If You Don’t Stop, You’ll Go Blind

peopleshistoryzinnUpdate: Looks like Williams has uncovered more evidence in support of the popularity and pervasiveness of A People’s History in college classrooms.  What evidence?  It turns out his publisher says so on its website as well as a writer for the Socialist Work.  And there you have it. My guess is that at this very moment Williams is trolling the internet for even more sources.  Stay tuned…

Update #2 or A Suggestion for R.W.: If you are sincerely interested in the influence of this book in the academy why not compose an email and send it to every historian who teaches in a Virginia college and university.  Ask if they use the book in class and if it is used inquire into how it is used.  You may also want to ask if they have ever come across a colleague who has utilized the book in class.  I would actually be very interested in the results and it would be much more interesting than just a bunch of random quotes pulled from a Google search.

Update #3: R.W. has uncovered even more evidence of Zinn’s popularity among academics.  Check it out. Now he can go to sleep tonight knowing that he has helped to make the world a safer place by exposing this deadly cultural threat.  Sleep tight Richard.

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I love checking into Richard Williams’s blog.  There isn’t much historical analysis, but there is a great deal of commentary on the politicization of history and the evil doings of the liberal elite who are more interested in foisting their marxist ideology on their innocent students and the public at large than they are in uncovering the past.  Unfortunately, I never get the sense that Williams actually reads the books and historians he critiques.  Such is the case with his most recent post on the supposed influence and popularity of Howard Zinn in the academy.  The feeling of victimization and fear of cultural and moral decline is palpable.  According to Williams, leftist academics adore Zinn and intentionally ignore its lack of references:

“Rather, he’s [Zinn] praised by other cultural Marxists. As a matter of fact, his book is used in many colleges and universities in America, and some high schools as well.  But, of course, we know that most academics have no bias or agenda. If that’s so, then why would you use a resource that’s assertions cannot be verified by readers and students?”

I assume that Zinn does get support from “cultural Marxists” but notice the leap to the assertion that the book is used in “many” college and high school classrooms.  First, how many professors and high school teachers actually use Zinn’s books in class and, for those who do, how is it being used?  Well, I can speak for myself because I use at least one chapter from A People’s History in my AP classes every year.  I usually pear it up with a similar chapter from Paul Johnson’s A Story of the American People.  It doesn’t take long at all for my students to be able to pick out the numerous problems with Zinn’s book.  The tone of the narrative and narrowness of selection are two points that stand out in my mind.  There is also a self-serving quality to the narrative; if you want to find class conflict in our history you will surely find it in the historical record.  My point is that perhaps Williams should take a step back and ask more serious questions about the frequency of its use and how it is used.  Of course, that would involve moving beyond an overly simplistic set of assumptions that are personally reassuring.  I don’t know one American historian who uses A People’s History to define the state-of-the field in any particular area.   There are a number of reasons why the book remains popular.   You could start with the book being referenced in the movie, “Good Will Hunting” as well as its publication by a popular press.

This is intellectual masturbation at its worst – minus the intellect.

31 responses... add one

Honestly, I’ve never seen a Zinn book presented as part of any of my coursework (that done prior to 1999 or after my return to the halls of academia in 2006), let alone cracked open a copy of the book. I do however, recall the reference to it in Good Will Hunting! Heck, I don’t even recall seeing it on any of the shelves when I’ve plucked-up my books for history courses while at Old Dominion or William & Mary. Also, while I don’t haunt the shelves of the coursebooks required for history because of my current coursework, I do drop by the history section, and… alas, I do not recall Zinn on the shelves of the bookstore at JMU either.

So… broad sweeping assumptions by Williams of academia as one mindset? You bet.

