Using and Abusing History to Make a Political Point

81d67-zinnWhenever I read a writer who tries to marshal American history (or any history for that matter) to support a present day political position or agenda (it happens A LOT), I am reminded of Georgetown University history professor Michael Kazin’s review of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

Kazin is an accomplished historian of populism and the editor of Dissent.  Zinn was an accomplished left-wing activist who used American history to advance a political agenda.

Here is a taste of Kazin’s review:

His message has certainly been heard. A People’s History may well be the most popular work of history an American leftist has ever written. First published in 1980, it has gone through five editions and multiple printings, been assigned in thousands of college courses, sold more than a million copies, and made the author something of a celebrity-although one who appears to lack the egomaniacal trappings of the breed. Matt Damon, playing a working-class wunderkind in the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting, quoted from Zinn’s book to show up an arrogant Harvard boy (and impress a Harvard girl). Damon and his buddy Ben Affleck then signed with Fox to produce a ten-hour miniseries based on the book, before Rupert Murdoch’s minions backed out of the deal.

But Zinn’s big book is quite unworthy of such fame and influence. A People’s History is bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions. Zinn reduces the past to a Manichean fable and makes no serious attempt to address the biggest question a leftist can ask about U.S. history: why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?

His failure is grounded in a premise better suited to a conspiracy-monger’s Web site than to a work of scholarship. According to Zinn, “99 percent” of Americans share a “commonality” that is profoundly at odds with the interests of their rulers. And knowledge of that awesome fact is “exactly what the governments of the United States, and the wealthy elite allied to them-from the Founding Fathers to now-have tried their best to prevent.”

History for Zinn is thus a painful narrative about ordinary folks who keep struggling to achieve equality, democracy, and a tolerant society, yet somehow are always defeated by a tiny band of rulers whose wiles match their greed. He describes the American Revolution as a clever device to defeat “potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.” His Civil War was another elaborate confidence game. Soldiers who fought to preserve the Union got duped by “an aura of moral crusade” against slavery that “worked effectively to dim class resentments against the rich and powerful, and turn much of the anger against ‘the enemy.’”

Read the entire review here.

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.

David Greenberg Defends His Review Essay on Howard Zinn

For those of you who are following this, last week The New Republic posted David Greenberg’s critical review of Martin Duberman’s Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left.

Jesse Lemisch, Staughton Lynd, and Robert Cohen quickly responded to the piece at History News Network (HNN).  Lemisch and Lynd chided Greenberg for getting his facts wrong.  Cohen called attention to the impact of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

Now Greenberg defends his review and responds to his critics.  Here is his response to Lemisch, published at the HNN website:

I’ve known Lemisch slightly over the years, always on pleasant terms, and so his raving tone is particularly disappointing. His prefatory note begins in error and gets loopier as it goes on, speaking ominously of “rumblings among historians” and “one or two errors” (was it one or two? what are they?) that then “mysteriously vanished.” Nowhere in the piece did I attack him or Lynd. I did, regrettably, mix them up at one point in my review — purely a mental tic, like writing Upton Sinclair when you meant Sinclair Lewis. When a reader told me of the error, I asked The New Republic to fix it online and note it in print. This “Orwellian” conspiracy is, in journalistic circles, referred to as a “correction.”

Lemisch also absurdly reads petulance into my peppy Facebook notice sharing a link to the piece with friends (a group that includes, or included, Lemisch). I never “complained” that the magazine’s print version appeared before the online version. This, too, is common practice in journalism, not the work of any shadowy forces. He also misreads my discussion of Eugene Genovese: though I endorse Genovese’s insistence on writing history based on evidence rather than ideological preconceptions, my portrait of his behavior at the 1969 AHA convention (drawn from Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream, among other sources) was hardly meant to reflect well on him, as any clear-eyed reader could see. That Lemisch divines all kinds of dark motives into simple words and deeds should cast doubt on his warped interpretation of my review.

Read the entire piece here.

I guess Martin Duberman is up next.

Defending Zinn

Over at History News Network, Jesse Lemisch, Staughton Lynd, and Robert Cohen respond to David Greenberg’s review of Martin Duberman’s Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left.  Lemisch and Lynd attempt to set the record straight about some of the factual errors in Greenberg’s review.  See our coverage of the review here.

