What should we make of Trump’s 1776 Commission Report? Part 3

Read previous installments in this series here.

It is now difficult to find the 1776 Commission Report, but I managed to locate a copy in the Internet Archive.

The authors begin with the Articles of Confederation. The report teaches a “critical period” approach to the 1780s, arguing that “American statesmen and citizens alike concluded that the Articles were too weak to fulfill a government’s core functions.” What this view of the Constitution of the United States fails to mention is that the 1787 document was barely ratified in some states because so many “statesmen and citizens”–Patrick Henry, Luther Martin, Samuel Adams, George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, James Monroe, Mercy Otis Warren, and George Clinton, to name a few–were relatively happy under the Articles of Confederation and worried that the Constitution took too much power away from the states. American historians talk about these debates and differences with their students when they teach the 1780s. They provide students with primary sources to evaluate both sides of an issue so that they can detect bias and understand ideas in larger contexts. They ask questions like: “Whose critical period?”

In fact, I think the entire 1776 Commission might be a valuable resource in the history classroom. I would use it alongside the 1619 Project or Howard Zinn’s People’s History to help students see how the past can be marshalled toward political ends.

Good history teachers understand the complexity of the past. For example, the 1776 Commission Report insists that there is a direct link between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It fails to mention that many ordinary men and women believed that the Constitution curbed their liberties and squashed some of the democratic practices of the states during the 1780s. Many believed that Madison’s “large republics” would weaken their political voice. The Electoral College filtered the voice of the people. As we saw in 2016, it is possible for a presidential candidate to win the votes of the people and still lose a presidential election. There were people in the eighteenth century who worried about this possibility.

So what were the links between the Declaration of Independence and Constitution? This question would make for a wonderful pedagogical exercise. Instead, this document offers only one side. In the end, it does the exact same thing the conservative authors of the document accuse those on the left of doing.

Finally, the 1776 Commission’s section on the Constitution says nothing about the debates over slavery at the Constitutional Convention. It says nothing about the three-fifths compromise. The paragraphs on the Bill of Rights focuses almost entirely on religious liberty and the right to bear arms.

Today Inside Higher Ed has a piece on the 1776 Commission and its connection to conservative Hillsdale College.

I also learned today that South Dakota pro-Trump governor Kristi Noem is asking for nearly $1 million to revamp the teaching of social studies in her state so that students learn “why the U.S. is the most special nation in the history of the world.” We will have to see if the 1776 Commission Report will play a role in Noem’s plans. Whatever happens, the history wars will continue.

“Fig leaves” for a “Trumpist-state dictated popular history”

Over at the anti-Trump conservative website, The Bulwark, historian Ronald Radosh reflects on the recent “White House Conference on American History.”

He calls the entire event “bizarre.”

Here is a taste:

I have nothing but disdain for the professors who use their courses to try and convert their students to Marxism or any other radical ideology. The late historian Eugene D. Genovese was a major historian. The books and articles he wrote while he was a Marxist hold up, as do those he wrote when he became a conservative Catholic. I knew him well enough to know that in both phases he did not indoctrinate students; he only taught history so that students could understand the past of the American South and its legacy of slavery.

Everything the panelists said at last week’s conference must be looked at in the context of the event itself. Historian L.D. Burnett, writing in Slate, is incorrect when she writes that the conference was “100 percent anti-intellectual.” Allen Guelzo, for example, did not offer a right-wing rant. But even his appearance—as with those of all the participants—served as a fig leaf, providing legitimization for the development of a Trumpist state-dictated popular history that would be used to teach a “patriotic” version of our nation’s past.

This is not the attitude of many of the radical professors who are historians I still know. They do not insist that their students agree with them. The activist and professor Cornel West team-teaches a course with Robert P. George at Princeton University. Robby has written about how West’s list of books and articles to read includes scores of conservative books with which he does not agree. Both men are completely supportive of free speech on campus.

The serious historians who participated last week, as well as the other panelists, were there to provide a cover for the politicized history that Trump favors. Nothing, however, compared to some of the remarks Ben Carson made. Since everyone knows he was a medical doctor of great accomplishment, but not a historian, nor even someone known to have given any thought to the subject of the conference, why was he even there? A clear reason is that he is an African American, and stood out in a panel composed of all white men and two women.

Read the entire piece here.

Radosh also references criticisms of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States by Michael Kazin, Sam Wineburg, and David Greenberg.

He also references Kazin’s criticism of Bill McClay’s book Land of Hope, a text featured at the White House event.

Critiquing Howard Zinn


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.

Michael Kazin Reviews Wilfred McClay’s *Land of Hope*

McClayOne of my favorite historians recently reviewed a book by one of my other favorite historians.  Here is Georgetown University’s Michael Kazin‘s review of University of Oklahoma historian Wilfred McClay‘s Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story.  (At this point, I can only call your attention to this review. Since I have not read McClay’s book,  I cannot comment on the fairness of Kazin’s review).

