER you read the chapter!

a) Why do the authors link together the idea of "scientific history" and the concept of modernity?

b) What does this have to do with the idea of "mastering time"?

c) What do the authors see as the major turning points in the effort to (intellectually) "master time" and why?

d) What are the authors' main points in the subsection on "mastering facts"?

e) Why do the authors refer to scientific history in the West as "imperialist"?


Chapter 3

The title of this chapter is "History makes a Nation"--The big question for this chapter is-- why this title?  What does it mean? 

After reading the chapter, answer these questions from the perspective of the authors:

a) What are "nations" (in the modern sense), and why was it necessary to "make" a nation in the US after the American Revolution?

b) What role did historians play in the creation of national identity in ante-bellum America and why?

c) In what sense did historians in the post-Civil War era help transform the concept of natural rights into the basis for American "ideology," and how were their histories shaped by this ideological perspective?

d) How did F. J. Turner use the concept of the Frontier to demonstrate the history of American Progress?

e) Before the coming of the Progressives, how did historians understand the relationship between natural rights and capitalism and how did this understanding shape their reading of the Constitution and of American identity?


Part Two of this book is called "Absolutisms Dethroned"--why?

Chapter 4

The title of the chapter is "Competing Histories of America"--The big question for this chapter is-- why this title?  What does it mean? 

After reading the chapter, answer these questions from the perspective of the authors:

a) By the early 1900s, what events and developments were undermining faith in the American ideology of natural rights and the American identity as "heroic champions of democracy"?

b) Did the Progressives, for all of their myth-shattering, really challenge the idea that the US had a historical mission to champion democracy and natural rights?

c) Why was Perry Miller's reinterpretation of Puritanism such an important challenge to the idea that American history was the story of the progress towards the ideals of democracy and natural rights?

d) In what sense were the social historians of the 1960s-1980s emphasizing "anti-celebratory values," and was the new social history really nothing more than an attack against the "consensus" view of American history?

e) The last part of this chapter is called "The Implications of Social History for Multiculturalism"--what are these implications?

What is the main point (thesis) of this chapter?


Chapter 5

How did T. Kuhn's argument transform the writing of the history of science?  (Explain this argument!)

What do the authors mean by the "philosophical armor of heroic science," and do the authors consider this "armor" to be sound or to be ahistorical?  Explain.

How did the "generation of the 1960s" change the writing of the history of science?  (To answer this, you have to think about the difference between the "internalists" and the "externalists.")

What conclusions do the authors think we should draw from the results of historians' new research on Newton and Darwin?

All the authors saying that all science is the result of social factors?  And do they think that science can make true statements about nature? 

Do "new" historians of science think there is an automatic connection between science and progress?  If not, then how do we avoid falling into relativism?

According to the authors, how can we understand "truth" in the history of science without "heroes"?  And what are they trying to say about the difference between "absolute relativism" and "methodological relativism"?


Chapter 6

What has been the main conservative criticism of social history, and do the authors agree?

How do the authors explain and define the set of ideas called "postmodernism," and are the authors pro- or anti- postmodernism?

What is the main point that the authors are making about the lineage of postmodernism (ie, their discussion of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, etc.)?

For Foucault and Derrida (etc), what is "truth"?  Explain.

There were big debates over cultural history in the 1970s-1990s--what were the debates about?  In other words, what was "new" about the "new cultural history"?  Was it necessarily "postmodern"?

How and why did postmodernism start to influence the writing of history, and how have historians reacted to this influence?  What do the authors think about the usefulness of postmodernism for historians?

Why do historians now discuss narrative as a "problem"?  In other words, what are "meta-narratives,: how do they shape the writing of history, and are "our" authors hostile to narrative history?


Chapter 7

Since the 1960s, what has happened to the idea that there is a direct connection between what historians write and the "truth" (what "really" happened)?  Do the authors see this development as entirely good or bad?  Explain.

What do the authors mean by "practical realism" and why do they think this approach would be useful for historians?

According to the authors, how is history different from science and why is this important to understand?

So, how do the authors think historians can be "objective"? What is their "new theory of objectivity" and how is it useful for historians?

According to the authors, why are the readers of history an important factor in the shaping of historical objectivity?

For the authors, in what sense is the historian writing about the past like a person turning their memories into a story about "what happened"?  Do the authors think that the process of using language to create narratives makes historians incapable of writing the "truth"?  Explain.

For the authors, why is it important that we recognize that both the sources we study and the histories we write are "texts"?  And should we assume that these texts have no "true" meaning and that every reader's interpretation is "equal" to the interpretation of every other reader?  Explain the authors' point here!

SO...  for the authors, why do we as human beings need history (just as we need memory)?


Chapter 8

OK--here's the BIG QUESTION:  according to the authors, how can we go about "telling the truth about history"? What do they think historians must try to do and why?