History education

I Have Forgiven Jesus has a post discussing the legacy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. I’ve only ever read part of the book, and I remember none of it, but it turns out I have feelings about it.

The thing is, I read APHUS as part of a high school class, where it was the only book. So it’s strange to read the responses to Chait’s tweet, where everybody is saying that they don’t believe Chait, and that this is a meme made up by right-wingers. And it may well be a meme made up by right-wingers; I have no reason to believe there is any widespread use of APHUS as a main textbook. In any case, my personal experience doesn’t support the conspiracy theory about liberals spreading propaganda by teaching Zinn.

Some additional context: this was a private Catholic high school. There was only one teacher who used APHUS and only for one year, so it’s a completely overblown to act like students weren’t getting any alternative viewpoints. Also, hardly anyone actually read the book. I read the first few chapters, and the teacher seemed to find it funny that I had bothered. It was more like a textbook-free class that had recommended readings from APHUS.

This was in 11th (or 12th?) grade, students had been separated into honors and non-honors tracks, and I was in the non-honors track. (To the Twitter people demanding a syllabus as evidence, I don’t recall there being one, and also I’m not Kavanaugh, I don’t hoard weird items from my high school years.) The class was full of low-performing students, and yes, more than its fair share of ethnic minorities. It was a running joke that I was the one smart and obviously privileged kid in the class. Although, I was really bad at history, so I think I was in the right place.

I had never heard of Howard Zinn at the time. I found the parts I read to be relatively interesting and readable, which I liked. But I didn’t accept everything Zinn said uncritically, it was obvious that he was taking a very particular point of view.

I wouldn’t say that this was a good high school class. But as far as my personal experience goes, there’s a larger elephant in the room: every other history class I took (before college) was also terrible. As in, I basically didn’t remember any of it. All I could remember, was a vague and disconnected outline: ancient Egypt, Chinese Dynasties, the Roman Empire, the two world wars. This outline had to be patched over with a single course in college, a knowledgeable partner, and lots of information on the internet.

I see people arguing back and forth between APHUS and traditional textbooks, saying that APHUS got this or that wrong, or the traditional textbooks got this or that wrong. And frankly it makes me mad, because none of that fucking mattered. The political biases of Zinn, those of the mainstream textbooks, it doesn’t matter if I don’t remember any of it.

I hated history up until college. I didn’t understand the point of it. None of it seemed remotely relevant. It also took an enormous amount of work, probably because I had to read and reread the same passages in order to memorize details that my brain really didn’t care to know. That teacher who only assigned APHUS, I give him credit because he seemed to recognize that he had a class full of students having trouble with history, and was trying to show how history might be relevant to them. He tried, at least.

I really don’t know anything about the state of history pedagogy, whether it’s changed over time, or how much it varies between states or districts. I also wonder if other people who hated other subjects had similar experiences. Do people who hated math grow up and bitterly reflect on how useless their math education was? I dunno, I just feel like pre-college history education is completely fucked, and needs to be fundamentally restructured.


  1. says

    I’ve wracked my brain to come up with what I remember of pre-college history and came up mostly empty. There’s the “vague, disconnected timeline” you described, to which I would add the basics of American history. In my last two years in high school, I remember the mind numbing boredom of learning about premodern European royal families and hating the shit out of it. And then there was the intro to The Cold War, with a brief philosophical explanation of socialism or communism – to which I was like “huh, that actually sounds pretty good.”

    In college I had a Western Civ course that I liked, but remember next to nothing; I don’t even know if I had any other history classes. At any rate, for many years after I didn’t really care about history. For the past decade or so, I have cared, though. If anything, pedagogical history was an impediment to that interest beginning earlier. I guess a crucial distinction is I get to pick what I want to read about it, which obviously isn’t the case in a school setting.

    What’s WRONG with how history is taught, I’m not even remotely qualified to diagnose (especially since I don’t recall what I didn’t like about it aside from it being boring as fuck). I guess the American school system overall is something that is supposed to prepare one to work in order to exist – history doesn’t really matter in that regard (unless it’s pertinent to whatever it is one wants to do). If I’m being cynical, which I almost always am, from the perspective of the State, the primary goal of education is to create/maintain a complacent, docile workforce that is, more or less, content to accept their material conditions, wherever that happens to fall in the socioeconomic spectrum. To the extent that that’s true, subjecting kids to boring ass history is very useful in the process, whether it’s intended or not.

  2. anothersara says

    Maybe I was lucky, but I think my K-12 history education was generally very good, honestly better than, um, the only history class I took in college? (I passed the AP U.S. History and AP European History exams in high school, so the only history class I was required to take in college for Gen Ed was California History). In particular, the teacher who taught the A.P. history classes was amazing. At the beginning of the class, she had us read excerpts from APHUS, A People and a Nation, and The American Pageant, and required us to compare their political biases. She told us that The American Pageant was the most common textbook in A.P. US History classes. It does have a conservative bias, but I think it was the best textbook of the three, and I could imagine teachers who may not completely agree with its political outlooks choosing it anyway. Our main textbook was A People and a Nation, but we also used The American Spirit, which was a supplement to The American Pageant.