Here is a taste of Lemisch’s response:

David Greenberg is confused and, finally, just plain wrong, about what happened at the 1969 meeting of the American Historical Association when he writes: “Jesse Lemisch, a leading activist, ran for association president on an insurgent ticket.” In fact, contrary to Greenberg, I did not run for any office. We members of the AHA Radical Caucus nominated historian Staughton Lynd for president of the association as a protest against many things, including Soviet-style elections of AHA officers without opposition. And, unhappy with the governance of the Association, we were also deeply opposed to the war in Vietnam. (Lynd had been evicted from his position in the Yale History Department for having done his Quaker duty on a dangerous peacemaking trip to Hanoi.) I’m proud to be confused with Lynd.

Here is a taste of Lynd’s response:

Greenberg sets up a supposed contrast between :”good” New Leftists like Eugene Genovese who did not let their politics influence their writing of history, and “bad” New Leftists like Howard who “sympathized with the NLF.” I was on the speakers’ platform with Genovese at a Vietnam War teach-in at Rutgers University. I heard him say that he hoped the NLF would win. I am not aware of any similar statement by Howard. In any event, Greenberg’s article does not provide such evidence.

Cohen calls attention to the impact that Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States has had on future historians and Bruce Springsteen:

Historian Eric Foner notes having “long been struck by how many excellent students of history first had their passion for the past sparked by reading Howard Zinn.” Student and teacher letters in the Zinn papers at NYU attest that his book engaged them with a radical view of the American past that contradicted their stultifying, triumphalist textbooks. Zinn put the history of workers, racism, class inequality, imperialism, and sexism front and center, something unheard of in popular histories, and even more remarkably his leftist A People’s History became a best-seller in the Reagan era. Yes, the book has flaws, and these are noted by Duberman, but it broke new ground for many readers, including Alice Walker, who termed it “the first true history of the United States. It is called A People’s History because, at last, we are all there!” Greenberg’s polemic is useless for those of us seeking to understand Zinn’s impact and the transformative power of his history for many readers, like Bruce Springsteen, who told Rolling Stone:

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States had an enormous impact on me. It set me down in a place that I recognized and felt I had a claim to. It made me feel that I was a player in this moment in history, as we all are, and that this moment in history was mine, somehow, to do with whatever I could. It gave me a sense of myself in the context of this huge American experience and empowered me to feel that in my small way, I had something to say, I could do something. It made me feel a part of history, and gave me life as a participant.

Howard’s Zinn’s "Influential Mutilations" of American History

Today I finished teaching Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s marvelous Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 in my British colonial America course.  The book is now over thirty years old, but Ulrich’s lucid prose and clear argument make it a joy to teach. My undergraduates love it.

What I particularly like about the book is the way Ulrich’s complicates the progressive narrative of American women’s history.  At the end of the book she writes:

The story of female experience in America is not to be found in a linear progression from darkness to light, from constricted to expanding opportunities, from negative to positive valuation (or vice versa), but in a convoluted and sometimes tangled embroidery of loss and gain, accommodation and resistance.

If only Howard Zinn had learned Ulrich’s lesson about convolution, entanglement, loss, gain, accommodation, and resistance, his A People’s History of the United States might have been a better work of history.  It might not have sold over 2 million copies, but it would be a better work of history.

Over at The New Republic, David Greenberg of Rutgers University reviews Martin Duberman’s Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left.  Greenberg calls Zinn’s A People’s History as a “pretty lousy piece of work.”  Here is a taste:

What I didn’t realize was that the orthodox version of the American past that Howard Zinn spent his life debunking was by the 1980s no longer quite as hegemonic as Zinn made out. Even my high school history teacher marked Columbus Day by explaining that the celebrated “discoverer” of America had plundered Hispaniola for its gold and that, in acts of barbarism that would later be classified as genocide, Columbus’s men had butchered the native Arawaks, slicing off limbs for sport and turning their scrotums into change-purses. (This last detail stuck vividly in the teenage mind.) That Mr. MacDougall was conversant with radical scholarship such as Zinn’s suggests that much had changed from the days when Zinn himself had imbibed uncritical schoolbook accounts of the American story. True, in the popular books and public ceremonies of the 1980s, you could still find a whitewashed tale of the nation’s past, as you can today; and many cities around the country shielded their charges from such heresies. But as far as historians were concerned, the sacred cows that Howard Zinn was purporting to gore had already been slaughtered many times. As Jon Wiener noted in the Journal of American History, “during the early seventies … of all the changes in the profession, the institutionalization of radical history was the most remarkable.”

