Howard Zinn’s Anti-Textbook

Teachers and students love A People’s History of the United States. But it’s as limited—and closed-minded—as the textbooks it replaces.

A People’s History of the United States book cover with Air Force aircraft and historical illustrations.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by U.S. Air Force and Camille Flammarion/Wikipedia.

This essay is excerpted from Sam Wineburg’s Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone), out now from University of Chicago Press.

With more than 2 million copies in print, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is more than a book. It is a cultural icon. “You wanna read a real history book?” Matt Damon asks his therapist in the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting. “Read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. That book’ll … knock you on your ass.” The book’s original gray cover was painted red, white, and blue in 2003 and is now marketed with special displays in suburban megastores. Once considered radical, A People’s History has gone mainstream. By 2002, Will Hunting had been replaced by A. J. Soprano of the HBO hit The Sopranos. Doing his homework at the kitchen counter, A. J. tells his parents that his history teacher compared Christopher Columbus to Slobodan Milošević. When Tony fumes, “Your teacher said that?” A. J. responds, “It’s not just my teacher—it’s the truth. It’s in my history book.” The camera pans to A. J. holding a copy of A People’s History.

Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) book cover
University of Chicago Press

History, for Zinn, is looked at from “the bottom up”: a view “of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army.” Decades before we thought in such terms, Zinn provided a history for the 99 percent. Many teachers view A People’s History as an anti-textbook, a corrective to the narratives of progress dispensed by the state. This is undoubtedly true on a topical level. When learning about the Spanish-American War, students don’t read about Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill. Instead, they follow the plight of foot soldiers sweltering in the Cuban tropics, clutching their stomachs, not from Spanish bullets but from food poisoning caused by rancid meat sold to the army by Armour & Company. Such stories acquaint students with a history too often hidden and too quickly brushed aside by traditional textbooks.

But in other ways—ways that strike at the very heart of what it means to learn history as a discipline—A People’s History is closer to students’ state-approved texts than its advocates are wont to admit. Like traditional textbooks, A People’s History relies almost entirely on secondary sources, with no archival research to thicken its narrative. Like traditional textbooks, the book is naked of footnotes, thwarting inquisitive readers who seek to retrace the author’s interpretative steps. And, like students’ textbooks, when A People’s History draws on primary sources, these documents serve to prop up the main text but never provide an alternative view or open a new field of vision.

Howard Zinn has the same right as any author to choose one interpretation over another, to select which topics to include or ignore. I find myself agreeing with A People’s History in some places (such as the Indian Removal Act, and the duplicity and racism of the Wilson administration) and shaking my head in disbelief at others (e.g., Zinn’s conflation of the party of Lincoln with the Democratic Party of Jefferson Davis). Yet where my proclivities align with or depart from Zinn’s is beside the point.

I am less concerned with what Zinn says than his warrant for saying it, less interested in the words that meet the eye than with the book’s interpretive circuitry, which doesn’t. Largely invisible to the casual reader are the moves and strategies that Zinn uses to bind evidence to conclusion, to convince readers that his interpretations are right. More is at stake in naming and making explicit these moves than an exercise in rhetoric. For when they encounter Zinn’s A People’s History, students undoubtedly take away more than new facts about the Homestead strike or Eugene V. Debs. They are exposed to and absorb an entire way of asking questions about the past as well as a means of using evidence to advance historical argument. For many students, A People’s History will be the first full-length history book they read—and, for some, it will be the only one. Beyond what they learn about Shays’ Rebellion or the loopholes in the Sherman Antitrust Act, what does A People’s History teach young people about what it means to think historically?

On Jan. 23, 1964, a chilly Thursday in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, black and white citizens went into the Forrest County Courthouse. They had come to hear a case against an activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee charged with “obstructing the flow of pedestrian traffic.” But before the case could get under way, Judge Mildred W. Norris had to deal with a scene she had never encountered before: blacks and whites sitting together in her courtroom. When she ordered marshals to “restore order,” a lanky white man gestured that he wanted to speak.

“Your Honor, the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that segregated seating in a courtroom is unconstitutional. Will you please abide by that ruling?”

Norris wavered. Then, in what would become a precedent in the history of Mississippi jurisprudence, she allowed the integrated seating on the condition that those in attendance “not create a disturbance.”

That lanky speaker was Howard Zinn. Born to poor Jewish immigrants in 1922, he grew up in a family that was, as he liked to say, “always one step ahead of the landlord.” It was Zinn’s experience as a bombardier in World War II that turned him into a lifelong pacifist who opposed using violence to solve human problems.

After receiving his doctorate in history from Columbia, Zinn went to teach at Spelman, a historically black women’s college, but was fired after he organized the college women (Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman were among his students) to enter the “White Only” branches of the Atlanta Public Library and request copies of the Constitution and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. At the height of the Vietnam War, Zinn flew to Hanoi with Father Daniel Berrigan to negotiate the release of Air Force Maj. Norris Overly, Navy Ensign David Matheny, and Capt. John Black. During two rancorous decades at Boston University, he sparred fiercely and frequently with his nemesis, John Silber, BU’s president, who once accused Zinn of committing arson. (Silber later recanted and apologized.) On his last day of work, Zinn let class out early so he could join a picket line, encouraging his students to follow. Until the day he died in 2010, Howard Zinn lived a life of commitment and unstinting devotion to the things he believed in.

But this is not a story about Howard Zinn, the man. It’s about Howard Zinn, the curriculum. Zinn lived an admirable life, but who he was is not the issue when a teacher bases a lesson on the atomic bomb on secondary works written more than 40 years ago; or teaches about the Cold War without taking into account evidence that has come to light since the opening of Soviet archives; or conflates a Nazi bombing campaign with that of the Allies, ignoring Hitler’s barbarous assault on Poland; or places Jim Crow and the Holocaust on the same footing, without explaining that as color barriers were being dismantled in the United States, bricks were being laid for the crematoria at Auschwitz.

