How I Use A People’s History of the United States

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.

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34 comments… add one
  • Jim Rossi Jan 28, 2011 @ 20:06

    As a journalist and current graduate student in history at UNLV, I’m reading Howard Zinn now in US Historiography – but it’s not the first time. I used to live in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Arcata, CA.

    My take: a class where students are taught to think analytically and critically about multiple perspectives is exactly the right place to assign “People’s History.” I think any fair review would say (1) that he covers many neglected, unpleasant, and important parts of US history; (2) he overlooks, de-emphasizes, and outright ignores many of important and heroic parts of US history; & (3) his Marxist narrative often supersedes his analytical rigor.

    ALL of these reasons make it a great book to stimulate discussion.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 29, 2011 @ 2:36

      That’s exactly why I use it. Thanks for the comment, Jim.

  • John Farris May 13, 2009 @ 9:48

    Schweikart’s book is a self-conscious “antidote” to “America haters” like Zinn. He writes from the Lynn Cheney “History as Pep Rally” school of historiography.

    • Kevin Levin May 13, 2009 @ 9:54

      Sounds like a winner. I am always looking for sources that can balance some of the nutty claims made by Zinn.

  • John Farris May 13, 2009 @ 8:10


    I believe that yours is an absolutely appropriate use of Zinn. I use Zinn in my APUS classes in exactly the same way.

    In the future, I plan to have students compare Zinn’s bias with that of authors like Larry Schweikart’s “A Patriot’s History of the United States.”

    • Kevin Levin May 13, 2009 @ 8:11

      Hi John,

      Thanks for the comment. I am not familiar with Schweikart’s book. Thanks for the reference.

  • John Maass Jan 29, 2009 @ 10:12

    Hi Kevin:

    There is a new HNN piece about Howard Zinn at



    • Kevin Levin Jan 29, 2009 @ 10:27

      Thanks John. I noticed it earlier this week.

  • Richard G. Williams, Jr. Jan 17, 2009 @ 15:34


    I’m not sure an avalanche of quotes would get me any closer in your mind. 🙂

    By the way, I never received a response from the publisher. I’ll try to follow up next week.


    • Kevin Levin Jan 17, 2009 @ 15:35

      Definitely follow-up as I am curious and I have no doubt that others will be as well.

  • Kevin Levin Jan 17, 2009 @ 15:26


    I never denied that you wouldn’t find professors and high school teachers who use Zinn just that you had not done the kind of analysis necessary to draw your conclusions. Dare I say that one more quote doesn’t get you that much closer. 🙂

  • Richard G. Williams, Jr. Jan 17, 2009 @ 15:14

    Crystal, Kevin:

    I think the “highly regarded” remark is instructive.


  • Crystal Marshall Jan 16, 2009 @ 13:04

    One of the professors replied to my inquiry with this:

    “Howard Zinn, a man of the left, is a highly regarded, often controversial historian, whose books are widely used in college courses. Our department doesn’t use Zinn, but he is an interesting historian who offers sometimes unique perspectives about American history.”

    Unfortunately the professor didn’t answer my question as to how he believes the book is used in college courses, but he does acknowledge the use of Zinn’s books as well as the controversy surrounding him.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 16, 2009 @ 13:11


      Thanks for the feedback. Unfortunately, without a survey of some kind or a sense of what this particular professor is basing his claim on, it is difficult to make much of it. Still, it’s always helpful to have one more voice.

  • Crystal Marshall Jan 13, 2009 @ 9:33

    Having been away from the Civil War blogosphere for a couple of days, I came back to find that I had some catching-up to do in regards to this Zinn controversy.

    While I appreciate that such a discussion is taking place, I feel that the quality of discussion could be greatly enhanced if we debated the actual issue, rather than making snide comments and remarks about the people involved in the debate. I was disappointed by the name-calling and generalizations made on both sides and I had hoped that, as adults, we wouldn’t have to resort to such tactics to get our point across. I know with the Internet there is less accountability in regards to what we say and how we say it, but regardless of the medium in which we communicate, we need to be careful and respectful with our words.

    I admire and appreciate the work of both Mr. Levin and Mr. Williams and I look forward to future debates that are marked by respectful discussion.