Greenberg praises Duberman, a friend of Zinn who shared his politics, for trying to write “fairly and dispassionately,” but he also chides Duberman for ignoring some of Zinn’s “more outrageous or obtuse political positions.”

Here is another taste:

Upon its publication, A People’s History won some kind words from critics praising its author’s effort to transmit the new academic arguments of the 1960s and 1970s to wider audiences. But on the whole the reviews were not kind. The cultural historian Michael Kammen called the book a “scissors-and-paste-pot job” and deemed the book’s “bottom up” history to be “as unsatisfactory as ‘elitist’ history.” He pointed out that it was not too much to expect a book of 600 pages to include America’s “grandeur as well as tragedy, magnanimity as well as muddle, honor as well as shame.” In the New York Times, Eric Foner, something of a radical historian himself, explained why Zinn’s bugaboo of “balance” was a red herring: historians are obliged to explore the viewpoints of elite actors, however unattractive, not to parcel out sympathy in proper proportions, but to show, in a faithful account of the past, the interconnectedness of the rulers and ruled, and of all strata of society, and how one group’s experiences influence another’s. But Zinn reduced historical analysis to political opinion. He assessed a work of history by its author’s partisan loyalties, not its arguments about causation, influence, motivation, significance, experience, or other problems he deemed “technical” in nature.
Despite his soft spot for Zinn personally, Duberman doesn’t flinch from rehearsing these and other flaws. “Sometimes A People’s History lacks nuance,” he writes (ever so gently), “with the world divided into oppressors and oppressed, villains or heroes.” Not only did this division devolve quickly into Manichaeism; it also trivialized Zinn’s own heroes by depicting their labors as ineffectual. “The history of the U.S.,” Duberman notes, “is treated as mainly the story of relentless exploitation and deceit.” Even the civil rights movement is regarded in A People’s History as little more than a brief surge of activism that ended in burned-out ghettos, persistent inequality, continued racial conflict, and white indifference. 
Yet when it comes to Zinn’s demand for history to be judged for its political utility, Duberman is finally too indulgent. He can never bring himself to say that the fatal flaw of Zinn’s historical work is the shallowness, indeed the fallaciousness, of his critique of scholarly detachment. Zinn rests satisfied with what strikes him as the scandalous revelation that claims of objectivity often mask ideological predilections. Imagine! And on the basis of this sophomoric insight, he renounces the ideals of objectivity and empirical responsibility, and makes the dubious leap to the notion that a historian need only lay his ideological cards on the table and tell whatever history he chooses. He aligns himself with the famous line from the British historian James Anthony Froude, who asked rhetorically if history “was like a child’s box of letters, with which we can spell any word we please. We have only to pick out such letters as we want, arrange them as we like, and say nothing about those which do not suit our purpose.” Froude made this observation in the middle of the nineteenth century….

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.

"Deranged Left-Wing Fundamentalist Syndrome"

At Front Page Mag, Mark Tooley has written a pretty scathing critique of the work of Franky Schaeffer (he now goes by “Frank Schaeffer”), the son of the late theologian/Christian cultural critic Francis Schaeffer.  The piece is tough on Franky, but it does remind us that left-wingers can be just as “fundamentalist” as right-wingers.  Here is a taste:

Schaeffer’s knowledge of American history seems mostly confined to the worst analysis of Harold Zinn.  America was always rotten, based on a “Calvinistic theology of retribution and hate” in the north and slavery in the south.  “We never had this country,” Schaeffer concludes, without defining “we,” which presumably includes himself and a few other isolated, noble souls.

Schaeffer’s father, a Presbyterian theologian and commentator, strongly critiqued America’s failures.  But he did so with hope of renewal, based on God’s love, and knowing that not all dead white men in American history were necessarily evil.  The younger Schaeffer, who’s largely lost his faith, of course offers no hope because he doesn’t really believe in it.  He offers only fury, smugness, and despair.  The father believed all of humanity is sinful but God offers redemption.  The son, so obsessed in rejecting his father’s faith, seems to locate evil only in people identifiable with his father: virtually all Americans, but especially Christians, conservatives, gun owners, and “white trash.”