It is here that Zinn’s undeniable charisma turns dangerous, especially when we become attached to his passionate concern for the underdog. The danger mounts when we are talking about how we educate the young, those who do not yet get the interpretive game, who are just learning that claims must be judged not for their alignment with current issues of social justice but for the data they present and their ability to account for the unruly fibers of evidence that jut out from any interpretative frame. It is here that Zinn’s power of persuasion extinguishes students’ ability to think and speaks directly to their hearts.

In the 38 years since its original publication, A People’s History has gone from a book that buzzed about the ear of the dominant narrative to its current status, where in many circles it has become the dominant narrative. It shows up on college reading lists for economics, political science, anthropology, cultural studies, women’s studies, ethnic studies, Chicano studies, and African American studies courses, along with history. A People’s History (in its various editions and adaptations) remains a perennial favorite in courses for future teachers, and in some of these classes, it is the only history book on the syllabus.

In many ways, A People’s History and traditional textbooks are mirror images that relegate students to roles as absorbers, not analysts, of information—only at different points on the political spectrum. In a study that examined features of historical writing, linguist Avon Crismore found that historians frequently use qualifying language to signal the soft underbelly of historical certainty. However, when she looked at historians’ writing in textbooks, such linguistic markers disappeared. A search through A People’s History for qualifiers mostly comes up short. Instead, the seams of history are concealed by the presence of an author who speaks with thunderous certainty.

To be sure, A People’s History brings together material from movements that rocked the discipline during the 1960s and 1970s: working-class history, feminist history, black history, and various ethnic histories. Together, these perspectives blew apart the consensus school of the 1950s by showing the squishiness of interpretations that arose from varied “positionalities” toward historical events. However, while A People’s History draws liberally from such work, the book resolutely strikes a traditional pose toward historical knowledge. It substitutes one monolithic reading of the past for another, albeit one that claims to be morally superior and promises to better position students to take action in the present.

There is, however, one way that A People’s History differs from traditional history textbooks: It is written by a skilled stylist. Compared with the turgid prose of a typical textbook, Zinn’s muscular presence makes for brisk reading. It’s no surprise, then, that for many readers, A People’s History becomes not just a way to view the past, but the way. In You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, a documentary that loosely follows Zinn’s autobiography of the same name, an aspiring teacher, sporting a shock of red hair and a three-day scruff, explains why he came to hear Zinn lecture: “I want to teach the truth to my students someday, so that’s why I am here.”

Many reasons account for A People’s History’s preternatural shelf life. While historians may have known about Columbus’ atrocities since 1552, when Bartolomé de las Casas laid them out in grisly detail in A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, for Americans raised on textbooks with names like The American Pageant and Triumph of the American Nation, such descriptions came as shocking revelations. Zinn shrewdly recognized that what might have been common knowledge among subscribers to the Radical History Review was largely invisible to the broader reading public.

Americans like their narratives clean. It took Zinn’s brilliance to draw a direct line from the rapier that Columbus used to hack off the hands of the Arawaks, to the rifles of Andrew Jackson that gave the Creek Nation no quarter, to the 9,700-pound bomb that Paul Tibbets dropped over Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. For many, seeing these disparate events as part of a single unbroken narrative had a transformative effect.

In his 2004 Dissent review, Michael Kazin suggested that the major reason behind Zinn’s success was the timeliness of his narrative: “Zinn fills a need shaped by our recent past. The years since 1980 have not been good ones for the American left … A People’s History offers a certain consolation.” Kazin often hits the mark, but on this score he’s way off. Zinn remains popular not because he’s timely but precisely because he’s not. A People’s History speaks directly to our inner Holden Caulfield. Our heroes are shameless frauds, our parents and teachers conniving liars, our textbooks propagandistic slop. Long before we could Google accounts of a politician’s latest indiscretion, Zinn offered a national “Gotcha.” They’re all phonies is a message that never goes out of style.

It was only a matter of time before A People’s History spawned no- qualification narratives from the other side of the political aisle, their pages full of swagger and, like their inspiration, best-sellers. Some commentators are not terribly bothered by these feisty one-sided blockbusters. At the height of the 2010 Texas curriculum controversy, Jonathan Zimmerman, a historian of education and an indefatigable editorialist, suggested that teachers pair A People’s History with one of its conservative counterparts and teach both. Students would learn “that Americans disagree—vehemently—about the making and the meaning of their nation. And it would require the kids to sort out the differences on their own.”

I shudder to think about the implications of Zimmerman’s recipe for intellectual alchemy. Pitting two monolithic narratives—each strident, immodest, and unyielding—against one another turns history into a European soccer match, where fans set fires in the stands and taunt the opposition with scurrilous epithets. Instead of encouraging us to think, such an approach to history teaches us how to jeer.

Too often, whether we like someone’s politics determines whether we like their history. Many of us find ourselves reading the present into the past, especially with issues we care about deeply. I know I do it, and I don’t consider it a source of pride. Instead of entering the past with a wish list, shouldn’t our goal be one of open-mindedness? Shouldn’t we welcome, at least sometimes, new facts or interpretations that lead to surprise, disquiet, doubt, or even a wholesale change of mind?

A history of unalloyed certainties is dangerous because it invites a slide into intellectual torpor. History as truth, issued from the left or the right, abhors shades of gray. Such a history atrophies our tolerance for complexity. It makes us allergic to exceptions to the rule. Worst of all, it depletes the moral courage we need to revise our beliefs in the face of new evidence. It ensures, ultimately, that tomorrow we will think exactly as we thought yesterday—and the day before, and the day before that.

Is that what we want for our students?

See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.

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