When Assessing Zinn, Listen to the Voices of Teachers and Students

tags: Howard Zinn, A People's History, Robert Cohen, history education, K-12, teachers, pedagogy



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Robert Cohen is Professor of Social Studies and Steinhardt Affiliated Professor in the History Department at New York University.


Howard Zinn speaking in 2009. Credit: Wiki Commons.

There is an unintended irony in the title of Sam Wineburg’s recent HNN article “Undue Certainty: Where Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Fall Short,” because Wineburg, who initially published this piece in a teacher’s magazine is himself “unduly certain” that Zinn’s book works poorly in history classrooms. By that I mean he drew his conclusion about Zinn’s lack of educational value without talking to a single teacher or gathering other primary source data about how they teach A People’s History in their U.S. history classes or on how students’ see their learning experience when they read A People’s History. There is actually a wealth of data on both teacher and student responses to Zinn’s People’s History and Wineburg missed it all. Some of this data takes the form of correspondence that high school teachers and students sent to Zinn, dating back to the publication of A People’s History in 1980 through Zinn’s death in 2010. This correspondence is housed in the Howard Zinn papers at NYU’s Tamiment Library, and virtually none of it confirms any of Wineburg’s conclusions about Zinn’s book stifling independent historical thought and debate.

In fact what is so striking about Wineburg’s article is that, despite its Zinn-bashing tone, in one important respect it resembles the hundreds of letters students wrote to Zinn about A People’s History (which I have read for my forthcoming book on the Zinn book’s educational impact) because it was so clear that Zinn had provoked Wineburg, as he had so many students, to engage in historical debate, and in the process to learn a great deal of history. In fact, Wineburg, a psychologist, did such an able job of researching the World War II bombing chronology and the black role in that war for his rebuttal to Zinn’s pacifist-inflected chapter on World War II that the editor of the AFT magazine, which initially published Wineburg’s article, mistook him for a historian and identified him that way on the AFT’s Facebook page. Teachers who have taught Zinn will not be surprised that the questions A People’s History raised about whether World War II actually was a virtuous “People’s War” had so stimulated Wineburg. The reason teachers would not be surprised at such learning via Zinn is that they use A People’s History to similarly stimulate their students’ learning through historical debate. Zinn in the history classroom, is via A People’s History, above all a provocateur, who inspires students to ask deep historical questions, and whose radical approach to American history enables daring, effective teachers to engage their students in thought provoking debates in which Zinn’s indictment of US imperialism, militarism, classism, racism, and sexism is compared with the triumphalist version of American history found in most school-adopted textbooks.

Had Wineburg spoken to high school history teachers, he would have learned that Zinn is most often used in a comparative context, so it is a mistake to analyze A People’s History as a solo textbook, as he did. Indeed, contrary to Wineburg’s misleading claim that Zinn “has gone mainstream,” it is the state- or school-adopted textbooks that constitute the mainstream in most public schools, while Zinn is considered far too radical to be adopted officially as a textbook. Actually, Zinn most frequently ends up in high school classroom in the form of xeroxes of A People’s History’s most provocative chapters, which innovative teachers, (fed up with bland, boring textbooks assigned by their schools) provide to spark historical and historiographical debate. A People’s History is so rarely assigned as a textbook or ordered for teachers by their school systems that the Zinn Education Project, formed in 2007 by Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change, received an overwhelming response when it held a national essay contest for teachers, whose winners received a rare commodity: a classroom set of A People’s History. As Bill Bigelow, a veteran teacher, co-director of the Zinn Education Project, and co-editor of Rethinking Columbus explains, “there is no way that one can consider A People's History of the United States to be a mainstream text in school districts in the country, if by "text" we mean a book assigned to all students as the main course reading material. No doubt, there are imaginative teachers throughout the United States who are eager to supplement or counter the wretched textbook treatment of U.S. history with A People's History as an alternative. But I'm aware of no school district that has adopted Zinn in place of some hugely expensive text from Pearson or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt…. For Wineburg to propose… that somehow A People's History …. is now the new orthodoxy is simply wrong.”

As to what students learn when they read Zinn’s A People’s History, the best sources on that are the students themselves and their teachers. The most complete set of letters students sent to Zinn after they read (parts of) A People’s History come from those in the classes of Bill Patterson, an innovative history teacher who taught in public high schools in two conservative communities in Oregon during the 1980s and 1990s. Patterson asked his students to send Zinn their thoughts, criticisms, and questions about A People’s History, and over the years more than a hundred did so. Patterson explained in his letters to Zinn that he had assigned several chapters of A People’s History together with the required and traditional textbook “for the sake of exposure to a variety of interpretations and attempting to nurture independent thought.” Patterson designed his Zinn vs. the textbook assignments to promote, in his words, “the ‘art’ of inquiry,” in an attempt to teach students to research and assess conflicting views, so as “to get at the truth… a skill desperately needed as these young people approach adulthood.”