The older Schaeffer, who loved rather than hated, is still revered by millions even decades after his death.  The son, although on MSNBC and in The Huffington Post, will be mercifully forgotten, unless, we can pray, he too seeks redemption.  In the spirit of this season, let’s hope he does.

New Biography of Howard Zinn

As long as we are talking about Howard Zinn, it is worth noting that Martin Duberman has recently published Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left (New Press, 2012).

John Tirman reviews the book at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste:

But this intelligent book reminds us of titantic moral struggles in American history and those who engaged in them. It’s striking that the Zinn-Chomsky generation lacks a successor in public discourse, that our national political debate has narrowed so much. The book also reminds us of when people would collectively act as citizens, sometimes militantly, to be heard and get results. It spurs us to think, as Zinn did, of utopian ideas — a Constitution that guarantees economic rights, for instance, or a society that could sustain itself without a central state, the core belief of anarchists and one intermittently asserted by Zinn — and how mentally liberating those ideas can be.

Mostly, Duberman’s biography captures what was so attractive about this radical historian. “What will most certainly come down to future generations,” Duberman concludes, “is Howard’s humanity, his exemplary concern for the plight of others, a concern free of condescension or self-importance. Howard always stayed in character — and that character remained centered on a capacious solidarity with the least fortunate.”

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.

Sam Wineburg’s Course on Howard Zinn

Over at the blog of the Historical Society, Randall Stephens has a short interview with teaching history guru Sam Wineburg, author of the fabulous Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (a book that every pre-service history teacher should read) and a host of other books on how to teach history in schools. 

As most readers know, we are big fans of Wineburg here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and have blogged extensively about his work. 

In his latest venture at Stanford, Wineburg is teaching a course to college freshmen on Howard Zinn.  I have seen the syllabus and it looks great.  (I liked it even better when I saw that his students were reading parts of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation:A  Historical Introduction?). 

Here is a taste of Stephens’s interview with Wineburg:

Randall Stephens: What made you decide to teach a course on “Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States & the Quest for Historical Truth”?

Sam Wineburg: When I moved to Stanford from the University of Washington in 2002, I began to encounter very bright students in our Masters of Teaching program who were highly critical of their high school history books, but who reserved a sacred place for Zinn’s A People’s History. It had been years since I read the book, so I went to the bookstore, purchased the latest edition and started to read. The first thing that popped out at me was that despite the fact that the book had been in print for over two decades no new scholarship had been incorporated in Zinn’s narrative. Chapters on the Revolution, the Civil War, World War II, the Cold War and everything prior to 1980 were frozen in amber. It was as if, once you came to your historical conclusions, you never had to rethink your position in light of new scholarship—such as the opening up of the Soviet archives and the light these documents shed on spies in America, or the tell-all exposes of the Emperor Hirohito’s inner coterie and how these memoirs changed our ideas about how close (actually, how distant) the Japanese were to surrender before Hiroshima. The more I started to dig the more I started to realize how useful A People’s History would be pedagogically, particularly for students who conceptualize the past in stark binaries of true and false.

Why Do Bad History Books Win Us Over?

Writing in The Atlantic, Chris Beneke and Randall Stephens reflect on the recent History News Network poll on the least credible history books in print. (See our post on this poll here).

The authors attempt to explain why “historians” such as David Barton and Howard Zinn are so popular. Certainly politics is part of the appeal, but there is more.  I will let Beneke and Stephens explain:

In short, Barton and Zinn have each crafted a sort of Da Vinci Code history. Nearly everyone knows the basic plotline of that bestselling Dan Brown novel, which leads readers via a highly dubious series of clues to the previously undisclosed origin of Christianity while unraveling the malicious web of deception that concealed it for centuries.

Adapting this gripping storytelling approach, Barton and Zinn offer audiences the illusion that they have been hoodwinked by undisclosed authorities — Ivy League academics, textbook authors, the New York Times, eighth-grade social studies teachers, parents. They give readers the intellectual self-assurance that accompanies expertise without the slog of unglamorous study required to attain it.

The message is that you, dear reader, know something that the vast majority of unenlightened chumps do not. For devotees of Barton and Zinn, it’s as though a switch has been flicked and everything in a darkened room illuminated. (Barton compares his labors to those of a soldier who discovers an IED and then alerts others.)