    On another note, I e-mailed some of the professors in the history department of the community college I attend as part of a dual-enrollment program. By now perhaps everyone is tired of hearing more about the Zinn issue, but if it interests anyone I will post the replies given to me by the professors, with their permission, as to if and how they use Zinn’s book.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 13, 2009 @ 10:48

      Please feel free to post the replies.

  • John R. Maass Jan 12, 2009 @ 5:19

    I recall a professor telling me in 2002 when I was just starting grad school at Ohio St. that Zinn came to Columbus to speak. He was not at OSU, not was he sponsored by them. However, from what I was told, the talk was highly publicized by whoever was the sponsor. The prof told me he went to hear him, but saw no other OSU faculty there (out of 55-60 in the dept.) By this he meant that Zinn was either ignored, or regarded as irrelevant.

    My own impression of Zinn is that he is so deterministically bent on showing how evil American history has been that he ignores or overshadows the larger, more complex picture. But it does not mean he ought to be ignored.

  • David Woodbury Jan 10, 2009 @ 15:26

    This discussion reminded me that my nephew, now in college, once asked me — while he was still in high school — if I was familiar with Zinn’s work. I wasn’t, even though I rec’d my history degree a few years after “A People’s History” was published.

    I queried my nephew about it just now — he said that book was “strongly recommended” by one teacher when he was a junior, and that it was a standard text in the AP History class (used in conjunction with some more mainstream texts). This was a public high school in Santa Rosa, CA.

    When he was a senior, he and a classmate attended an event at the Berkeley Community Theater, hosted by Zinn, entitled “Voices of the People’s History,” in which a bunch of actors read journal entries, letters and speeches by historic figures. Most inspirational and “uplifting,” he said, was Mos Def reading a speech by Malcolm X.

    Zinn hosting a reading of Malcolm X by a rapper and Steve Earle singing Dylan’s “Masters of War” ( — all in the People’s Republic of Berkeley — sounds like it might be Richard’s worst nightmare.

    Around these parts, it’s just another night out on the town. Sounds like it was an interesting evening.


    • Kevin Levin Jan 10, 2009 @ 18:06

      That sounds like a very cool event indeed. Hope all is well with you.

  • Michaela Jan 10, 2009 @ 14:13

    In a democratic world and in the country that deems freedom of speech so important I would strongly hope that we do teach students on the high school and certainly on the university level by using sources of all political colors however extreme they are and having discussion forums that even include inviting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or KKK members. This should be done under one premises: to teach critical and analytical thinking. Today’s global communication tools offer bias information from all sides, so use them. After building a basic foundation of knowing your historical facts, so you can call into a What do you know radio show, the main focus of education should go beyond the regurgitation of dates and figures and teach how to dissect this information and its sources. Whether the teacher is a liberal or a conservative does not matter at all. That argument I just never understood… However, the finger pointing and warning regarding the evils of academia seem to come with the desire to exclude certain information in the class room to keep our students “safe”. Since Gutenberg we have evolved to people that can publish any synaptic transmission they perceive as “thought”. Wouldn’t it be safer to be trained in critical analysis than having censorship in academia?

  • tf smith Jan 10, 2009 @ 11:35

    Go ahead, Kevin, be rational, responsible, and civil…I’ll be snide, with regards to Mr. Williams’ conclusion after all of the various conversations:

    “Zinn’s books is widely used and influential.”

    Wow – I’d guess even a Marxist would mark that one down for grammar, but does Mr. Williams even have a definition for sufficiency of evidence?

    Or is that not a requirement when it comes to research at good old Liberty U.?

    How about a favorable book review of Zinn in a recognized mainstream historical journal – as opposed to Tikkun, New Criterion, and Anarcho-Syndicalist Quarterly?

    Actually, the more I read of Mr. Williams, the more I realize he is a post-modernist, in the sense that evidence is what he says it is…

    All kidding aside, I think Kevin’s description of how he uses Zinn’s text as point of comparison for his students in evaluating published work is how any of us would like our children to be taught; skepticism is a suvival mechanism.

