Required Readings for ’09-’10 and the Trouble With History Teaching

With the exception of Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition, I have elected to add three new books to next year’s Advanced Placement United States History course; I am a big fan of Howard Zinn and his writings. Some believe his historical approach is a bit biased, but I contend what work is not. Because I like my classes to operate in a seminar hence “Harkness” fashion,  outside textbook readings along with primary source readings are essential to provide students with a general historical take before we engage in topical conversations. All of the works below challenge students to think about the processes of American history from a different perspective. The only exception is the general textbook: The Unfinished Nation by Alan Brinkley, which takes a more “traditional” approach to US history. Below are the covers for the works I submitted to my department chair.

Voices of A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn: Book Cover
The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People, Volume 2 ISBN-13:9780073307022 - compare prices
In Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition, he as well as Howard Zinn bring a more revisionist and realist account of America’s historical figures. Zinn presents history from the perspective of non elites: blacks, women, immigrants, workers, and the poor. Moreover, Hofstadter looked to end the romantic notions often used to describe the traditional white male hero of American culture (or WASP). Here is an example from his chapter on the founding fathers:

Democratic ideas are most likely to take root among discontented and oppressed classes, rising middle classes, or perhaps some sections of an old, alienated, and partially disinherited aristocracy, but they do not appeal to a privileged class that is still amplifying its privileges. With a half dozen exceptions at most, the men who had considerable position and wealth, and as a group they had advanced well beyond their fathers.

One of the things Hofstadter writes about in his many works is that of economic elitism. He described the framers as men who created an oligarchy via the Constitution only as an instrument to protect their wealth and status; he questions the democratic nature of the founders and the Constitution. Moreover, he discusses history as an entity protected by the very men who used it to enhance their status. Here, as also noted by Sociologists James Loewen, Hofstadter is critical about the intent for which elites built this (United States) country upon; he works to do what most textbooks and movies fail to do, eliminate historical heroification of dead white men.

In Lies My Teacher Told Me, Loewen attacks the teaching of high school history. When students sign up to take this course with me, I tell them to read this book. I assure students that I am not perfect nor are my courses, but I do not teach a typical monolithic high school history course either. Loewen explains in his introductory:

High school students hate history. When they list their favorite subjects, history always comes in last. They consider it “the most irrelevant” of 21 school subjects, not applicable to life today. “Borr-r-ring” is the adjective they apply to it. When they can, they avoid it, even though most students get higher grades in history than in math, science, or English. Even when they are forced to take history, they repress it, so every year or two another study decries what our 17-year-olds don’t know.

African American, Native American, and Latino students view history with a special dislike. They also learn it especially poorly. Students of color do only slightly worse than white students in mathematics. Pardoning my grammar, they do more worse in English and most worse in history. Something intriguing is going on here: surely history is not more difficult than trigonometry or Faulkner. I will argue later that high school history so alienates people of color that doing badly may be a sign of mental health! Students don’t know they’re alienated, only that they “don’t like social studies” or “aren’t any good at history.” In college, most students of color give history departments a wide berth.

Many history teachers perceive the low morale in their classrooms. If they have lots of time, light family responsibilities, some resources, and a flexible principal, some teachers respond by abandoning the overstuffed textbooks and reinventing their American history courses. All too many teachers grow disheartened and settle for less. At least dimly aware that their students are not requiting their own love of history, they withdraw some of their energy from their courses. Gradually they settle for just staying ahead of their students in the books, teaching what will be on the test, and going through the motions.

I have worked to introduce my students to various dimensions and perspectives of history; I do believe to some extent that they (students) appreciate the differences; however, I too realize that my courses are a work in progress. Thus the joy of being a passionate teacher is growth. As a teacher, I work to be a student as well; I love writing and reading new works that account for the vast amount of literature in the field. I see myself as both a teacher and doer of history: taking on projects that allow me to be a part of the historical process. This of course is what I like to utilize in my teachings. But a number of high school teachers have been under attack for poor teaching: emphasizing rote facts and glory tales that fall short of the complex conceptualization of historical analysis. I have spent the past 9 years of teaching trying not to be that teacher, though there are a few that prefer I teach “basic American history.” This is the history of the sage — or the manager of industry. I prefer the idealism of  Dead Poets Society’s Mr. Keeting, who addresses the realism and dangers of traditionalism.

In his continual attack of high school history teachers, Loewen contends:

College teachers in most disciplines are happy when their students have had more rather than less exposure to the subject before they reach college. Not in history. History professors in college routinely put down high school history courses. A colleague of mine calls his survey of American history “Iconoclasm I and II,” because he sees his job as disabusing his charges of what they learned in high school. In no other field does this happen. Mathematics professors, for instance, know that non-Euclidean geometry is rarely taught in high school, but they don’t assume that Euclidean geometry was mistaught. English literature courses don’t presume that “Romeo and Juliet” was misunderstood in high school. Indeed, a later chapter will show that history is the only field in which the more courses students take, the stupider they become.

