Are You Teaching Social Justice?

I came across the following post at Chris Wehner’s Blog4History site.  We’ve had our share of run-ins in the past, but Chris is a fellow APUS History teacher and somehow he managed to write a regimental history and teach at the same time.  That’s quite a feat.  Chris is a public school teacher and is worried about the influence of left wing ideologues shaping our history curriculum and influencing how our children think about themselves and their relationship to government.  I don’t necessarily have a problem with this.

On the other hand, Wehner’s most recent post on the push to turn classrooms into labs for the teaching of social justice seems to me to be a case of serious hyperbole.  The US Social Forum sounds like a wonderful opportunity for those who are interested in bringing about a certain kind of change to American politics, but it’s definitely not my cup of tea and as far as I am concerned it has no place in the classroom.  Wehner would have us believe, however, that this kind of agenda is infiltrating our public schools.  Now keep in mind that I am a private school teacher so he may be in a much better position to judge this program’s popularity among teachers.  In his post, Wehner claims the following:

This is called teaching for Social Justice and it is not about truth or honesty, it is about radicalism, indoctrination, and propaganda in our schools. And we wonder why our public schools are failing us? There is little learning going on and instead, lots of indoctrination.

They are teaching educators about radicalism and revolution, and they in turn will teach the children!

This is just more data that our educational system is being hijacked by a movement that seeks to do nothing more than fundamentally change this country into something it was never intended to be!

Now, perhaps I need to go back and browse the website more carefully, but where does it suggest that this conference is being marketed to history teachers or any teachers for that matter?  More importantly, how many school districts actually implement programs that fall in line with this agenda?  Wehner fails to provide any facts that would back up his claims.  One thing that is clear is that these conferences are marketed to America’s youth, but that should come as no surprise.  I suspect that I could just as easily find organizations on the conservative side that are engaged in exactly the same thing.  And I have no doubt that I can find accompanying texts for their programs that are equivalent to what William Ayers does in his book on the teaching of Social Justice.   In the end, however, I am still left wondering just how influential any of this is.  For example, how many history teachers actually implemented the curriculum outlined in the History Channel/Howard Zinn collaboration, “The People Speak”?  I’ve seen a few online clips of the show and concluded that it was a complete waste of time.  If the barbarians are actually at the gates than show it.

Continue reading “Are You Teaching Social Justice?”

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

halloween1Thanks 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.

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.


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.