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Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn

You can’t be neutral on a moving train, but can you stop a jaded historian in his tracks?

The historian in question is Howard Zinn. If you recall, controversy brewed this summer over Purdue University president Mitch Daniels’ private admonition to limit Zinn’s history book A People’s History of the United States from being used in professional development courses for educators in Indiana public universities. (Daniels’ private email correspondence with state education officials was released by the AP in July). Now that the public outcry has simmered, it is an opportune time, with the benefit of hindsight, to address two pertinent questions raised by the dispute.

Many of us are all too familiar with Zinn’s slanted interpretation of American history though the “race, class, gender” prism of scholarship, so it need not be rehashed here. Yet beyond the blatant factual inaccuracies in his book (even liberal-inclined historians have faulted the book for its historical imprecision, and for good reason), to what depth has Zinn’s framework of American history seeped into K-12 and higher education? And regardless of his reach in classrooms, is there actually merit to Zinn’s argument that historical narratives overlook the oppressed and dispossessed in favor of the mighty and powerful?

First, the empirical question: how much of an impact has Zinn’s teaching of American history actually commanded, particularly in higher education? Anecdotal examples of A People’s History’s presence in college and university classrooms, including in Indiana, would make Daniels furrow his brow. Purdue most recently held a summer 2013 history course titled “American History Through 1877” that assigned a portion of A People’s History. Purdue’s summer 2012 course selection also included a similar history that listed the book as a “required text.” Another course listed on Purdue’s website titled “A People’s History of Cleveland” included two selections from Zinn on the syllabi. (The same instructor said about the book in relation to the course: “I am looking toward A People’s History of the United States as a model for the kind of thinking and writing students will accomplish and the methodology with which we’ll approach the topics.”)

There is more: Zinn was assigned in Purdue’s 2003 course called “Multiculturalism and Education.” An Indiana University interdisciplinary English course that used Disney movies to reveal “national allegories that articulate U.S. anxieties about national security, both on the domestic front and on the international front” assigned Zinn as a secondary reading. He was included under a general bibliography for a Purdue history class in 2010 on politics and culture in Cold War America. The Indiana University alumni association has hosted Zinn. Purdue University’s Comparative Literature and Culture journal includes this piece by Zinn published in 2007. Purdue’s Committee on Peace Studies, housed in the university’s political science department, organized a video series that included Zinn’s “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.”

These examples do not even include the three instances reported by InsideHigherEd.com: Purdue University English professor Nancy J. Peterson included the book on a reading resource page for a fall 2010 English course (although Insider Higher Ed mislabels this page the course syllabi); a Purdue-run Honduras study abroad program assigned Zinn’s chapters “Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress,” “Drawing the Color Line,” and “Persons of Mean and Vile Condition”; and the director of Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis’s Center for Urban and Multicultural Education teaches A People’s History every year to prospective social studies teachers.

Other examples of Zinn’s imprint on course syllabi include classes taught by professors from UMass Amherst, St. Xavier University, and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The fact that this research on Zinn’s influence is nowhere near exhaustive suggests his fingerprints can be found on the desks of many more college classrooms across America.

Yet the stubborn fact persists that Zinn’s scope and intensity in American education is difficult to clarify. The global library cooperative Online Computer Library Center’s database (which, while voluminous, is not comprehensive) that measures the number of libraries which hold particular books reveals that 65 editions of A People’s History are in 3,424 libraries inside and outside the U.S. To take but two examples as points of comparison, both David Halberstam’s The Fifties and David McCullough’s 1776 are located in more libraries. James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me are in fewer.

Where does A People’s History, which has sold around 2.2 million copies and still sells 130,000 annually, rank on Amazon.com’s list of various book categories? No. 1 in “Democracy” under Amazon.com’s politics and social sciences section under ideologies and doctrines, and No. 30 in “United States” under history books about the Americas. Zinn himself, who died in 2010, is ranked #30 on Amazon.com’s list of top American history authors. Most other authors on that list are still living.

