Misunderstanding Howard Zinn’s "A People’s History?"

Robert Cohen, who teaches Social Studies at New York University, has responded to Sam Wineburg recent article slamming Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.  (We did a post on Wineburg’s piece here).

Writing at History News Network, Cohen argues that Wineburg does not understand how most teachers use Zinn’s left-wing analysis of American history.  Most teachers use Zinn not as a primary textbook, but as a “comparative” text.  Here is a taste of his piece:

Had Wineburg spoken to high school history teachers, he would have learned that Zinn is most often used in a comparative context, so it is a mistake to analyze A People’s History as a solo textbook, as he did. Indeed, contrary to Wineburg’s misleading claim that Zinn “has gone mainstream,” it is the state- or school-adopted textbooks that constitute the mainstream in most public schools, while Zinn is considered far too radical to be adopted officially as a textbook. Actually, Zinn most frequently ends up in high school classroom in the form of xeroxes of A People’s History’s most provocative chapters, which innovative teachers, (fed up with bland, boring textbooks assigned by their schools) provide to spark historical and historiographical debate. 

Cohen calls our attention to teachers who wrote letters to Zinn explaining how they were using the book. These letters can be found in the Zinn papers at NYU’s Tamiment Library.

If Cohen is correct, then it seems that many high school teachers are using Zinn in the same way Lendol Calder uses Zinn in his U.S. survey course–to teach historiography and historical thinking.

7 thoughts on “Misunderstanding Howard Zinn’s "A People’s History?"

  1. But everyone is missing the main point of Wineberg's argument, which is not necessarily that Zinn writes bad history (although that's part of it), but it's that lots of folks are pairing it with Johnson or Schweikart, which perpetuates the kind of he said/she said discourse that is so troubling American democracy now. History should not be like a CNN “news” show, and treating it as right v. left is a big part of the contentiousness in American public life now. Sure, Zinn is partisan and picky (aren't we all) but Wineburg thinks we should teach students to figure out what's good in Zinn and what's bad (and why) rather than see history as a political soccer ball both teams are slide tackling to control.


  2. Howard Zinn has a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University and has been nominated for AHA awards. Yes, he channeled his history into activism David Barton has a BA in Religious Education from Oral Roberts and has spent most of his career as a PR flack. To compare the two is the height of false equivalency and I would question the cognitive workings of anyone who lump these as “two as the same”.

    Yes, Zinn had his bias *but* was always *up front* about it. Unlike Paul Johnson, whose writing is filled with assumptions, a political bias, deference to political power class, selected voices, etc. Which is precisely Zinn's point — impossible to unbiased, or neutral as I believe Zinn mistakenly termed. People confuse objectivity for neutrality — one can adopt a NPOV and still be framing and siding, and one can be “objective”, even possessing a strong particular viewpoint, yet still be honest.

    The way power and privilege seeps in flavors our perception sometimes is not so obvious until your gaze is directed at such a vivid contrast.


  3. Zinn is far more accurate, relevant, and meaningful than Barton ever will be.
    I'm incorporating some of Zinn's work into my American History 100 level courses. Zinn wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but then he was presenting a very different view of history that needed and still does need to be presented to college students.


  4. To Cohen I would say: that's all well and good, but it still doesn't excuse Zinn's politically skewed and heavily presentist version of the past. Just because one likes the politics better doesn't make the sins any worse. What's the difference between Zinn and Barton?


  5. Ah! Now that makes sense.

    The local high school history teacher when we lived in Philly went one better than just assigning Zinn's “A People.” He had them read the graphic novel version. (-:


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