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.
I’ve heard many students say Howard Zinn’s People’s History is the central/sole textbook in their history course. That’s a very bad practice. https://t.co/PVBeuNxbGI
— Jonathan Chait (@jonathanchait) September 23, 2018
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.