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Jan 4, 2005 10:31 pm

Popular History Left and Right ...

Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present, which presents a fairly superficial reading of American history from a perspective on the Left, has been through five editions and sold more than a million copies. One of its ironies, of course, was that the market so fulsomely rewarded a historian who was so contemptuous of"free markets." Many of us, Left and Right, were uncomfortable with its influence. I used to have to explain to my students at Antioch why we were not reading it in my classes, but Michael Kazin's"Howard Zinn's Disappointing History of the United States" in Dissent explains its shortcomings more fully.

Now we have a Right-wing knock-off of Zinn's book: A Patriot's History of the United States: From Columbus's Great Discovery to the War on Terror by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen. Schweikart is a professor of American economic history at the University of Dayton and Allen specializes in the history of the American west at the University of Washington, Tacoma. A Patriot's History of the United States has been named book-of-the-month for February in Laissez-Faire Books annual competition for the Lysander Spooner Award (scroll down). Its authors are touting it at,, and on other distinguished sites.

I don't know Michael Allen, but Conservativenet's Richard Jensen would tell you that I've disagreed with virtually everything that Larry Schweikart has ever said on its private list. More than once, Richard has refused to publish my responses to Schweikart or his responses to me. I wandered over to the Freepers' website today and it reminded me that I've written before about Schweikart at Cliopatria:"I've read and refuted enough of Schweikart's opinions on Conservativenet to believe that the University of Dayton gave tenure and promoted to full professor a genuine wacko." Hmm. I'm usually more temperate than that. Don't get me wrong. Larry has his charms. A former drummer for a rock'nroll band, he still plays drums for his Pentecostal congregation in Dayton. It's just that, so far as I can tell, being a Christian doesn't help Larry distinguish between G_d and Uncle Sam. Don't tell me about diversity in history departments. We've got our fair share of kooks and nuts. But you'd better prepare to tell your students why you're not using A Patriot's History of the United States in your history class.

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Van L. Hayhow - 1/5/2005

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/5/2005

I'm not sure where I am going either. I think you comment pulled together a couple of thought threads concerning history and the public.

In one, I find myself wondering if the most important question about a historian's impact on the general public is simply, "is the average reader better informed after reading this historian than before?" By that admittedly low standard, an unethical historian could still serve a public interest, so long as his or her product was accurate most of the time.

In the other thread, I, like many others, have wondered if communicating to the general public requires placing the topic within certain acceptable themes. An old one is "the Bravery of our people." (See almost any book on the Civil War). The newest, which allows at least for some international topics, is indicated in titles like "How the Irish Saved Civilization."

The term "to condescend" originally indicated the skill of a higher class person to "step down" and talk in a man-to-man way to people of a lower class. Does being a public intellectual who aspires to a wider audience than the post baccalaureate crowd require stepping down?

And is there any way to do that without some significant compromise?

Ralph E. Luker - 1/5/2005

I'm not certain where you're going with this, but I wouldn't cite Stephen Ambrose as my model for a public intellectual. He qualifies in two ways: one, he left the academy; and, two, he had a large public audience. But that reverses the order of importance of things for him. Because he had a large public audience, he could make more money by leaving the academy than by grading term papers. Pretty clearly, it was the money that moved him. Otherwise, I don't think he'd have spent time testifying on behalf of the cigarette manufacturers. Why does that kind of activity make me want to disqualify Stephen Ambrose as a public intellectual? Is it only because he was willing to use other people's work without proper attribution _and_ sell his own public reputation to the highest bidder in an anti-social cause? Do I sound skeptical?

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/5/2005

Hi Ralph. Are you out west yet?

I know what follows is taking what you said a bit farther than you meant it to go, but doing so poses an interesting conundrum. For historians to provide the public benefits of academic knowledge, they must leave academia. To share the products of academic rigor, they must be less than rigorous in order for the general public to read it.

It has sometimes struck me that Ambrose has never been excused of stealing from a bad scholar. If one ignored the theft, and the manufacturing process, and simply looked at the product, he would be judged a decent and sometimes very good historian who occasionally slips into celebration as opposed to analysis.

Does that mean he was a public intellectual?

Ralph E. Luker - 1/5/2005

There's no question but that some people _will_ pay a price, in sacrificing scholarship, for example, in order to be a more public figure. Some people suspect that Cornel West has done the same sort of thing. But if a person is going to do that, then maybe the thing to do in order to maintain some semblance of integrity would be to leave academic life altogether and become the self-sustaining public intellectual.

Anthony Paul Smith - 1/5/2005

I will read it. Don't you think that there is always going to be some sacrifice of scholarship to pay the price of being a more public figure? Not that it is an excuse, I'm just curious as to what you think.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/5/2005

Anthony, Zinn's book can be a step in a learning process, as it apparently was for you -- if it shakes up some prior indoctination. What really disturbs me, however, is that I see many more people these days who are unwilling to immerse themselves in a book with which they may profoundly disagree. I'd recommend that you read Michael Kazin's article as a check on Zinn. Kazin has very strong credentials on the Left, as does _Dissent_.

Anthony Paul Smith - 1/5/2005

I read Zinn's book my freshman year of college as part of my private indoctrination. I liked it for the same reasons you didn't, it was brief and gave voice to parts of history that I had never learned about at the two conservative high schools I attended and because he admitted it's "short-coming" (i.e. blatant ideological bias) during the preface. Then again, I'm no historian.

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