Critiquing Howard Zinn

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We have written before about the problems with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Read all our Zinn posts here.

The latest critique of Zinn’s work comes from Kyle Williams, a historian at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.  Here is a taste of his piece at the progressive magazine In These Times:

All histories, of course, omit some facts and details and rabbit holes, but A People’s History focuses almost exclusively on victimization and tragedy. Zinn’s history, though brilliant with pathos and storytelling, ultimately presents an unusable past; it too often fails to consider the change that occurs through untidy and often disappointing compromises, human longing, unintended consequences and surprising moments of advantage.

Like historical change itself, the value of historical scholarship is often unexpected. As in much of the best scientific research, the historian resists the urge to make their writing overly practical or immediately applicable to the needs of the present in favor of following the slow and often frustrating path of the research process. This process frequently results in unexpected twists and new and sometimes inconvenient conclusions, providing fresh insights into change.

Zinn’s success had an unintended consequence itself: A People’s History quickly moved out of the typically small environs of a radical academic/activist and became an international sensation. Its essential message, that American history is a long story of powerful elites dominating common people, counter-balanced the cultural conservative embrace of American exceptionalism, which gained special prominence in the post-Reagan years. Zinn’s book became a lightning rod in the culture wars over public school curricula, and Republicans in states like Indiana and Arkansas have repeatedly tried to ban the book in schools.

Understandably, the Left has rallied around A People’s History and the book continues to be regarded among some in the activist community as a requisite, if somewhat dated, statement of America’s disordered past.

The rhetorical battles of the culture war rarely lend themselves to careful reflection, and there are good reasons to put A People’s History away. Moreover, much of the scholarship Zinn relied on has itself been revised. Many of the insights and stories that Zinn collected have made their way into contemporary textbooks that are widely available and serve as good alternatives to the right-wing textbooks that Texas curriculum committees continue to insist upon. His perspective is palpable as a member of a leftist movement that was in quick retreat on the verge of the Reagan Revolution and the decline of New Deal liberalism.

Read the entire piece here.