A former colleague of mine once stated: “too many high school instructors try to teach like their college instructors.” She went on to say that “by doing so is an injustice because many college teachers have also given in to the simple art of looking at history.” Hence, they operate as industrial managers thus fear too much change. They stay away from academic meetings and even fear junior colleagues because they threaten the “status” of what exists: a traditional uninventive look at the dynamics of historical analysis; it is their job to reject such junior faculty members as they reach the final stage of tenure review. If high school teachers trained under such monolithic and unchanging individuals, then the great danger is that of  cyclical history teaching: one that minorities will hate because it is the same old drill. Not only will blacks and other groups hate this, but so will whites of a younger generation.

It is my job to avoid the above contention by offering students a history course from the perspective of an urban black kid who grew up with fewer privileges than they. I believe my students are lucky, and I hope they realize it; I know I am lucky to have them. In this brief reflection, I also believe the key is being in a great department. Being around people that know more makes teaching easier.

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23 thoughts on “Required Readings for ’09-’10 and the Trouble With History Teaching

  1. Great post, Ed.

    I do have an issue with teachers who use Zinn’s book as the primary text. That is not what you are doing, but, I’ve met folks that do. I do, however, like his perspective.

    A quote from your post about which I would like to comment:

    “If high school teachers trained under such monolithic and unchanging individuals, then the great danger is that of cyclical history teaching: one that minorities will hate because it is the same old drill. Not only will blacks and other groups hate this, but so will whites of a younger generation.”

    There is an assumption here that there is more progressive thinking on the part of the younger white generation. By and large, the younger White generation will reflect much of the same thinking as the previous white generation, with some exceptions. That said, many of the younger Black and Latino generations aren’t that progressive in their thinking, either, and for the same reasons. There’s ignorance and mis-information within and across all racial and ethnic groups. I sometimes we make the assumption that because one is a person of color, that person somehow has a better grasp and understanding of history. Some times this is true, but, not always.

    Last, we have to be careful, as you assert, Ed, not to present a monolithic POV. That said, it is just as bad to have too many Ward Churchills teaching our kids as it is someone who is ultra-conservative. There needs to be a diversity of teaching approaches and perspectives.

  2. I am very excited to take your course next year, Carson. I have not read very much of Howard Zinn – but I have enjoyed the little bit that I have and look forward to reading more.

  3. Howard Zinn and Richard Hofstadter do make me laugh so. I have largely finished the American Political tradition and read what you gave us that was penned by Zinn while I was still in your class, and I would have to revise the words revisionist and realist to radical and revolutionary. I especially liked the way that Michael Kammen put his own view when he stated, “We do deserve a people’s history; but not a singleminded, simpleminded history, too often of fools, knaves and Robin Hoods. We need a judicious people’s history because the people are entitled to have their history whole; not just those parts that will anger or embarrass them. … If that is asking for the moon, then we will cheerfully settle for balanced history.” It appears that Zinn only wants to portray history as we know it as a long strain of white-supremacist desecration against other peoples. True, America’s history has been blemished with racial outrages and bad decisions, but capitalism is certainly not the answer. What Zinn proposes is that we completely refrain from the only way of life than any living American-born citizen can remember and instate the completely inferior socialism. The same socialism that led to the deaths of over 30 MILLION people in the U.S.S.R. under Stalin, the same socialism that leads thousands of Cubans to treacherously leave Cuba every year because of the difficult conditions there, the same socialism that allows sweat shops to not only exist, but thrive, in China, and the same socialism that silenced millions of Chinese Christians who simply wanted to practice Christianity but were kept in constant suppression of their beliefs. Utopian societies are the pinnacle of human life and Zinn appears to believe that such life is far superior to that of modern Americans because he simply has to look to Indian history. Modern history and anthropology have, however, discredited Zinn’s simple-minded fable of good versus evil. Lawrence Keeley’s, War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, has established that Indian societies were extremely violent. Indian men were far more likely to die in inter tribal warfare than white men ever were in European wars. Rape and cannibalism were also quite common. Far from living in peaceable harmony with nature, the Indians were well on their way to exterminating the buffalo herds of America before whites showed up and finished the job that others had started. The narrow-mindedness of Zinn’s work really makes me question whether or not it should be used in school, and one quote from the chapter entitled “The Coming Revolt of the Guards” really confirms for me that Zinn is of questionable intention and goal. He shows strong animosity for the fact that the socialist-fundamentalist policies of the sixties did not work and awaits the day in which “a new kind of revolution” will happen in which all big business, the military, and politicans who side with them will be overthrown by “demonstrations, marches, civil disobedience; strikes and boycotts and general strikes; direct action to redistribute wealth.” He demonizes capitalism without ever mentioning the fact that he has, to the best of my knowledge, never lived under socialism or the fact that capitalism has led to the creation of electronic appliances and lighting, the telephone, the automobile, the airplane, the radio, the cure for polio, the personal computer, chemotherapy, the heart-lung machine, and bone marrow transplantation. I would say that capitalism has helped many more than it has harmed (considering the idea that America was largely a Republic through much of its inceptionary and early years according to Mr. Hofstadter) and contend that our entire quality of life is better without socialism because we would surely not have the ability to scrutinize our political system in a socialist system. Just a few thoughts.