The reason Patterson continued over two decades to have his students read select Zinn chapters as a counter to the textbook and then write to Zinn was because he found that it promoted critical thinking skills and fostered lively debate. Instead of sleepy sessions in which students covered only a traditional textbook, the contrast between Zinn and the textbook “provoked spirited (sometimes rowdy) discussions in class,” which sparked student interest in history, an interest Patterson used to push students “to investigate various topics, form conclusions, and articulate how they came to those conclusions.” Students who disagreed with Zinn’s radical take on history, no less than those who agreed with him, tended to find these sessions intellectually stimulating since Zinn’s writing was so accessible and his ideas so new to them. As Patterson told Zinn, “over the course of the school year, no matter if a student ‘loved’ you or ‘hated’ you, they all looked forward to what you had to say on a topic.”

The student letters to Zinn confirm Patterson’s assessment. His students were quite clear that Zinn was not being held up as the final arbiter of history, but rather, as one of Paterson’s students wrote Zinn, select chapters from A People’s History had been assigned “for the purpose of argument and comparison to our textbook. We also used them for debate purposes and as a resource for learning more about that time period.” It was evident to the students that Zinn was coming from the Left and had a much more critical perspective on American history than their textbook. Where the textbook, as this same student explained to Zinn, “reflects on the positive sides of people and events in… American history… you revealed the negative and more unattractive side of these people and events…. We found it interesting and somewhat disappointing that historians and authors of our textbooks chose not to reflect the entire history of that era.” This student was particularly startled that in “our textbook Andrew Jackson was described as a hero,” and that unlike in A People’s History the text failed to include “any mention of his involvement in the Indian removal.” What emerges in this letter is the student trying to come to a balanced assessment of Jackson, that “although Andrew Jackson may have been a great leader and contributed greatly to the advancement and expansion of America as a new nation, his involvement in the Indian removal and the manner in which this was accomplished was cruel and disgraceful.”

What Zinn did for students was expose them right away, in A People’s History’s opening chapter, to the idea that history involved sorting out conflicting interpretations and that a historian’s view of the past was often influenced by his or her own ideology, political assumptions, and those that prevailed in the time in which the historian was writing. He illustrated this by criticizing Samuel Eliot Morison’s classic biography of Christopher Columbus, which idolized Columbus as a courageous explorer while slighting the significance of his brutal mistreatment of the Arawaks. Zinn pointed out that history had usually been written from the point of view of the victors, as with Morison on Columbus, but that he in A People’s History would look at history from the other side, from, in the parlance of the new social history of the 1960s and '70s, “the bottom up.” In arguably the most famous passage from his book, which explained his radical break with standard textbooks, Zinn wrote:

I prefer to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees… of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American War as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists…. the post-war American empire as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can “see” history from the standpoint of others.

For virtually all of Patterson’s students this approach to American history was new and exciting since they had never been exposed to the new social history, and it represented such a dramatic break with the sunny and top-down version of history they had learned in their classes and textbooks since grade school. Seeing how different Zinn’s history was from their textbooks led them, haltingly at first and in diverse ways and varied levels of sophistication, to begin thinking about historical methodology, and to question the relationship between evidence, bias, and historical conclusions. It was for most the first time they realized that historical truth was contested, historical narratives selectively constructed. As one of Patterson’s students wrote Zinn: “Your writings are very educational. They help us to think about a side of history that we usually aren’t exposed to. Until I read one of your writings I never even stopped to think about the fact that our History [text] books were only giving us one viewpoint… I didn’t realize that there were so many controversial happenings to be written about.” The students were making their first moves towards recognizing that history was more than a simple trivia game involving remembering names and dates, that history was a critical discipline.

Patterson’s students were, as he suggested, divided about Zinn. Some admired Zinn’s radical view of the American past, while others were either strongly critical or ambivalent about it. Those students who most admired Zinn found it liberating to encounter his critical perspective on American racism and militarism, his focus on workers and nonwhites, his iconoclastic portraits of leading historical figures such as Columbus whom they had previously been taught to idolize. Many expressed gratitude to Zinn for taking them beyond what they now saw as the “fairy tale” version of the American past and a few even commented on how they now saw that they had been “brainwashed” to only see the positive side of American history. Some of these admirers of Zinn admitted that initially they had been shocked and even angry at him for harshly criticizing those they had been previously taught to see as heroes, but that they had come to realize that historical study involved pushing beyond nationalistic conceits, and looking squarely at historical evidence even if this led to unflattering conclusions about their country’s past. They praised Zinn for his eloquence and some cited his courage in sailing against the wind and daring to shatter cherished national myths about the American past. Sometimes, the letters reflected the youth and immaturity of the students, sounding like fan mail, as if Zinn had invented radical history and was heroically championing his dissident views solo – not realizing he had been influenced by a whole generation of new social history scholars and New Left critics of American imperialism. But the youthful exuberance was simply a teenage way of expressing their gratitude to Zinn for generating such intellectual excitement and helping them to think in new ways about history.