    I was probably one of the most engaged students, but I got the impression than most of my classmates also found the classes interesting (especially A.P. European History since that was an elective and nobody was forced to take that class). One of the most epic events of the school year was when the A.P. U.S. History class would carry out the annual mock impeachment trial of James Polk, even students who weren’t in the class would come to watch (IIRC, the outside students actually served as the mock Supreme Court and voted on weather or not to impeach Polk, I think when my class carried out the trial Polk got impeached). We were probably one of the very few U.S. history classes which spent more time on Polk than Washington and Lincoln combined even though Polk was only president for four years and most U.S. citizens don’t even remember his name, lol.

  3. ridana says

    I wonder if it would be more effective to teach history backwards. You all talk about a timeline of loosely connected events that you saw no relevance in and that you’ve forgotten because it was meaningless to you. What if the curriculum began with current events, and worked backwards to show students how we got in this mess? Because each segment of cause for current effects is the effect of a previous cause, so it would naturally lead backwards.

    This wouldn’t be an easy curriculum to design, especially given the requirements of learning certain dates and facts that students get tested on all year for the state, but I bet students would remember things better if they could see the threads leading backwards that connect to what’s going on now.

  4. says

    I would have been grateful for a class that went backwards. As it was, I had the sense that every history class began with ancient times, and then ran out of time before getting to anything recent.

  5. says

    it was obvious that he was taking a very particular point of view.

    A point of view that Zinn clearly and repeatedly states in the introduction.
    Many of the criticisms of Zinn amount to “he is cherry-picking a specific perspective on history.” Which is exactly right: Zinn’s point is that most history has been written by the winners and he wanted to present an alternate view of history that was not based on “primary sources” (the winners) but rather “secondary sources” Elsewhere, Zinn offers the view that all of history-writing is a matter of choosing what you leave out as much as what you leave in; A People’s History is compiled from the left out accounts.

    I don’t think that using Zinn as a sole textbook does him any favors; he should be read alongside of other histories that glorify the actions and decisions of the victors. That would be instructive and (in my opinion) is how history should be done.

    Let me give an example: if you read about post-reconstruction US, you’ll occasionally find references to “race riots.” The choice of term and the minimal amount of information might cause the reader to imagine that there was a riot and race was the cause. But if you read contemporary accounts, more detailed than the prevailing history, a “race riot” seems to mean “a whole bunch of white people burned black people out of their homes and killed a bunch.” By leaving out that aspect of those people’s experience, the conventional history is lying by omission.

    How many people who have taken an American History course know about the Battle of Homestead, or Shay’s Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, The Bonus Army, the coal miners’ strikes, the Wall St Bombing or the Braceros? I took 2 semesters of AH in college (at a fancy university) and none of those things were mentioned. Sacco and Vanzetti were mentioned in passing but I think that was it. Another litmus test for omitted history is how many people don’t realize that thousands of domestic bombings happened in 1968. The words “Watts Riot” may be encountered but it’s weird that someone thinks they have studied American History and they don’t realize that Watts was a full-blown insurrection that was put down with military force.

    The complaints I have encountered regarding Zinn mostly serve to convince me his approach to history was – and is – important.

  6. springa73 says

    Do people who hated math grow up and bitterly reflect on how useless their math education was?

    As someone who hated math and loved history growing up, I don’t really feel bitter about my math education, even though I don’t remember most of it beyond basic arithmetic. It’s quite difficult to make a subject interesting to a kid who has no interest in it, perhaps even more so for math than most other subjects. As for history, I learned a lot in class and on my own and a lot of it stuck with me since I found it interesting, but the situation would be quite different if I had found it boring and pointless.

  7. says

    Do people who hated math grow up and bitterly reflect on how useless their math education was?

    Math, no. English and literature classes, yes. Those were boring and useless and nothing but ‘Here is a book written by a white guy who has been dead for at least 100 years, here is how you are supposed to think about it, now pretend what we just told you is your own idea.’

    But here’s the thing. Now? I’m a WRITER. In the last couple of years I’ve come to love Shakespeare and been picking through other classics that were previously placed, by those classes, in the pile marked “Reading these will always be unpleasant”.

    It ain’t the books (or plays or whatever). It’s the curriculum. The manner of teaching. I’m bitter about this because much worse than being useless, these classes robbed me of the opportunity to find all those works interesting or pleasant or useful by crushing into me the notion that they were horrible dry garbage you read to make yourself look smart and no other reason. Robbed, for twenty years.

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