    Fiat Lux

    • Marc Ferguson Jan 10, 2009 @ 14:02

      Thinking about this a bit further, I wonder what Zinn writes that Richard Williams objects to in particular. It couldn’t be his take on Lincoln, for example, since they are probably quite close in their views on the 16th president. I have read the book, and there are some things I agree with, and many things with which I disagree among Zinn’s interpretations, and think that he generally uses the documentary evidence poorly. My impression is that Williams does not object to the use of history for political purposes; indeed he does seem to be a sort of “postmodernist,” arguing for the inescapable bias in all historical work. Or have I misread his various blog posts on this subject? So, I wonder if his main objection to Zinn isn’t poor historical scholarship, or even bias, but particularly “left-wing” bias? If political bias and poor scholarship, per se, were his complaints, wouldn’t he also be taking the Kennedy brothers to task? I suppose that “left-wing” bias is bad bias, and that conservative “Christian” (pro-Southern?) bias must be good bias. So Zinn, and the use of his book, seems merely a straw-man for the given, and undebatable, First Principle that higher education is under the nefarious sway of left-wing radicals pushing a political agenda. Zinn and Richard Williams share the flawed methodology of starting from a given belief, then constructing an argument to support the given assumption out of selectively chosen, anecdotal, material.

      • Kevin Levin Jan 10, 2009 @ 14:06

        I will refrain from speculating since I am not convinced that Williams has ever bothered to read the book. At least there is nothing in his posts on the subject that give me reason to believe so. From what I can tell he finds this stuff on various websites, finds that it conforms to his prior assumptions about the subject at hand and then posts it to his blog.

  • Chris Jan 10, 2009 @ 11:20

    also, who is Chris Meekins?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 10, 2009 @ 11:58

      Sorry about that Chris. I had you confused with another Chris. 🙂

  • Chris Jan 10, 2009 @ 11:18

    Kevin I will admit my statement about Zinn’s book as having no place in a history classroom leaves me open to attacks such as yours (and others) that it is “simpleminded”.

    You write: “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?”

    I agree and this is exactly what I stated, how is it used? I do not know and could not possibly know. If all instructors use it as you, than fine.

    Allow me to quote Zinn from his book “Passionate Declarations” (HC, 2003), page 48:

    After describing some personal experiences of his, Zinn writes “Those experiences, among others, made me lose all desire for ‘objectivity,’ whether in living my life, or writing history.”

    He goes on to explain this, stating, “For me, history could only be a way of understanding and helping to change…what was wrong in the world.” Over and over Zinn makes it clear, he writes to “influence” and indoctrinate.

    Frankly, using “Passionate Declarations” (it is not presented as a legit history book like “A People’s History”) in the classroom would do far more to stimulate discussions, and would be acceptable as it does not “pretend” to be history. I have seen teachers use Zinn’s “A People’s History” book as a historical guide with no explanations and that is indefensible. They pass it off as true history.

    The two statements I quote, though honest and poignant, for me render Zinn’s historical writing, as stated by him, nothing more than activism and political discourse dressed up as history, and therefore should only be used in classrooms with proper care. I suspect many use his writing as a form of activism and political discourse in the classroom, not as you suggest. Call me crazy.

    In fact, call me whatever you want, but I stand by this belief based on Zinn’s own words. I would never support banning something from anywhere. I support everyone’s freedom of speech, and I do support critical thinking.

    However, it is my OPINION that Zinn’s “history” book does not belong in a serious history classroom unless it is used as you say it is.

    I will not respond to any more posts, but feel free to fire away. I can’t wait to read.


    • Kevin Levin Jan 10, 2009 @ 11:26

      I hope you don’t think that I was attacking you. You are a fellow teacher and I have nothing but the highest respect for what you do as well as your accomplishments beyond the classroom such as your recent regimental study. We probably do have different teaching philosophies, which is to be expected.

      In response to your last point about the appropriateness of Zinn in the classroom I would say that no text belongs in the hands of our students unless we are prepared to teach them how to analyze and understand it.

      Have a great weekend Chris.

      • Marc Ferguson Jan 10, 2009 @ 13:08

        Hi kevin,
        this has been quite an interesting series of exchanges over the use, or non-use, of Zinn’s book in the classroom. I would say that almost any book could be used in a classroom, depending on how it was used. You are absolutely right that any book used is subject to analysis, that is the whole purpose of education. While I have never used the book, I did have a discussion once with another history professor, with whom I co-taught a World History course, about the idea of using Zinn’s book in conjunction with Paul Johnson’s book, the idea being that their respective analyses could be contrasted to demonstrate that “history” is the use of evidence to construct an argument. Naturally, lots of primary documents would accompany the readings. We never did it, though. I myself have never been in a course where the book was used, though I have heard anecdotally of its use.

