Over the last couple of weeks the topic of Howard Zinn has come up in my seminar, “Religion and the American Founding.”
In this course we have been reading some of the writings of those who defend the notion that America was founded as a “Christian nation,” including the works by David Barton and Marshall and Manuel. (We have also read Mason Locke Weems’s Life of Washington–a 19th century work of Christian nationalism). I have tried to make the argument that these writers are really more political activists or theologians than they are historians. Yet, their writings often pass as history to thousands of conservative Christians and are used as history textbooks in Christian schools and among Christian homeschoolers. (I have at least one student in my course who had a high school American history teacher assign Marshal and Manuel to prepare for the AP Exam).
A few weeks ago one of my students asked me privately if there are writers on the left who are comparable to these Christian nationalist writers. Howard Zinn immediately came to mind. I am always amazed at the popularity of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Several years ago I decided to lurk on an internet forum for Advanced Placement U.S. History teachers and found that Zinn is used by many of them as the primary textbook in their classes. Last month I was talking to a group of history majors at a big university and they all wanted to know “what I thought of Howard Zinn.” Many of my more lefty students at Messiah College read Zinn–his books work well with the kind of social-justice Anabaptism one finds at such an institution. As I write, A People’s History is ranked #543 at Amazon.Com. Not bad, especially since The Way of Improvement Leads Home is currently ranked 764,861 . (Come on faithful readers, let’s lower that number!).
Zinn writes well and is quite inspiring, but his book is bad history. In fact, I would not even call it history. A People’s History of the United States is a political tract that uses the past to promote a presentist agenda. It is basically, to paraphrase the words of Bernard Bailyn, political indoctrination by historical example. Now I have no problem if Zinn wants to use the past to advance his leftist agenda. In fact, there is a lot I can agree with in Zinn’s criticisms of his country. But please don’t call this history and pass it off to students as a model of how to write history. Zinn’s book violates virtually every rule of good historical thinking.
The best thing I have read about A People’s History is Michael Kazin’s review of the book. It is definitely worth a look.