    You can read more about my view on Zinns thoughts on this link http://whiteamerica.us/index.php/articles/articles/howard_zinn/. I would like to state that I am in no way a racist and do not endorse any of the ideas that Mr. Ian Jobling so radically espouses because the reality is that God did create all Humans in equality to one another and that we all have the capability to love one another and think in the same capacity, which is in stark contrast to Joblings “scientifically proven” ideas. However, for what it is worth, this article did do a lot point out the flaws that exist within Zinns works and also point out the problems that exist in Zinns numerous yet misdirected ideologies.

  4. Did that just happen?

    Is that the best you can come up with Patrick? A website called “White America,” that describes itself as being “dedicated to combating leukophobia—the fear and loathing of the white race—and promoting race realism.”

    You are entitled to your own opinions. To be honest, Hofstadter and Zinn are both far more intelligent than you or I. That is why they get paid to write books, and we do not. When you are 86 years old and have a B.A. from NYU, a M.A. and Ph.D from Columbia, AND have done postdoctoral research at Harvard, you can talk all the crap about Zinn you want. It would probably be a moot point by that time, because people generally become more Liberal as they become more educated, and I highly doubt you would still defend Conservative ideology after 10 years in some of America’s best schools, but that is beside the point. Anyway, until then, you will just have to learn to tolerate his work – because there is a good chance you will read plenty more of it in college.

  5. Marcy: I cannot argue with your point; it is true and you are right; I have found an increase of academic and political apathy among a number of students of color. Due to mass communication and social relationships that are shaping popular culture, the lines have merged to some extent; however, I do believe — for the most part, that the younger generation of whites are more inclined to favor progress. This past election illustrated that some.

    As for POV, yes we do have those Ward Churchills that are creating conclusions driven by ideology — which in essence, means that he is doing the same as the pundits he attacks a la David Horowitz.

    Like I will say in response to Patrick’s comment, the key is teaching students how to discern. That is why I have the array of readings addressed above. Helping students see that there are different views, and those views are often time shaped by disposition.

  6. Patrick: I am not sure the scholarship of a “White America” page will hold up well. You might need to get back in my course. I read some of their stuff on Zinn, and, as I have stated to students before, one must be critical of Zinn pov; still, it offers a different type of narrative left out of textbooks for an array of reasons. Furthermore, I would look into the credentials of that author. For one, Zinn is right in that blacks did start to feel that MLK Jr had failed the cause and the revolution. Thus by the late 1960s many middle class blacks turned their backs on him and favored black nationalism. That page argues that this is anecdotal — not the case.

  7. Zinn is fine, but his writing is more polemical than rigorous and analytical. Have you ever thought of using somebody like Eric Foner? Less provocoteur, but still has the counter-narrative that you are seeking.

    Hofstadter seems fine, but his scholarship is a little dated. His interpretation also argues for a kind of consensus that most contemporary historians would challenge.

  8. I used Foner’s “Reconstruction, Americans Unfinished Revolution” years ago; it describe the relentless campaign of white supremacist violence towards the plight of black folks by addressing a chilling account of the evilness embedded behind the confederate flag and the South; I agree with your conclusion as it relates to Zinn, but still find Hofstadter’s Political Tradition to be an important classic work for students to read.

    A colleague of mine uses his general text, which I do not. Do not ask why. Great comment.

  9. Ed: love the website. If you remember, I was at the AP Vertical team training you did for the El Paso ISD back in October. As you can tell by my name, I don’t exactly see eye to eye ideologically/politically, but I truly love lurking and reading from time to time.

    I have to say, I love the way you teach your course. If I were not teaching AP World but were teaching AP US I’d probably model the course on yours (although probably with some different readings, and some similar).

    Dillon: are you sure they are more intelligent than you? Perhaps they just have a head start? As for getting paid to write books, that does not make one intelligent. There are plenty of authors who get paid lots of money but are no where near “good”. Dan Brown is one. His writing is sophomoric and the plots of his books are ridiculous. But he gets paid. Anyway, do not sell yourself short. You are far more intelligent than you think.

  10. I am truly disturbed that you are a teacher Mr. Carson, to show the books you show and have them looked as though they are not VERY biased shows either a lack of understanding or lack of caring about teaching. As for Mr. Zinn, the best review of his work that I have seen is written below-

    “Every work of history, according to Howard Zinn, is a political document. He titled his thick survey A People’s History (A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present [NY: Perennial Classics, 2003]) so that no potential reader would wonder about his own point of view: “With all its limitations, it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people’s movements of resistance.”

    That judgment, Zinn proudly announces, sets his book apart from nearly every other account of their past that most Americans are likely to read. “The mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction–so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people’s movements–that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.”