Now, Barton and Zinn aren’t conspiracy theorists exactly, but they press the same psychological buttons. Barton’s hyper-patriotic Christian founding narrative and Zinn’s unmasking of elite white male criminality offer the dual satisfaction of solving a mystery and showing up a teacher. This double-win is so sweet that readers might not wish to entertain any non-complying facts, and so easy that wrestling with more complicated accounts will seem pure drudgery. Read Barton and you see vividly how pointy-headed secularists stole our Christian heritage from us. Read Zinn and you understand how capitalism has robbed us of justice itself. Scales fall from your eyes.

Some Thoughts on David Barton’s "The Jefferson Lies"–Part Five

This post is part of a continuing series on David Barton’s recent book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson.  For earlier posts in the series, click here.

The fourth “ism” that David Barton believes is negatively affecting our understanding of Thomas Jefferson is “Minimalism.”

According to Barton, “Minimalism” is the process of “reducing everything to monolithic causes and linear effects.” (Once again, Barton includes no footnote to tell us the source of his definition).  In other words, “Minimalism” is taking complicated and complex problems or issues and reducing them to simplistic formulations.  (I would probably call this reductionism). Frankly, I am thrilled to see that Barton has finally acknowledged that history is complex.  He is right about the complexity of Thomas Jefferson. 

He claims that “Minimalists” fail to examine Jefferson in all his fullness, opting instead to tag him as a “racist, atheist, secularist, or whatever else they believe will help their agenda.”

Two things strike me about this brief, undocumented section on “Minimalism” in The Jefferson Lies.

First, I think Barton is attacking a straw man here.  Who are these people who portray Jefferson in this way?  I know of no historian worth his or her salt who says that Jefferson was an atheist.  There may be some atheist groups who want to claim him, but these groups are hardly in the mainstream of American life.

Second, Barton says that “Minimalist” writers (and they all seem to be either on the Left or in academia) try to recast Jefferson into a founding father who will fit their present-day political agendas. Wow!  Hasn’t Barton and Wallbuilders been doing the exact same thing for years? Isn’t Barton guilty of the same kind of “Minimalism” that he decries?  Isn’t Wallbuilders an organization built upon a foundation of this kind of “Minimalism”?

This is why I have long said that David Barton and left-wing writers like Howard Zinn belong in the same camp. Neither of them are historians.  They just want to use and manipulate the past to serve their own political or ideological agendas in the present.  This, to put it bluntly, is bad history.

The Jefferson Lies is “Minimalism” at its best (or should I say at its worst).

For another treatment of Jefferson and the role of religion in the founding see Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.  I heard that it’s pretty good 🙂

Howard Zinn and the FBI

Yesterday the FBI released its 423 page file on the late political activist and “historian” Howard Zinn. David Knowles at AOL News focuses on three highlights:

1. Several FBI informants identified Zinn as a member of the Communist Party, but Zinn denied it.

2. Despite his commitment to non-violence, Zinn claimed he would defend his country “in the event of a war against any enemy, including the Soviet Union.”

3. The FBI renewed its interest in Zinn after he wrote an article critical of Bobby Kennedy and the FBI.

HT: Cliopatria

The Graciousness of Howard Zinn

Over at Religion in American History John Turner has a wonderful tribute to Howard Zinn that focuses on an experience Turner had reading A People’s History of the United States with one of his United States survey classes at the University of Southern Alabama

Turner writes:

Several years ago, one of my classes noticed a rather obvious factual error in People’s History. Zinn was trying too hard to make the case that many Americans opposed the Second World War. Thus, we fired off an email to Zinn:

“My undergraduate survey classes have been profitably reading your People’s History this semester. We’re learning to read all sources critically and have a question about a detail in your book. Can you help us resolve the following?

On p. 418 (2003 edition) you write, “Our of 10 million drafted for the armed forces during World War II, only 43,000 refused to fight. But this was three times the proportion of C.O.’s in World War I.

On p. 371 (WWI): “About 65,000 men declared themselves conscientious objectors and asked for noncombatant service.”

How could 43,000 in WWII be a larger proportion than 65,000 in WWI? Our understanding is that more individuals were drafted during the Second World War. Can you help?

The then 84-year-old Zinn promptly wrote back:

“Thank you for calling that to my attention. A gross error! I think my absolute figures are right, but what I say about “proportion” is wrong. I don’t remember where I got that information but I’ll look into it. You can use this as a lesson for your students on how historians can get things wrong!

