Thanks to all of you who took the time to comment on yesterday’s post on Howard Zinn. I am not surprised to find that those of you in the college trenches have not come across the book in any of your department’s courses. One of you noted that the book did not receive much attention from historians when it was first published. The lack of attention in the form of a review usually means that the book was not deemed worthy enough for scholarly attention. Thanks to Chris over at Blog4History who followed up my post with a Google search to get a sense of how often the book is being assigned. When I commented that I had done a similar search, which resulted in similar results, he thought it was suspicious that I failed to mention it in my post. I assure you that this was not an attempt on my part to cover up the truth and I encourage you to consider his findings.
As I stated on Chris’s blog, I was simply unsure of what to make of the results. There are pages and pages of results that include professors and AP teachers who include the book in their syllabi. The results cover a wide range of subjects from history to political science to anthropology and span a significant number of years. We are still left with the question of how often the book is assigned. But even if we had the answer to that question we would still be no closer to the more important question of how it is used. Richard Williams simply assumes that its frequency of use is sufficient evidence that it is being used for nefarious purposes. If one of my students came back with Chris’s Google search and the handful of quotes cited by Richard Williams as evidence of a conspiracy or that the book is being used as an example of the consensus view among professional historians I would give that student a failing grade. That student would not have done his/her research. Suggesting that the book has no place in the classroom reflects a narrowness of thought as a teacher, while sweeping generalizations about its place in the academy tells us more about the accuser than it does about what is most likely the case.
Yesterday I alluded to the fact that I use Howard Zinn’s book in my APUS History course. Let me take just a few minutes to sketch how I use the book and I will leave it to you to decide whether it renders me a dangerous liberal/Marxist who is bent on undoing the social fabric of this country as well as the innocent minds of my students.
One of the central skills that my AP students must master is the ability to craft a historical interpretation that reflects a certain analytical writing style as well as an ability to properly interpret primary sources (the document-based question or DBQ). This is not an easy skill to teach given the fact that most of my students begin the year believing that history is simply what one reads in a textbook. As such, it is dry and boring and includes little beyond a set of facts.
One way to teach students what historians do is to provide them with examples – examples that highlight the role of evidence as well as broader assumptions that the historian may bring to the study. I try to find examples that are entertaining, challenging, and that highlight specific points that need to be made about the pitfalls of historical writing and research. For example, I’ve used excerpts from U.B. Phillips’s Life and Labor in the Old South to illustrate how historians’ writing at the beginning of the twentieth century were influenced by broader assumptions of race. Using Charles Beard when discussing the intentions of the Founding Fathers in 1787 can also reveal the importance attached to economic matters that occupied the attention of many Americans in the 1920s and 1930s.
Both Meekins and Williams believe that Zinn’s activism in the 1960s and beyond is reason enough not to use the book, that it courses through his books and renders them useless as interpretation and/or classroom use. But the fact that the narrative is so over the top at times makes it ideal in pointing out how bias often creeps into our scholarship and that it can often be a detriment to the broader study. I want my students to understand that their location in place and time will influence how they view the historical record and that this is acceptable within certain parameters since we cannot completely eliminate bias.
I usually use Zinn’s chapter on the colonial period and Revolution, which focuses on class conflict as well as a puzzling analysis of the intentions of the Founding Fathers in their attempt to maintain control as the colonies moved closer to rebellion. We read the chapter carefully to better understand both the kinds of evidence Zinn utilizes as well as the language he employs. Zinn’s handling of the evidence provides a number of important lessons for my students. I have them compare the range of Zinn’s evidence with their textbook and other handouts to better understand the importance of inclusiveness and the dangers of limiting oneself to only certain kinds of evidence. DBQ writers will often include one or two documents that point in a very different direction compared with the other documents; the goal is to see if the student can acknowledge that primary sources always point to more than one interpretation. They need to be able to acknowledge, but still make the case for their preferred interpretation.
When it comes to class conflict it is pretty clear that Zinn takes his argument too far, but in other respects he is well within the mainstream of current scholarship. Zinn’s analysis of the results and response of the gentry in Virginia following Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 follows closely on the heels of Edmund Morgan’s seminal work, American Slavery, American Freedom. I don’t know too many people who would consider Morgan to be a left-wing kook. A comparative approach between Zinn and other sources can serve as an invaluable lesson for my students as they develop their interpretive skills.
The overall tone of Zinn’s narrative can also be instructive. Learning how to write with an analytical eye is extremely difficult for many of my students. They tend to write with an emotional flourish that I assume they bring from their English classes. My job is to keep them focused on the analysis of sources and additional factual information – the dryer the better for our purposes. We look closely at a number of passages where Zinn attempts to infer the intentions of the colonial leaders on the eve of the Revolution. On the one hand, Zinn suggests that as a group they maneuvered themselves into positions such that they would be able to steer the colonies through revolution and remain in positions of power at its conclusion. At the same time, Zinn asserts that this was not a conscious move on their part, but one that is discernible through the piecing together of their actions. Much of the language is vague and bordering on psycho-babble. I ask my students to consider whether the evidence provided is sufficient to draw such conclusions. We talk about the importance of being able to support every claim as well as the importance of clarity.
As an exercise I ask my students to write a concise 2 to 3-page thesis summary of the Zinn chapter. They must summarize Zinn’s thesis and explore both his broad assumptions about the period in question as well as the kinds of evidence he utilizes. Students must also compare Zinn’s approach with other sources, including their textbook. Finally, they must summarize what they take to be both the chapter’s strengths and weaknesses. By focusing on the structure of the author’s argument my students can begin to focus more clearly on what they will need to consider when asked to engage in historical interpretation. This is an assignment that we do throughout the year with a number of different secondary sources.
I would love to know if this is an inappropriate use of Zinn’s A People’s History. My guess is that my syllabus for this course is included in the search that Chris performed yesterday. How many other teachers on the high school and college level are using Zinn’s book (as they do every other controversial text) in a responsible manner?
Howard Zinn is not the boogeyman. Let’s try to wake up from our self-induced nightmares.