Elizabeth Varon, the Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History at the University of Virginia, told the annual Phi Beta Kappa/Society of the Cincinnati Convocation at Washington and Lee Thursday that historians must walk a fine line between detachment and engagement and need to be humble in their judgments.
Varon said that, as a historian of the American South, walking that fine line can be difficult.
"We are social scientists. We follow strict rules for the gathering and interpretation of data," she told the audience, including the new inductees into W&L's Gamma of Virginia Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. "Those rules stipulate that we can't cherry-pick sources, we can't take things out of context, we can't make stuff up.
"At the same time, we're storytellers. To make our stories compelling, we have to sometimes pull in close to our subjects, to walk in their shoes, to use our powers of emphathy and our skill as writers, our imagination."
To study the history of the South and of slavery, she said, is to confront "the capacity of human beings to inflict and endure suffering."
While historians can't leave their moral consciences at the door, their aim is to explain, to be analytical and to refine and revise their conclusions in light of new evidence.
"This process of refining and revising reminds us to be humble in our judgments," she said. "We ourselves are imperfect, and one thing is for sure: the next generation will come along and, standing on our shoulders, see the landscape of the pasts in a whole new light."
Varon has written three acclaimed books and will publish a new volume, "Appomattox: Victory, Defeat and Freedom at the End of the Civil War," later this year. As she worked on this book about Appomattox, she said, it was humbling to realize how much academic historians rely on the work of others. In this case, she referred to those who have preserved Appomattox and have mastered the complex details of the events there.
These people, she added, provided "a powerful reminder in this digital, virtual age that there is no substitute for walking a battlefield, for holding a precious relic or tattered manuscript source in one's own hands. Landscapes and material culture are powerful spurs to our imagination."
Varon was inducted as an honorary member of Phi Beta Kappa, along with two members of Washington and Lee's History Department who are also W&L alumni: Theodore C. DeLaney, of the Class of 1985, and John Holt Merchant, of the Class of 1961.
The 53 student inductees include four members of the Class of 2012.
Scott Sugden, a sophomore from Circle Pines, Minn., was named winner of the J. Brown Goehring Sophomore Award, which goes to the student with the highest cumulative scholastic average through the end of the fall term of his or her sophomore year. It is named in honor of J. Brown Goehring, a retired chemistry professor at W&L. During his 38 years at the University, he spent 22 years as secretary-treasurer of the Phi Beta Kappa chapter.