    His message has certainly been heard. A People’s History may well be the most popular work of history an American leftist has ever written. First published in 1980, it has gone through five editions and multiple printings, been assigned in thousands of college courses, sold more than a million copies, and made the author something of a celebrity–although one who appears to lack the egomaniacal trappings of the breed. Matt Damon, playing a working-class wunderkind in the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting, quoted from Zinn’s book to show up an arrogant Harvard boy (and impress a Harvard girl). Damon and his buddy Ben Affleck then signed with Fox to produce a ten-hour miniseries based on the book, before Rupert Murdoch’s minions backed out of the deal.

    But Zinn’s big book is quite unworthy of such fame and influence. A People’s History is bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions. Zinn reduces the past to a Manichean fable and makes no serious attempt to address the biggest question a leftist can ask about U.S. history: why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?

    His failure is grounded in a premise better suited to a conspiracy-monger’s Web site than to a work of scholarship. According to Zinn, “99 percent” of Americans share a “commonality” that is profoundly at odds with the interests of their rulers. And knowledge of that awesome fact is “exactly what the governments of the United States, and the wealthy elite allied to them–from the Founding Fathers to now–have tried their best to prevent.”

    History for Zinn is thus a painful narrative about ordinary folks who keep struggling to achieve equality, democracy, and a tolerant society, yet somehow are always defeated by a tiny band of rulers whose wiles match their greed. He describes the American Revolution as a clever device to defeat “potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.” His Civil War was another elaborate confidence game. Soldiers who fought to preserve the Union got duped by “an aura of moral crusade” against slavery that “worked effectively to dim class resentments against the rich and powerful, and turn much of the anger against ‘the enemy.'”

    Nothing of consequence, in his view, changed during the industrial era, notwithstanding the growth of cities, railroads, and mass communications. Zinn views the tens of millions of Europeans and Asians who crossed oceans at the turn of the past century as little more than a mass of surplus labor. He details their miserable jobs in factories and mines and their desperate, often violent strikes at the end of the nineteenth century-most of which failed. The doleful narrative makes one wonder why anyone but the wealthy came to the United States at all and, after working for a spell, why anyone wished to stay.

    Zinn does reveal a few moments of democratic glory–occasions when “the people,” or at least a politically conscious fraction of them, temporarily broke through the elite’s thick web of lies and coercion. Agrarian rebels formed cooperatives, allied with radical unionists, and charted their own financial system, the subtreasury, which they hoped would break the grip of heartless bankers. But, alas, the Populists were seduced in 1896 by William Jennings Bryan, who sold out their movement to the retrograde Democratic Party. During the Great Depression, wage earners across the industrial Midwest staged heroic sit-down strikes that demonstrated their ability to shut down the economy. But, for unexplained reasons, these working-class heroes allowed CIO unions and the New Deal state to smother their discontent within long-term contracts and bureaucratic procedures. Similarly, the civil rights movement toppled the Southern citadel of Jim Crow without taking on the capitalist system that kept the black masses mired in poverty.

    This is history as cynicism. Zinn omits the real choices our left ancestors faced and the true pathos, and drama, of their decisions. In fact, most Populists cheered Bryan and voted for him because he shared their enemies and their vision of a producers’ republic. Unlike Zinn, they grasped the dilemma of third parties in the American electoral system, which Richard Hofstadter likened to honeybees, “once they have stung, they die.” And to bewail the fact that liberal Democrats saw an advantage to supporting rights for unions and minorities is a stunning feat of historical naiveté. Short of revolution, a strategic alliance with one element of “the Establishment” is the only way social movements ever make lasting changes in law and public policy.

    Zinn’s conception of American elites is akin to the medieval church’s image of the Devil. For him, a governing class is motivated solely by its appetite for riches and power–and by its fear of losing them. Numerous historians may regard George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton as astute, if seriously flawed, men who erected a structure for the new nation that has endured for over two centuries. But Zinn curtly dismisses them as “leaders of the new aristocracy” and regards the nation-state itself as a cunning device to lull ordinary folks with “the fanfare of patriotism and unity.”

    Such phrases may hint of Marxism, but the old Rhinelander never took so static or simplistic a view of history. Zinn’s ruling elite is a transhistorical entity, a virtual monolith; neither its interests nor its ideology change markedly from the days when its members owned slaves and wore knee-britches to the era of the Internet and Armani. Zinn thus sees nothing unusual in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. It simply “meant that another part of the Establishment,” albeit “more crass” than its immediate antecedents, was now in charge.

    The ironic effect of such portraits of rulers is to rob “the people” of cultural richness and variety, characteristics that might gain the respect and not just the sympathy of contemporary readers. For Zinn, ordinary Americans seem to live only to fight the rich and haughty and, inevitably, to be fooled by them. They are like bobble-head dolls in work-shirts and overalls–ever sanguine about fighting the powers-that-be, always about to fall on their earnest faces. Zinn takes no notice of immigrants who built businesses and churches and craft unions, of women who backed both suffrage and temperance on maternalist grounds, of black Americans who merged the community-building gospel of Booker T. Washington and the militancy of W.E.B. Du Bois, or of wage-earners who took pleasure in the new cars and new houses those awful long-term contracts enabled them to buy.