  • Brooks Simpson Jan 10, 2009 @ 9:39

    Let’s be a bit more direct here …

    Richard Williams is painting with a rather broad brush without a heck of a lot of empirical data to support his claims. Like some other people, he makes assumptions about higher education which strike those of us involved in it as strange, and, frankly, I take offense at his characterization of what “we” teach. He hasn’t been in my course. If I decided to select something tasteless produced by an SCV member and declare that racism pervaded the SCV, I’m sure Richard would take offense. That example should allow him to develop a sense of empathy and self-awareness. Will it?

    Those of us who read Richard’s post will decide not to take it seriously because of his outlandish and unreasonable, not to say uninformed, claims. In turn, he will declare that that reaction was to be expected from leftist radicals such as myself. That description of me would be greeted by howls of laughter from those people who know me.


    • Kevin Levin Jan 10, 2009 @ 11:23

      Well said Brooks. As far as I can tell from his posts there seems to be no evidence that Richard Williams has ever set foot in a college level history classroom. Like I said before, I’ve enjoyed our exchanges, but his insistence on demonizing and generalizing about an entire demographic is laughable and a reflection of his own insecurities. It reminds me of my “friend” in Fredericksburg who felt comfortable drawing conclusions about academic conferences even though he had never attended one in person.

  • Ken Noe Jan 10, 2009 @ 6:58

    [I posted this on Chris’s site, hope it’s okay to crosspost it here]

    Many thanks for doing the grunt work on this issue. I sat down this morning and read through 19 of the syllabi you provided (I confess that I skipped the one from Hong Kong) and here’s what I found:

    6 history professors and 1 high school teacher use at is the main required text (including one from that bastion of liberalism, BYU).
    3 use one chapter in connection with other readings. One wonders how.
    1 uses 2 chapters. Again, I’d like to know how.
    3 use it in conjunction with Paul Johnson’s text, a book usually deemed as conservative as Zinn is leftist.
    1 included it among a page-long list of books one could read.

    Now of course, your 19 syllabi admittedly only form a sample of what you found on Google (8 of at least 27 pages), so my numbers are only a sample as well. Instead of 6 profs using it as THE text, you might end up with three of four times that number.

    Then again, how many syllabi make it online. (Here’s mine by the way, no Zinn: The final numbers no doubt are higher still.

    But I don’t think even those stats suggest that the book is widely used or influential in academic circles (Currently, according to the best numbers I could find, there are 18,263 people teaching history at the university level*). A relative handful thus seem to use it (as many as 300 would be 1.6 percent, too many in my opinion, but still a small percentage), others pull out a chapter for one reason or another, and some use it as Kevin does, balanced by Johnson. I just don’t see that supporting the notion of “widespread” liberal/marxist bias in academe.

    Of course we need still more evidence. I applaud Mr. Williams for e-mailing the publisher, and I’ll be curious to read the results. It might also be fun to do a comparable search on other standard history texts in comparison. Heck, there’s probably an OAH Newsletter article in this for someone interested in stats and teaching.

    One last point: just for the record I’m not Kevin’s “follower,” just his friend, and someone who also grows weary of being stereotyped.

    Best, Ken


    • Kevin Levin Jan 10, 2009 @ 7:53

      Thanks Ken for taking the time to make some sense of Chris’s raw data and for showing Richard Williams what analysis looks like. I was planning at some point to search for other texts for comparative purposes. What I don’t get is the overwhelming response to my post yesterday reflects general agreement with Williams that this is not a very good book. You would think that he would be pleased to see this and perhaps even rethink his sweeping generalization. His outlook and approach to trying to better understand something as complex as academe is truly mind-boggling.

      By the way, I always thought that you were one of my many “followers”. I have to admit to being just a bit disappointed. Perhaps you need to be re-educated. (LOL)

      • Ken Noe Jan 10, 2009 @ 11:37

        Sorry Comrade Leader. I hear and will obey. 😉

      • Robert Moore Jan 10, 2009 @ 17:51

        Perhaps this discussion would be made even more interesting by figuring out what texts are actually the most used as “primers” in understanding of American history in college classrooms. How, for example, do the top 5 texts outweigh the use of Zinn’s text? Other than eyeballin what is on the shelf at the bookstore at JMU, I’m a bit out of the loop lately in my knowledge of texts used at the history survey course level, so, any ideas?

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