In sum, evidence does not scream that A People’s History directly occupies a disproportionately large presence in libraries or in American classrooms. Zinn’s book is also considered to be used widely by AP US History teachers across the United States, yet hard evidence to buttress this claim is hard to come by. (David Bobb’s August piece in the Wall Street Journal also explores A People’s History’s sphere of influence in education, including, disturbingly, at the United States Coast Guard Academy).

Still, the reality that it is difficult to measure A People’s History’s direct pedagogical influence does not shutter the possibility that educators in K-12 and higher education have warmly embraced Zinn’s historiography. The opposite may ring true: One explanation of Zinn’s sustained impact is that A People’s History was published at precisely the right moment in 1980. Disaffected anti-war protesters absorbed the book’s race, class, and gender framework of American history like a sponge. As they moved up the ranks in academia and K-12 education, they took Zinn’s hand along inside classrooms and faculty lounges when shaping U.S. history curricula. As evidenced by the education establishment turning away from teaching vital Founding principles such as liberty, republicanism, and the rule of law toward the race, class, gender pedagogical framework, clearly Zinn’s influence has continued to glow.

But if Zinn’s actual dominion in American education is amorphous, what then is the significance of Zinn’s work beyond its perversion of American historiography? Is there merit behind Zinn’s impulse to illuminate the overlooked efforts of historically oppressed and dispossessed Americans?

Yes to the impulse, no to Zinn’s execution of it.

The accomplishments of great men sparkle in even the most liberal history textbooks. But as often is the case with liberal, centrist, and conservative conceptions of historical narrative, ordinary people–those who are not presidents, generals, intellectuals, scientists, and politicians–get brushed to the margins of mainstream historiography. This is partly because of the inherent space constraints of textbooks. And it is harder to spotlight the humble accomplishments of self-governing communities and peoples–those “little platoons,” as Edmund Burke famously quipped–than it is to identify the gleaming victor in a presidential election or the triumphant general of a military battle. Students of American history, for example, know by heart the political gospel of Madison, Hamilton, Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, and the military successes of Washington, Jackson, Marshall, and Eisenhower.

But how about those little platoons? What about those voluntary associations Tocqueville explored so discerningly? Does the impact of individual accomplishments of individual men and women upon history really trump those of small groups of men and women?

The ebb and flow of historiography, dating back through Edward Gibbon to Herodotus and Thucydides, has hovered around the unresolved tension between recognizing the significance of individual acts of valor and genius–in John Adams’ words, the natural aristocracy or, in ancient Greek parlance, rule of the best–while also recognizing the inherent limitations of individual actors in shaping history. The subtitle of Richard Hofstadter’s 1948 classic The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made It, for instance, captures the core of the former tendency.

This tension also strikes to the heart of the dilemma of American conservatism: if one praises individual actors too much, this applause may drown out the notion–as articulated by Russell Kirk as well as Aristotle, Aquinas, and Thomas Sowell–that the collective wisdom of many little platoons are often more powerful than the individual wisdom of the one or the few.

The impulse to highlight the accomplishments of well-deserving Americans who are not identified in history books is well-founded (perhaps I am giving Zinn too much credit even in this respect). Yet Zinn’s original sin in A Peoples History, before his glaring historical inaccuracies, is his desecration of this “little platoon” theory of history.

A more appropriate way to emphasize the power of collective wisdom and overlooked efforts of racial and ethnic minorities in history books is to actually notice them. It goes without saying that amplifying the heroic efforts of blacks to secure civil rights in the 1960s, to take but one example from A People’s History, is necessary. But doing so should not obscure the heroic efforts of blacks who were not civil rights leaders but still contributed to the dramatic reduction in minority poverty rates and expansion of educational opportunities after World War II and before the 1960s. How about the toil, sweat, and tears of most blacks in becoming literate fifty years following emancipation, according to Sowell–one of the most striking educational achievements in the history of the United States (and one, mind you, that was not assisted by the modern scourge of Zinn’s “race, class, gender” pedagogy)? How about shifting readers’ eyes to Washington, D.C.’s famous Dunbar High School, which educated mostly poor and lower middle class blacks through a rigorous academic curriculum and strong administrative leadership from the late nineteenth century to the 1950s?