    From the 1960s onward, scholars, most of whom lean leftward, have patiently and empathetically illuminated such topics–and explained how progressive movements succeeded as well as why they fell short of their goals. But Zinn cares only about winners and losers in a class conflict most Americans didn’t even know they were fighting. Like most propagandists, he measures individuals according to his own rigid standard of how they should have thought and acted. Thus, he depicts John Brown as an unblemished martyr but sees Lincoln as nothing more than a cautious politician who left slavery alone as long as possible. To explain why the latter’s election in 1860 convinced most slaveowners to back secession, Zinn falls back on the old saw, beloved by economic determinists, that the Civil War was “not a clash of peoples…but of elites,” Southern planters vs. Northern industrialists. Pity the slaves and their abolitionist allies; in their ignorance, they viewed it as a war of liberation and wept when Lincoln was murdered.

    To borrow a phrase from the British historian John Saville, Zinn expects the past to do its duty. He has been active on the left since his youth in the 1930s. During the 1960s, he fought for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam and wrote fine books that sprang directly from those experiences. But to make sense of a nation’s entire history, an author has to explain the weight and meaning of worldviews that are not his own and that, as an engaged citizen, he does not favor. Zinn has no taste for such disagreeable tasks.

    The fact that his text barely mentions either conservatism or Christianity is telling. The former is nothing but an excuse to grind the poor (“conservatism” itself doesn’t even appear in the index), while religion gets a brief mention during Anne Hutchinson’s rebellion against the Puritan fathers and then vanishes from the next 370 years of history.

    Given his approach to history, Zinn’s angry pages about the global reach of U.S. power are about as surprising as his support for Ralph Nader in 2000. Of course, President William McKinley decided to go to war with Spain at “the urging of the business community.” Zinn ignores the scholarly verdict that most Americans from all classes and races backed the cause of “Cuba Libre”–but not the later decisions to vassalize the Caribbean island and colonize the Philippines. Of course, as an imperial bully, the United States had no right, in World War II, “to step forward as a defender of helpless countries.” Zinn thins the meaning of the biggest war in history down to its meanest components: profits for military industries, racism toward the Japanese, and the senseless destruction of enemy cities–from Dresden to Hiroshima. His chapter on that conflict does ring with a special passion; Zinn served as a bombardier in the European theater and the experience made him a lifelong pacifist. But the idea that Franklin Roosevelt and his aides were motivated both by realpolitik and by an abhorrence of fascism seems not to occur to him.

    The latest edition of the book includes a few paragraphs about the attacks of September 11, and they demonstrate how poorly Zinn’s view of the past equips him to analyze the present. “It was an unprecedented assault against enormous symbols of American wealth and power,” he writes. The nineteen hijackers “were willing to die in order to deliver a deadly blow against what they clearly saw as their enemy, a superpower that had thought itself invulnerable.” Zinn then quickly moves on to condemn the United States for killing innocent people in Afghanistan.

    Is this an example of how to express the “commonality” of the great majority of U.S. citizens, who believed that the gruesome strike against America’s evil empire was aimed at them? Zinn’s flat, dualistic view of how U.S. power has been used throughout history omits what is obvious to the most casual observer: al-Qaeda’s religious fanaticism and the potential danger it poses to anyone that Osama bin Laden and his disciples deem an enemy of Islam. Surely one can hate imperialism without ignoring the odiousness of killers who mouth the same sentiment.

    Not everything in A People’s History is so obtuse and dogmatic. Zinn punctuates his narrative with hundreds of quotes from slaves and Populists, anonymous wage-earners and such articulate radicals as Eugene V. Debs, DuBois, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Stokely Carmichael, and Helen Keller. These supply texture and eloquence absent from the author’s own predictable renderings. It’s satisfying to know that a million readers have encountered the words Debs spoke upon being sentenced to jail for opposing the First World War:

    Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

    Zinn also fills several pages with excerpts from poems by Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen and from the autobiography of Richard Wright. But the richness of these lines doesn’t mitigate the poverty of his interpretations. Rage at injustice does not explain why that injustice occurs.

    Pointing out what’s wrong with Zinn’s passionate tome is not difficult for anyone with a smattering of knowledge about the American past. By why has this polemic disguised as history attracted so many enthusiastic readers?

    For the majority of reviewers on Amazon.com (381, as of February 2004), A People’s History has the force and authority of revelation. “Zinn single-handedly initiated a Copernican revolution in historicism,” writes “eco-william” from Oregon. Others rave about his “compassion and eye for detail” and proclaim the survey “a top contender for greatest book ever written.” Zinn’s admirers have a quick retort to conservatives who claim his work is “biased.” Writes “culov” from Anaheim: “The book is purposely meant to be biased. It tells the story of American history from the point of view of ‘the losers’ because we all know that the winners write history. If you want something written from George Washington’s point of view, go buy a textbook . . . those are as biased as possible.”