I was recently in a used bookstore and they had six copies of various titles by Bruce Catton and a copy of Mary Chesnutt’s diary, but no Zinn. So, it’s not just a new bookstore situation. Furthermore, I live in a rather conservative area of East Texas and, if Zinn is as liberal and Marxist as Williams claims, I would think the average person would be dying to get Zinn’s work out of their home libraries, lest it poison the minds of the youth in thier homes. (All of this, of course, is with tongue not just planted in cheeck, but I think I need it surgically removed!)

No one in my previous department used him, as I remember. No one in my current department does. No one I know in the field does. I’ve never seen Zinn assigned. Reviews of the Civil War volume in his “Peoples’ History” series actually have been less favorable in academic journals than in the popular press. A quick e-mail to the publisher could probably indicate how many academics in university departments use Zinn.

Kevin, I’m really starting to laugh about this, especially noting the comment at William’s blog about Zinn’s book being part of a conspiracy. It actually sounds much more like a conspiracy by Williams to support his “sinister academia” rants.

I honestly don’t mean any disrespect to Richard. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed those posts where we’ve had the opportunity to exchange ideas. I just couldn’t resist calling him on this silliness. His claims have absolutely no basis in reality and are based on the most simplistic of assumptions and a great deal of fear and misunderstanding.

I believe that exchanges are healthy in order for us to consider varying perspectives. I also believe that Richard provides some good food for thought in some of his posts (those that aren’t pointing fingers at the evil empire that he thinks exists in the academy). I’m not a professor or a regular employee of a university (even though I’m a grad assistant right now), but I consider myself very familiar and fond of the benefits of the academy. I am also aware of where some of those in the academy get a little whacky from time to time or make some really weird choices for texts, but that doesn’t mean the entire academy is therefore bad (one bad apple…).

Of course, with the Zinn posts, it goes back to finger pointing and is clearly driven by something other than serious consideration of all evidence that is on the table. Several of us here have made it clear that Zinn isn’t central to our thinking or even part of it. Yet, when Zinn’s work is in front of us, even we are critical.

Gosh, look around you! Isn’t it obvious that academic Marxism has been woven into the very fabric of American society?! The other day I was standing in line, waiting for my weekly alotment of bread and gruel, when our illustrious leader himself, George W. Castro Bush stopped by to give the workers a stirring speech on the lasting values of his Five Year Plan to cut taxes for big business. I must say, it made my socialist body tingle with revolutionary delight!

I did come across Zinn’s book being displayed in the history classroom during an open house at a private high school we visited a few years back. (We ultimately chose another school for our daughter.) When I mentioned the fact to an historian at the Univ. of Washington, he just grimaced, shook his head, and commented on what a joke as a work of history Zinn’s book was.

Anecdotal – yes, but I have yet to talk with any academic who uses Zinn other than in the sort of comparative way you do, Kevin – and it’s generally to show Zinn’s book as an example of an ideological screed.

I’ve had my copy of Zinn’s book displayed at times. Whenever a student expresses an interest in reading it I make sure to follow-up with a critical discussion of both its strengths and weaknesses.

Kevin, While the college professors who are using the text (despite the 1.6 million sold) seem to be evade all of us here, I note that both you and Phil mention its use in secondary ed. Is the book showing up more in secondary ed than college classrooms? Granted, you mention that you are critical of the text (as are your students), but considering there might be those who aren’t looking at the text so critically at the secondary ed level, I think there is something to be said for “unteaching history” when some students enter into the history classroom in college for the first time.

Seriously, though, I am in my third year of doctoral work, and in these three years, plus the two years I spent in my Master’s program, not once was Zinn’s book assigned for reading. I don’t even recall it being mentioned.

Kevin –

I like the idea of using sources, reputable and otherwise, as a point of comparison for students – critical thinking practice.

Do you ever use the “South Was Right” type works? I’ve seen them at my local book barn, but not, thankfully, in the campus bookstore.

TF and Robert, — I don’t think the book is being used that much on the high school level. I’ve never used the Kennedy brother’s book, but I have used the Dixie Outfitters website to teach the continued influence of the Lost Cause.