Those students who were critical of Zinn sometimes also displayed modes of expression that reflected their youth and immaturity. Some of their letters to Zinn questioned whether he was making up his facts. Others went in for ad hominen attacks, asking him whether he was a Communist, an atheist, why he hated America. But the best of these critical students took their anger at Zinn and channeled it into pointed and meaningful questions, asking him, as Zinn recalled, “how I got such information, and how I arrived at such outrageous conclusions” that had cast the U.S. in so negative a light. Some of these students tried to use their letters to Zinn to rebut what they had read in A People’s History. A number of them, for example, raised on stories of American heroism in World War II focused their ire on the same chapter Wineburg had, insisting that the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb not to impress the Soviets as the first act of the Cold War, as Zinn had suggested, but simply to force the Japanese to surrender and end World War II.

Different as the pro- and anti-Zinn responses might seem, and however divergent they may have been politically, there was actually something many of the best pro and con letters shared: a concern with evidence, and a new and developing ability to use evidence to test the conclusions historians drew. The anti-Zinn students were using evidence from their textbook and other sources to question Zinn’s conclusions while Zinn’s admirers were employing evidence from A People’s History to challenge the historical conclusions of their textbook. And some were even questioning both Zinn and the textbook. This is quite an achievement, when one considers that these students of Patterson were so young, just juniors in high school. One can see their youth and inexperience as writers in the spelling and grammatical errors in their letters to Zinn. Yet shining through amidst these imperfections is the development of genuine historical thought, critical interrogation of texts, and an attempt to glean historical truth out of competing interpretations. How well Patterson as a teacher and Zinn as a historian succeeded in provoking such thought is evident when reflecting on the words of one student who wrote Zinn that as she

read these articles [ie xeroxes of Zinn chapters on Columbus and on Andrew Jackson and Indian removal], these became more than just a supplement to my textbook. They gave me the ability to weight certain aspects of historical events to my own standards. Which is more important; Columbus’ discovery of America, or the extinction of a race of people? As a student I appreciate the opportunity to see more than just the narrow textbook view of history. Textbooks seem a dispassionate source of information, yet you have written that many historians have colored history with their own ideology. My question to you is, are you not also subject to … tainted ideology? Is your own view any less narrow than those you criticize? Perhaps it is my role as a student to extract the pieces of information from each extreme to create an objective vs. subjective view of history. Without benefit of your information this would most certainly not be possible.

What all this makes evident is whatever the flaws in its specific historical arguments A People’s History of the United States has been a useful, and in some ways a uniquely valuable book for getting students to move beyond the textbook, beyond the naïve assumption promoted at least implicitly by too many high school texts and tests, that there is one consensual view of American history and that all students need to do is memorize the names and dates. Zinn engages students, angers and inspires them, prods them to think critically about how historical evidence is used and historical conclusions reached. A People’s History encourages them to question their nationalistic assumptions about American virtue and to confront the arguments of a historian who sees the U.S as a society that from its founding has been rent by class divisions, racial unrest, gender inequities, and was then and now remains a nation inclined towards war and empire. Even though Zinn is gone, his best-selling book remains, and judging by the words of students and teachers who used Zinn in the classroom from the 1980s-2010 and the on-line comments of the many teachers who are currently a part of the Zinn Education Project today (which has more than 25,000 registrants), A People’s History retains its appeal for innovative teachers and their students. Indeed, today, when high school history teachers have been under great pressure to promote critical literacy skills – and the Common Core Curriculum -- through the reading of divergent sources and viewpoints, Zinn and the debates he promotes in relation to mainstream textbook history seem more timely than ever.

Clearly there are many historians and other Zinn critics, such as Wineburg, who think Zinn’s scholarship too weak to justify his sterling reputation with progressive teachers. But the teacher and student correspondence to Zinn, that is the classroom evidence, I have studied leads me to disagree. Such evidence suggest that these critics have not thought deeply enough about what introductory classes in history need to achieve, how high school teachers have used Zinn to help their students take the first steps towards engaging with history as a critical discipline. Perhaps rather than focusing only on highlighting the deficiencies in Zinn’s scholarship these critics should also be studying Zinn with an eye towards understanding why A People’s History succeeds in engaging students in a way their textbooks don’t, and to see if it would be possible for some 21st century historian to follow in Zinn’ s footsteps and go him one better, authoring an introductory text that will be as popular with academics as it is with high school teachers and students. Until that happens Zinn’s A People’s History will remain the most popular dissenting text in American history.


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