    The unqualified directness of Zinn’s prose clearly appeals to his readers. Unlike scholars who aspire to add one or two new bricks to an edifice that has been under construction for decades or even centuries, he brings dynamite to the job. “To understand,” wrote Frederick Douglass, “one must stand under.” Although Zinn doesn’t quote that axiom, the sensibility appears on every page of his book. His fans can supply the corollary themselves: only the utterly contemptible stand on top.

    Many radicals and some liberals clearly want to hear this moral stated and re-stated. Even Eric Foner, whose splendid scholarship delivers no such easy lessons, praised Zinn’s book in the New York Times as “a coherent new version of American history.” The Story of American Freedom, Foner’s own 1996 attempt to write a survey for non-academic readers, is far more scrupulous–and far less popular.

    Zinn fills a need shaped by our recent past. The years since 1980 have not been good ones for the American left. Three Republicans and one centrist Democrat occupied the White House; conservatives captured both houses of Congress; the phantom hope of state socialism vanished almost overnight; and progressive movements spent most of their time struggling to preserve earlier gains instead of daring to envision and fight for new ideas and programs.

    In the face of such unrelenting grimness, A People’s History offers a certain consolation. “The American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history,” writes Zinn. It uses wealth to “turn those in the 99 percent against one another” and employs war, patriotism, and the National Guard to “absorb and divert” the occasional rebellion. So “the people” can never really win, unless and until they make a revolution. But they can comprehend the evil of this four-hundred-year-old order, and that knowledge will, to an extent, set them free.

    Thus, a narrative about demonic elites becomes an apology for political failure. By Zinn’s account, the modern left made no errors of judgment, rhetoric, or strategy. He never mentions the Communist Party’s lockstep praise of Stalin or the New Left’s fantasy of guerilla warfare. Radical activists simply failed to muster enough clear-eyed troops to pierce through the enemy’s mighty, sophisticated defenses.

    Perhaps the greatest flaw of his book is that Zinn encourages readers to view so formidable a force as just a pack of lying bullies. He refuses to acknowledge that when they speak about their ideals, those who hold national power usually mean what they say. If FDR lied to Americans about the threat posed by Japanese-Americans during World War II, why should anyone believe his prattle about the Four Freedoms? So there’s no point in debating conservatives who prescribe libertarian economics, Victorian moral values, and preemptive interventions for what ails the United States and the world. All right-wingers really care about is keeping all the resources and power for themselves.

    This cynical myopia afflicts an alarming number of people on the left today. The gloom of defeat tends to obscure the landscape of real politics, which has always witnessed a clash of ideologies as well as interests, persuasion as well as buy-offs and sellouts. Zinn fiercely details the outrages committed by America’s rulers at home and abroad. But he makes no serious attempt to examine why these rulers kept getting elected, or how economic and social reform improved the lives of millions even if they sapped whatever mass appetite existed for radical change.

    No work of history can substitute for a social movement. Yet intelligent, sober studies can make sense of how changing structures of power and ideas provide openings for challenges from below, while also shifting the basis on which a reigning order claims legitimacy for itself. These qualities mark the work of such influential (and widely read) historians on the left as Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Gerda Lerner, C.L.R. James, and the erstwhile populist C. Vann Woodward. Reading their work makes one wiser about the obstacles to change as well as encouraged about the capacity of ordinary men and women to achieve a degree of independence and happiness, even within unjust societies. In contrast, Howard Zinn is an evangelist of little imagination for whom history is one long chain of stark moral dualities. His fatalistic vision can only keep the left just where it is: on the margins of American political life.” A review by Micahel Kazin

  11. Sorry you feel the way that you do; I am versed enough to help students discern and draw conclusion on historical analysis and changes in historiography. Keep in mind that I use multiple sources that paint history in different and various ways. Hey, that is why my blog is a forum — or soap box.

    • Sorry, Mr. Zinn has about as much place being used as a textbook in an AP History Course as would a textbook written by Karl Marx. The rest of your texts hardly give counter weights to Mr. Zinn and you even think he is not bias in his work! lol! You actually have that at the top of this page! “I am a big fan of Howard Zinn and his writings. Some believe his historical approach is a bit biased, but I contend what work is not.” Disturbing to say the least. If it obvious you are driving home a view point to the class of students you are teaching and in my opinion you have no business at this level of instruction.
      I wonder if you would feel the same if your son or daughter was forced to read something of the same level but from the opposite political spectrum? I somehow see you screaming bloody murder if that ever happened. It is one thing to bring up a book as part of a “Recommended Reading List” but another to present it as a TEXT and make it required.
      I am sure you are versed enough to help students but I am also quite sure that you are versed enough to fool yourself into thinking you are objective when you do help them or that somehow your blatant bias will not show itself.
      You have one saving grace, you at least post your views and what you teach online for the public to view, that takes courage, I respect that, truly. I do have to say this though, you are kidding yourself if you think that the biased views you have, the political views you have and the economic philosophy you have does not somehow influence how you teach and what you teach.