No one in my department use Zinn. Even though I am on at least somewhat on the left politically, I can’t stand Zinn’s books. As far as I’m concerned they’re crap. They seem to be more popular with those on the left outside of academia, in other words, as the dreaded “popular history.”

What a surprise. I think you are absolutely right that this book is much more popular within left wing circles, but not among scholars. The books has too many weaknesses. But that is the rub that Williams will never understand because he sees the study of history as an extension of politics pure and simple.

Kevin – Thanks for the response. Mr. Williams has a new post up to support his thesis; it links to a 2003 book review from “FrontPage.com” or something similar.

Interestingly enough, when one does a search on NYT for Zinn AND Foner, the only reviews that come up are generally negative, and include this statement:

“…In his review of the original, Eric Foner found the approach to be limited, but said ”Zinn writes with an enthusiasm rarely encountered in the leaden prose of academic history.”

So Foner thinks Zinn is a lively writer, but that his methodology is limited; doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement.

Mr. Williams also apparently has yet to find a syllabus from any college or university anywhere in the U.S. that includes Zinn.

One last point:

After doing a article multi-search on my campus’ library site for “Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” ” that encompassed JSTOR, EBSCO, and a half-dozen other databases, I came up with exactly one review related to Zinn in a recognized historical journal, that of the JAH. It was actually not of any of Zinn’s works, but of a Bill Moyers’ interview/documentary – the reviewer’s salient point was:

“…Zinn’s work has been essentially derivative. He has brought much of the newer social history, history from “the bottom up,” to the consciousness of the more than one million buyers of People’s History. But Zinn’s approach remains economically reductionist and analytically thin. He tends to champion all of the victims, all those who demonstrated some resistance to the oppressions rooted in social class, racial, or gender privileges. But other than to popularize examples of resistance, he is left with an ahistorical binary of the people versus the interests.”

There are a number of reviews of Zinn’s work in Tikkun, the New Criterion, and similar places, but nothing that comes up in a historical journal.

Kevin & Others,

I’ve been associated with history in higher education for 12 years now, as a graduate student and an instructor in the “liberal” big city (i.e. Chicago). I’ve only encountered Zinn in conversations ~outside~ the academy and in used bookstores. I have not read and do not own the book. So, Richard Williams = small-time David Horowitz?

- Tim

Wow, Kevin.

I read Zinn’s _A People’s History of the United States,_ and though I disagree vociferously with Zinn on just about everything, I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It certainly made me think. Do I agree with his interpretation? No. And I agree completely about the narrowness of his focus on certain subjects. But I did enjoy the intellectual challenge. Also, looking at Mr. Williams’ charges, it looks like any use of the book is looked on as some type of bad thing, even if it’s used in a historiography course that talks about various historical interpretations. Normally we should read an author’s book before discussing that author’s interpretation.

Regards,
Cash

I wonder what Mr. William’s take would be on the Dunning School of Reconstruction vs. the New School thought on Reconstruction (Foner and others)? Just because someone writes a history that you do not agree with is no reason to burn the book, which Mr. Williams seems close to doing.

I am currently having my students in US History read an article on both interpretations and I am discussing how historians have revised their ideas on Reconstruction. This seems to be a more productive way to discuss history and historical analysis than just bashing one set of ideas and elevating another.

I do the same thing in my classes. In fact, one of the most interesting exercises is to have my students sample history textbooks used here in Virginia as late as the 1980s. You would be amazed at what they are still saying about slavery and race. The Dunning School was still very much alive and well.

C’mon people, you sit at your computers and wonder how many professors are using Zinn and trade anecdotes and then Kevin says hey maybe someone should get out a typewriter and write a letter and photocopy it and ride their horse to the Post Office and put it in the mail. Have none of you met my esteemed colleague, Dr. Google?