Best wishes,
Howard Zinn

Turner concludes: “For a man who received sacks of both positive and negative mail about his work, I found the response extraordinarily gracious and a testimony to a kind and gentle spirit. May we respond similarly to our critics!”

Howard Zinn R.I.P.

I just got word that Howard Zinn, the political activist and popular writer about the American past, died today at the age of 87. He will be remembered for his book A People’s History of the United States, which has sold over one million copies.

Zinn used the past to promote his left-wing agenda. His A People’s History became wildly popular among high school teachers around the country. I remember several years ago lurking on a discussion list devoted to teaching Advanced Placement United States History and was amazed at how many people were using his book in their classes.

According to his obituary in today’s New York Times, Zinn’s book has found its way into American popular culture on multiple occasions. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon called attention to the book in their Academy Award winning movie Good Will Hunting. Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska was inspired by the book. Tony Soprano’s son A.J. held a copy of the book in an episode of “The Sopranos.” Oliver Stone claimed to be a fan.

I have read A People’s History several times and have always been impressed with the moral purpose in which Zinn wrote. When I have criticized Zinn it has been because I do not think he should be considered a historian. He was never interested in an honest reconstruction of the past. Instead, he used it to advance a political agenda. And he admitted as much.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once said in regards to Zinn: “I know he regards me as a dangerous reactionary. And I don’t take him very seriously. He’s a polemicist, not a historian.” Schlesinger was right when he said Zinn was not a historian. But he was wrong when he said that he should not be taken seriously. Zinn’s books have prompted many people to study history who otherwise would never have cracked the spine of a traditional history textbook. Joseph Palermo, a history professor at Cal State-Sacramento, is not alone when he says that Zinn inspired him to be a historian.

So whatever your politics happens to be, I hope you will join me today in remembering a man who ignited an interest in the past in a way that scholars have never been able to do. I am sure that tomorrow the blogosphere and traditional print will have much to say about his life and legacy. Rest in peace.

Howard Zinn vs. David Barton

Well, the prolific commentators over at American Creation have managed to distract me from my quiet evening in front of the television watching the Pitt-Villanova game. This morning I wrote a post on this blog criticizing Howard Zinn and questioning his identity as a “historian.” Brad Hart at American Creation wrote a post about my post and it has opened up a real hornet’s nest in the comments section of his blog.

My post on Zinn comes on the heels of another heated debate at American Creation that centers around whether or not Christian nationalist David Barton is or isn’t a “liar.” Barton gadfly Chris Rodda has put together a YouTube lecture series showing, quite convingly I might add, how Barton has a tendency of manipulating primary sources to make his dubious argument that America is a Christian nation. (I showed the first two parts of these lectures to my Religion and American Founding class yesterday. I think they got a kick out of the whole debate).

Some commentators at American Creation are unwilling to accept my comparison between Zinn and Barton. (With the exception of Brad Hart, who seems to be one of the lone defenders of my post. Thanks for taking the heat Brad!). They are arguing that Zinn is different from Barton because Barton deliberately “lies” about what the sources say and Zinn does not. While I am not sure I would go as far as some in calling Barton a “liar,” it does seem that he has distorted the truth of the documents he uses. (Zinn may do the same thing, but I have not had the time or inclination to check it out thoroughly). The argument of some of the American Creation commentators thus goes something like this: Since Barton “lies” about the evidence and Zinn does not, this makes Zinn a legitimate historian and make Barton a fraud.

Fair enough. A historian, of course, must tell the truth. If they consciously or unconsciously misrepresent documents they are bad historians. But this is not the criteria I was using when I said that Zinn was a bad historian. My critique of Zinn was based on his presentist agenda–using the past to prove a political point. I strongly suggest that you read my many posts on historical thinking and you will understand what I mean by this. (Look especially at my posts on books by Sam Wineburg and Gordon Wood).

By cherry picking from the past things to support his activism, Zinn is just as guilty as Barton (even when Barton IS historically accurate on the facts) in failing to provide a complete picture of American history. In other words, both Zinn and Barton are activists who have convinced a lot of people that they are historians.

I should also add that the Michael Kazin article I reference is noteworthy because Kazin himself is a man of the left.

What to Make of Howard Zinn

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.