Should Howard Zinn Be Banned in Public Schools?

689e7-zinnKim Hendren, an Arkansas state legislator, wants to ban Howard Zinn‘s books from Arkansas public schools.  Here is a taste of a news story from “Common Dreams” website:

A Republican Arkansas lawmaker has introduced legislation to ban the works of the late historian, activist, and writer Howard Zinn from publicly funded schools.

The bill from Rep. Kim Hendren, just noted by the Arkansas Times, was introduced on Thursday and referred to the House Committee on Education.

It states (pdf) that any “public school district or an open-enrollment public charter school shall not include in its curriculum or course materials for a class or program of study any book or other material” authored by Zinn from 1959 until 2010, the year in which he died

The Zinn Education Project, which aims to “to introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of United States history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula,” noted Thursday that educators in the state may have a very different take from Hendren: “To date, there are more than 250 teachers in Arkansas who have signed up to access people’s history lessons from the Zinn Education Project website.”

The project is also offering a free copy of Zinn’s seminal A People’s History of the United States to any Arkansas teacher who requests it.

Read the entire post here.

Should Zinn be banned from classrooms in Arkansas?

“Banned” is a strong word.  I don’t know the motivation behind Hendren’s bill, but I imagine it has something to do with the left-wing leanings of Zinn’s work, especially his  A People’s History of the United States.   

So should Zinn’s works be used in school classrooms in Arkansas or anywhere else?  No and yes.

I have argued here in the past that Zinn’s book is bad history.  On this point I find myself in agreement with both leftist Georgetown historian Michael Kazin (who also serves as editor of Dissent) and Stanford history education scholar Sam Wineburg.  I would not assign it as the sole textbook in a history class.  It should be viewed as political text that uses the past to advance its agenda.

I would, however, consider using Zinn in the way that my friend Lendol Calder has used it in his United States history survey course.  Calder assigns Zinn alongside a conservative-leaning textbook such as Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People  (Larry Schweikart’s A Patriot’s History of the United States might be another conservative option) in order to show his students that history is “an argument without end.”  He calls Zinn and Johnson “untextbooks.”  I imagine that Calder assigns these two texts because their ideological bent is so overt and obvious.

Should Zinn be banned in Arkansas schools?  No.  But it should be used in very strategic ways that teach students how to think like historians and not like politicians.

7 thoughts on “Should Howard Zinn Be Banned in Public Schools?

  1. I too used Zinn with Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People for many years (no longer). I thought I invented the idea, in fact!

    I found Johnson far more tendentious than Zinn. Johndon often intruded with his bloviating about one thing or another. Zinn in the majority of the text is just quotes, adding a social-dissenting-labor perspective to questions that were generally ignored when he first wrote it.

    As I understood it, Zinn originally conceived as his text as a supplement to a more traditional textbook that covers the politics and etc. (which he ignores).

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  2. John and John,

    I also paired Zinn with Schweikart / Allen for several years. I found the latter worked better than Paul Johnson. I loved having students contrast the two and learn to think about history not just as a record of past events but as a set of arguments (in conversation with other arguments). I think Zinn (or S&A for that matter) is a very poor and tendentious choice as a stand-alone text.

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  3. I was a little worried when you said ‘yes and no’, as I generally am opposed to any type of ‘banning’ of any books. I see your point, though, and I think it is a good one. It is a book that should be supplemental to a regular text book, or paired with a right-leaning. I actually think the latter would make for a very interesting class.

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