Zinn fails to place his finger on the genuine accomplishments of these little platoons whose efforts have, in fact, often slipped through the cracks of U.S. history textbooks. Pauline Maier’s 2010 book Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788, to take a recent example by contrast, attempted and successfully achieved the weaving in of the neglected efforts by ordinary Americans within the larger narrative of Federalists’ and anti-Federalists’ leadership during the ratification process in state conventions.

Countless examples of more unacknowledged efforts of little platoons pulsate in U.S. history, waiting to be uncovered and lifted to eminence in Americans’ consciousness. It is the least we can do as players in an eternal partnership among dead, living, and future Americans to recognize them.

Zinn failed to do this. But if we can strike the delicate balance in recognizing the historic achievements of the Lincolns, the Churchills, the Washingtons while also praising the overlooked merits of little platoons–many of which, mind you, consisted of racial and ethnic minorities and of women who demonstrated the essence of self-rule and the virtue of liberty without the aid of Zinn’s activist historiography–we will have watered the seeds for a real people’s history of the United States.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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3 replies to this post
  1. First, to write history is to flirt with inaccuracies so saying that any historical book has inaccuracies is ambiguous. Second, since Zinn worked from secondary sources, he was compiling what others have reported and thus he was not alone in his observations. The book Voices Of A People’s History Of the United States, compiled by Zinn and Arnove, rely on eye witness sources and provides significant evidence of much of Zinn’s interpretation. And again, Zinn wanted to write how ordinary people were affected by historical events, not leaders. Finally, the conjunction of whose perspective Zinn focussed on and how his historical view does not flatter the United States shows the crux of the criticism against him. American Conservatives’ belief in America is a self-proclaimed tenet of conservatism. And Zinn’s books blow that apart along with the hero worship view of history.

    Have we had some accomplishments? Yes. But when we judge the past solely by how its beneficiaries have fared, we established a jaded, as well as mythological, view of history so that even when we acknowledge past wrongdoings, we show a disconnect with how our transgressions affected the victims. For example, how can we not compare our ethnic cleansing from the land of its indigenous population with Nazi Germany’s practice of resettling Poland with people of German descent while kicking the Poles out of their homes and businesses? What do you think Manifest Destiny was all about? And have we read Frederick Douglass’s speech on what significance the 4th of July had on Blacks? And what about Jim Crow and what about now? What about all of those democracies that we stopped in order to control who was going to lead? Yes, our forefathers made some contributions and we can look at what we enjoy as proof of our greatness. But is wanting to celebrate ourselves, rather than actual history, what is really being threatened by Zinn’s books? Perhaps the most jaded histories of the United States are those that written to promote American Exceptionalism.

  2. This is a weak response at best. The little platoons? Where’s the beef? Where’s all the documentation? It sounds like a compromise on the post-colonial imagination. I don’t think it necessary or historically objective to make compromises with Howard Zinn, who was a Marxist all of his life.

  3. Vern Eide,
    There are two problems with you accusation of Zinn being a Marxist. First, it’s done in a pejorative manner. Second, are you aware of where Zinn disagreed with Marx? Zinn was fond of saying that he could call himself a Marxist as long as he could define what that meant. In other words, Zinn both agreed and disagreed with Marx.

    People can criticize Zinn’s “A People’s History Of The United States” all they want. The problem they run into is countering the book Zinn coedited with Arnove, “Voices Of A People’s History.” Unlike the first book, it provides firsthand documentation that confirmed much, not everything, of Zinn’s persepctive.

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