  12. eric:

    as a former student i feel i must jump in and defend carson who is clearly taking the high road. i will say you are too. carson gets mad when we agree with him with very liitle thought towards his points and what he wanted us to think about. he presented various schools of thought and asked us to think historically about multiple views. he even once asked us to take the pov of of white males as it related to affirmative action and social justice. i recall him defending social policies that surley he believes in. asking and challenging us to withdraw from emotions and think about history in a more scientific way. history is not dates and facts, but accounts and views from people like zinn who has a pov. the question is why does he and others have that view?

    honestly, i think he would favor a conservative view of history if it made us think and challenge what he calls “basic history.”

    • Jason,
      Having read Zinn, he is not just a POV, he is a conspiracy lunatic who advocates revolution. It is one thing to present him as a writer another as in the manner of a serious text. I have watched Zinn in interviews, at lectures, etc..he is the type of person who is sad that the USSR is gone, not kidding on that. To take him as a serious historian makes me a bit nervous for the field itself, one that I plan on joining shortly. It is obvious that Mr. Carson is a smart and well educated man but it is also obvious that he is in a bit of a sounding board situation and he reminds me of people in the press or pols in DC or my own Professors who are removed from everyday life, only talk to other people of like mind and hence live in a bit of fish bowl. It would be one thing if this was a course at a University, at the Secondary level it is a captured audience and that does bug the heck out of me as does the relative naiveness of the average secondary student. At the University Level, you will see a lot of the naiveness too but you have, more often than not, a mix of people who have been overseas in the Military, perhaps for the Dept of State, or some other NGO, it makes for a better mix of ideas and for challenge to the dominant idea of the instructor. Mr. Carson seems very dedicated, something lacking in many teachers today, but his dedication is based on his own premises and I think he needs to take a step back and look at how he is teaching a bit m ore objectively.
      Also, I can barely read the type when I respond, any chance of updating the font styles on this! lol!

  13. Eric:

    I respect your view on this topic, though I do not wholly agree. Still, I teach students to analyze various events and causation. I like Zinn and Brinkley because both are nice tools to use in showing students two ends. Keep in mind that the basictext used is that of Brinkley. Plus, textbooks do not drive my courses — though they are important. Yes I like Zinn; I like New Left — school of C. wright Mills, Marxist, Hegel, Toynbee, Classical, Christian, etc…. Students become versed not in just facts –but thinking about the process and historiography is. Student for too long have been taught to treat the subject as an endless run of facts; I am not sure what you mean by this level. Reread the post above. It is at this level that too many teachers have gotten it wrong.Often times not thinking historically, but thinking about grand nationalism and romanticism of facts; it is not a pretty story that is always told. My training allows me to help students discern information, not brainwash them. Plus, my students deserve more than just an average “school teacher.” Have you seen the price of an education?

    I like your points though. It is good to challenge me on this; I like students too see that what they learn and are taught should always fall under some type of criticism. Learning without this is not really learning.

    • Edward,
      My problem is that students do not have a base of knowledge as far as facts, dates, etc..go at that level (Secondary). It is hard to be a critical thinker about a topic if you are not even aware of the facts, dates, etc..that the topic involves. You are putting the cart before the horse and the cart you are using is not Center Left, it is Far Left, the equal of someone brining in books that advocate fascism or a dictatorship, since that is all Marxism and his followers are in the end, just with a different economic model for the fascist or Oligarchy state they want to run. As for not always being a pretty story, I have been to two different conflicts and am well aware of the “not pretty” side but that also ignores the good, the noble acts and the sacrifice that also goes along with it. Do you speak of actions in the past but ignore the fact that we keep attempting to get better or do you just concentrate on the bad side of things? Sheesh, Zinn thinks that WWI and WWII were conspiracies to dominate the global economic market and you want me to take him or people who think he makes great points in a serious manner? Please. Yes, things are so horrible here that people just cannot seem to get over the border quick enough. lol. I have been around to many places, our poor worry about diabetes, heart disease and getting an X-Box, try that in Africa or many of the other places around the world. Hmm…I wonder why if things are so truly terrible here that so manny in Africa would do just about anything to get here? The same can be said for S. America, C.America and most of Asia that I have been too as well as big chunk of Euorope, but yes, Zinn and his cohorts are spot on 😉
      You sound like a hard De-constructionist and a Marxist, and almost always, at the heart of hearts of all Marxist or anyone who advocates a strong central government, they are either one of two things, dictators who think people need to have a professional government to run their lives or naive.

  14. Also, did not want to leave that laying around, I really do not mean to that to be an insult, just an observation of what I have seen EVERY TIME I have met someone with your belief system, most of my professors are that way, many of the journalists I have met as well as most of those in academia, you probe deep enough and that always comes out and they always forget the key ingredient of human nature.