Wilfred McClay, a rare conservative historian whose prior work is respected across the political trenches, thinks he can explain what made America wonderful without echoing the nonsense Newt and his ilk hawk to the faithful. In a new survey of the nation’s past, McClay, who sports a hefty title as the G. T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, seeks to impart an uplifting message while still telling the story straight. His book bears the title Land of Hope, with a subtitle that appears pitched to acolytes of Trump: An Invitation to the Great American Story. Serious scholars on the right rarely write such sweeping national narratives, and McClay’s conservative publisher has made quite a production out of this one. It’s printed on expensive glossy stock, the images are numerous and mostly in color, and a handsome brochure with a lengthy author Q&A is included in every review copy.

McClay has clearly written the book with its enormously popular competitor on the left in mind. In the promotional interview, he asserts that Howard Zinn’s famous book is “simplistic melodrama” that appeals to “many Americans who have felt disillusioned by our natural flaws.” He’s not wrong about that. A People’s History does reduce the past to a conflict between a tiny elite animated by nothing but power and greed and a vast majority who always seem to get shafted; he never asks why so many Americans were taken in by what he called “the most ingenious system of control in world history.” Still, Zinn at least made a powerful argument in arresting prose: he condemned the enduring exploitation of the 99 percent by the 1 percent and provided readers with a surfeit of quotes from such eloquent voices as Eugene Debs, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Adrienne Rich who resisted the powerful, albeit with more courage than success.

But McClay has entirely failed to create an appealing alternative to his radical rival. He sheds praise on the nation and its people without explaining why and how they accomplished the deeds he finds so worthy of tribute. Unwilling to parrot the conspiracy-mongering of hacks like D’Souza but still determined to present a past brimming with “hope,” he ends up with a history that is dutiful rather than inspiring.

Read the entire review here.  Later in the review Kazin compares McClay’s one-volume U.S. history with Jill Lepore’s similar effort, These Truths.

Did Lincoln Offer a “verbal cake and ice cream” to slaveowners?

Who was responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation?  Was it Lincoln?  The Republican Party? The slaves themselves?  Gettysburg College Civil War scholar Allen Guelzo makes a case for Lincoln in his recent piece in The Wall Street Journal.  Here is a taste:

In an age when rocking century-old statues off their pedestals has become a public sport, no historical reputation is safe. That includes Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator.

It is “now widely held,” Columbia historian Stephanie McCurry announced in a 2016 article, that emancipation “wasn’t primarily the accomplishment of Abraham Lincoln or the Republican Party, but of the slaves themselves, precipitated by the actions they took inside the Confederacy and in their flight to Union lines.” Ebony editor Lerone Bennett put this argument forward in his 2000 book, “Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream.” The Zinn Education Project, which distributes Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” to students, claims that Lincoln offered “verbal cake and ice cream to slaveowners,” while slaves themselves did “everything they could to turn a war for national unity into a war to end slavery.”

The case against Lincoln is a lot less energizing than it seems. Slavery, as it emerged in American life and law, was always a matter of state enactments. There was no federal slave code, and Madison had been particularly eager to ensure that the Constitution gave no federal recognition to the idea that there could be “property in man.” But there was also no federal authority to move directly against slavery in the states.

The attempt by the Southern slave states to break away in 1861 seemed to offer several ways to strike at slavery. Some U.S. Army officers attempted to declare slaves “contraband of war,” and therefore liable to seizure like any other military goods. But the “contraband” argument fell into the error of conceding that slaves were property, and, anyway, no legal opinions on the laws of war regarded such property seizures as permanent.

Congress tried to put a hand on slavery through two Confiscation Acts, in 1861 and 1862. But “confiscating” slaves wasn’t the same thing as freeing them, since the Constitution (in Article I, Section 9) explicitly bans Congress from enacting “bills of attainder” that permanently alienate property. Confiscation would also have had the problem of ratifying the idea that human beings were property.

Lincoln tried to dodge the constitutional issues by proposing, as early as November 1861, a federal buyout of slaves in the four border states that remained loyal to the Union—Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri. But the representatives of those states rebuffed the offer, telling Lincoln that they “did not like to be coerced into Emancipation, either by the Direct action of the Government, or by indirection,” as a Maryland congressman reported.

Many slaves didn’t wait on the courts or Congress, and instead ran for their freedom to wherever they could find the Union Army. But the Army wasn’t always welcoming, and there was no guarantee that the war wouldn’t end with a negotiated settlement including the forced return of such runaways. Fugitive slaves were free, but their freedom needed legal recognition.

If you can get past The Wall Street Journal paywall, you can read the rest here.

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