Sam Wineburg on Why Howard Zinn’s "A People’s History" Fall Short

In perhaps the strongest criticism of Zinn’s  A People’s History of the United States to date, Stanford education professor and historical thinking guru Sam Wineburg concludes that teachers who teach American history using Zinn’s book are failing their students.  Here is a taste:

A history of unalloyed certainties is dangerous because it invites a slide into intellectual fascism.  History as truth, issued from the left or from the right, abhors shades of gray.  It seeks to stamp out democratic insight that people of good will can see the same thing and come to different conclusions.  It imputes the basest of motives to those who view the world from a different perch.  It detests equivocation and extinguishes perhaps, maybe, might, and the most execrable of them all, on the other hand.  For the truth has no hands.

Such a history atrophies our tolerance for complexity.  It makes us allergic to exceptions to the rule.  Worst of all, it depletes the moral courage we need to revise our beliefs in the face of new evidence.  It ensures, ultimately, that tomorrow we will think exactly as we thought yesterday–and the day before, and the day before that.

Is that what we want for our students?

Read the entire essay.

9 thoughts on “Sam Wineburg on Why Howard Zinn’s "A People’s History" Fall Short

  1. I think some of the comments here are ironic – “I detest Zinn” and the tone of great certainty that his work should never be assigned, in response to an article saying that part of the great problem with Zinn is that he's too certain and makes things too simple. I also think it's notable that the article cries out for uncertainty and complexity and yet doesn't apply that to itself. As in, to say “A history of unalloyed certainties is dangerous because it invites a slide into intellectual fascism” and “atrophies our tolerance for complexity” sounds awfully certain and simplistic to me.

    The use of the metaphor “intellectual fascism” strikes me as playing quite fast and loose with some historical atrocities deserving of a good deal more gravity, episodes too important to be used as insults for a book one dislikes.

    As for the bit about “deplet[ing] the moral courage we need to revise our beliefs in the face of new evidence,” that strikes me as odd given that Zinn's book is part about cultivating a kind of moral courage (or at least appreciation for it) in the face of injustice. What about the moral courage to hang on to beliefs when they fall out of fashion despite continued evidence for them? As in – surely any sufficiently complex understanding of the proper role of complexity in historical thought must be a qualified one: when should we favor complexity? Sometimes. Zinn's book doesn't seem to me like a book about simplicity, rather it's a history of aspects of U.S. history that he thinks are relatively simple, morally speaking. It's a history of relatively clear moral issues. That doesn't commit the book to the view that all issues are morally simple. It merely commits the book to the view that some issues are. Which is simply true. That doesn't mean people have to like Zinn, it just means that the denunciations of Zinn fail at some of their own implicit tests.


  2. Thank you for the feedback and those links. That presents a point a view I have not previously considered: whether an organization that has no political affiliation should take a position on something that is of a political nature. I do not have an answer to that concept. I do have a similar situation that came from this year’s elections regarding an organization I am in that did take a position (it’s a religious organization). Rather, some of the more conservative members tried to take the organization along with their individual interests.

    So that does present an interesting parallel to the AHA and naturally other professional organizations that are not political activist organizations. It is a fact that as a group the desires of individuals have more effect than they do as just individuals. Yet, does it harm the organization when some of the individuals within the group take the organization into an active political position when political activity is not within the sphere of the organization’s scope or purpose? I think the answer to that is yes based on my own experiences.

    That makes me think that if we historians do want to make our voice heard we should think about creating a politically active group for that purpose instead of using the professional organizations to do so and quite possibly alienating many of the members in those organizations. While I think the condemnation of the 2003 Iraq War was correct in spirit, I think it could be very difficult to stop taking stances on political positions for professional organizations once they get started on that slippery slope. One day it is Left. The next day it could be Right. As we know from studying history often we find more evidence which challenges our own perceptions of events even when we are participating in them.


  3. I didn’t find Zinn until about a year and a half ago since I’m a latecomer to historical studies. I have never considered Zinn and PHOTUS to be the definitive history of the US or anywhere close to it. What I do consider it to be is an example of American history that is not from the point of view of the more familiar perspective which was presented to me in the Seventies. As such it is a good eye-opener for students to see there are multiple perspectives on historical studies and that history is about everyone, not just great men and women.
    I like Zinn more because of the Battle for the Mic at one of the AHA conventions. I am happy to see that while his move to condemn the Vietnam War during that era was not acted on, the AHA would move on the 2003 Iraq War and condemn it. I feel that Zinn had a large part to do with the mental shift in the perspectives of historians for that to occur.


  4. Naum: I think you are correct to say that Zinn never meant PHOTUS to be a complete compilation. But, as Wineburg notes in the piece, most teachers do not use it as supplement. They use it as the main text.


  5. A hit piece.

    While this is a lot better than most screeds lambasting Zinn (and Kazin's bizarre polemics reek of jealousy over his inadequacy to attain popularity on the level of Zinn, McCullagh, etc.), there really is not a lot of meat here.

    He points out Zinn reliance on “secondary sources” but yet PHOTUS is replete with references to “original sources”, from Columbus diaries and Bartoleme de las Casas journals to Helen Keller/Eugene Debs words. And the few illustrations he gives are ironic, given the wealth of data now backing up Zinn's vantage point (i.e., Japan WWII atomic bomb where now a wealth of data has been released showing more and more support for what Zinn concludes). Granted, the criticism that Zinn never went back and updated his work here is a valid one, but the charge about “secondary sources” is ludicrous, considering how many used this as a starting point to launch exploration of the plentiful assortment of sources cited.

    Which is why I find these attacks so puzzling — Zinn never considered his work to be a complete be all / end all / definitive / authoritative compilation — again, it a starting point, and a smattering of selected slices of history from “people” perspective rather than the vantage point of dominator jingoistic state-sanctioned historian-priest perspective (as still, Chernow, Wood and others riff in this vein).

    And @Tom, so typical with the hand waving, the ideological goggles so tightly screwed to your skull.


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