  15. I guess my only response to address your concern about “the influence” factor of young students is that my students are “highly” bright students; I ask them to read and think independently and to bring their questions to the table. They have a book and thus they can read about the dates, facts, etc; however, in defense of my students — I am not sure they are at any more of a disadvantage than say your average adult who gets his or her information from Keith Oberman or Sean Hannity (MSNBC and FOX News). We live in an age driven by 20 second news clips.

    My job is to challenge this sense of decadence. On my campus, my voice and class is the exception when it comes to point of view or perspective. Remember, being an academic Marxist or a deconstructionist is okay for discussing ideas and schools of thought. Who decides it (other views) is lesser than say being a right-winger who thinks there is only one way at looking at the present or the past. Again, this is what makes democracy so important; it is this that allows for varying views. Who makes up such rules? This is not about ideology nor narrative; it is about looking at the hitherto and its conclusion on the various plight of individuals.

    Plus, I think my students are smarter once they leave my class than many who are 20 sitting in a survey of US history receiving the same narrative they have heard their entire life. The nice thing about history is that it is a narrative in which all people contribute too. Sure, it took the 60s and 70s before the narrative of outsiders were fully heard, but it happened.

    As a black man who grew up in the South and one who had parents who grew up in Selma, as well as Montgomery, my position and ideology are shaped by them. And by attending high school in the deep south, I believe in (for the most part) a strong central government.

  16. As a student of Carson’s I find your attack upon his intentions as revolting, as it is not an attack upon Carson’s use of Zinn, but of a highly stylized stereotype that you percieve to be the case because of your own bad experiences with the subject matter. I am sorry that you can not appreciate diversity and different points of view, because if you could, you would be able to look past the labels that you have placed upon these works, and truly look into his works objectively. I am currently enrolled in Carson’s class in which he presents Zinn, and it is nothing like the uneducated mass of beligerent students as you seem to encounter in your work. Students who take Carson’s Ap U.S. History are highly motivated and intelligent students who take Zinn’s work as a point of view, so that this class, beyond presenting history, provides and encourages the acceptance of learning about aposing viewpoints. He presents Zinn in a light which acknowledges the bias, and even jokes about the extent to which it is taken; by no means is Carson the stereotypical idiot of a professor set in his ways. I percieve that you simply are taking out frustration upon other professors that you have had in the past, and are only attacking Carson because of how you have labeled any one who DARES pick up Zinn’s “EVIL” works. Truly open minded of you.

    • Master Scott,
      As usual you prove my point, as a High School student you react with emotion and no logic and should not have this material rammed down your throat without something to balance it. Mr. Carson himself says he is a strong believer in a Strong Central Government, something that is in direct opposition to freedom, democracy and economic freedom as well. You say he acknowledges the bias? Umm..look at his top paragraph about Zinn’s work again, might help you see it a tad more clearly. Also, I like how as a “mature” high school student you toss out nothing of substance and only do what many do when frustrated about someone going against their “Beliefs”, you rant and make personal attacks and attempt to use what you think passes for satire, look at the use of “Evil” in your support of your argument, as though that clever sound bite adds anything to the view you have.
      I think Mr. Carson is a very bright man but I also think he is typical of the people I have run into and if you read my posts you will also see he does not deny being many of the things I say he is. I will say he is a VERY gutsy man though for putting this out there and be willing to argue the points, most would not and would teach these views under a veil of secrecy. I commend him for that, it does not take away the fact that his class is so far from being balanced that it is in effect indoc vs. education.

  17. Mr. Carson,
    You make my points for me, teach from more than one text and you should use Kazin in the class to balance against Zinn, as well as many others, who does give Zinn or anyone else more value over any other person but the teacher? Zinn is not a credit to the history profession and is a borderline fanatic, a conspiracy nut who has more conspiracies than the “Loose Change” Crew and as such I cannot see him being used as a legit text. I never advocated using any Right Wing Lunatic in a class either, I do advocate a balanced and HONEST review of history, Zinn is about as far from either one of those things as a person can be. Sorry, I see no value in using Zinn as a main text and consider it almost a lie to even call him a historian, he is an embarrassment to the field. If he was used as just a supplement it would be one thing, to use him the way he is being used is quite another.

  18. Also, one last bit, what does being raised in Selma have to do with anything? How does that justify a hard core advocate of Marxism? That same philosophy of Marxism has caused over 100 million deaths since the early 1900’s and I am not sure how that ties into being born in Selma. I have lived in the South for 12 years now, mostly in Military areas so perhaps due to the inter-mixing in those areas it is not a fair comparison but since 1990 I have yet to see evidence anywhere of the kind of racist idiocy that went on back in the 50’s or 60’s. How does a man who is an historian buy into a philosophy that has killed more people than WWII? Actually, that is more of a PM type discussion, please feel free to email me on that one.

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