A search for syllabus+history+Zinn+”A People’s History” limited to .edu domains yields 310 hits:
http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&as_q=syllabus+history+zinn&as_epq=A+People%E2%80%99s+History&as_oq=&as_eq=&num=10&lr=&as_filetype=&ft=i&as_sitesearch=.edu&as_qdr=all&as_rights=&as_occt=any&cr=&as_nlo=&as_nhi=&safe=images

That is not a lot of action considering that a search for syllabus+history limited to .edu domains gets 939,000 hits! Of course many of the hits for both searches (especially the second) turn out not to be syllabi but blog posts or articles or whatever, so we should not make any claims about percentages of courses using Zinn. But we surely can say that his is not widely assigned in the academy.

Furthermore, many of those who are using Zinn seem to be using the same way as Kevin and some other commenters here, as an example of one-sided history to compare and contrast. For example Tom Johnson at Yosemite Community College assigns three books in History 17: Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition; Johnson, A History of the American People; and Zinn, A People’s History of the United States. Not a bad historiographic tour right there.

Now, a few professors are accompanying Zinn with Loewen’s Lies My Teacer Told Me or Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed, so the leftist indoctrinating professors of William’s steamy imagination do exist, they are just not very common.

Woodrowfan is 100% correct that Zinn is a favorite of non-historians on the left. I cannot tell you how many times at faculty gatherings a colleague from English or Geology or somesuch will brighten when they learn I am in history and want to talk about a wonderful book, either Zinn or Loewen. The conversation never goes well.

Great conversation here.

I only had to reach 3 feet to my desktop to pick up my copy of Zinn. My working description of history has always been “the agreed to lies”…hence I find Zinn a refreshing viewpoint when considering an issue from history.

Zinn addresses the atrocities committed upon the indigenous people of the Americas…right or wrong. Other histories I studied in school were silent on the topic. Zinn’s John Brown, though brief, is most likely as accurate as any in print…most histories either ignore him or write him off as a nut who led a gang of lunatics. Zinn cuts through government double talk, lies and obfuscation around the nation’s military misadventures. (Remember, in times of war, the first casualty is the truth). All things considered, I’d rather read Zinn than Kissinger if I’m looking for truth.

Through high school and college, my kids were never introduced to Zinn…until I brought him into the house and explained his work. I would have much preferred that they study Zinn rather than the dumb-ass Oliver Stone movie they viewed in high school (JFK).

Tom, your working description of history is not a very good one, and is fact a facile insult to those of us who spend our lives trying to uncover the truth of the past. And to claim the Zinn is the first or among few historians to describe the mistreatment of Indians or filibustering–well, I am speechless.

Larry,
I reference textbook history as presented in public education. The light glossing over of vast periods of time and events leads to much of what happened lost in the process. That’s precisely why we seek out the truth from Zinn, McPherson, Catton, and the hundreds of others who dig away at truth one nugget at a time.

So, don’t be speechless Larry. I know Zinn didn’t invent truth, nor has he perfected it. But you can hardly deny that much has been concealed from America’s citizens, and Zinn fearlessly probes the dustbins of history to reveal what official government policy has hidden there.

My hat is off to you and all others who search for truth. The subject was Zinn. By defending him I meant no slight to you or any others. Writers of history are my favorite writers. To me all of you who write the thick books of history are seeking to clarify deficiencies in the text books “the agreed to lies”.

Tom

I read Zinn’s book several years ago because it was the assigned text in my youngest son’s US history class at Gettysburg High School. (My son jokingly referred to it as “The Victims’ History of the United States.”) Unfortunately for the students, the teacher never placed the book in historiographical context, and so most of the students in the course came away thinking that Zinn’s interpretation was the final word on the subject.

Hi Mark,

Nice to hear from you. I don’t doubt that the book is passed off as consensus by certain teachers. Than again, I am willing to venture that any number of secondary sources are treated in similar manner by teachers who have no business being in the classroom.

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