Arguments over the legacy of Howard Zinn

I consider A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, to be one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Though I haven’t so much as looked at it in 15 or so years, I can’t understate how much it has affected my worldview.

With my admission of bias out of the way, let’s move on.

Slate published an article from Sam Wineburg, Professor of Education and History at Stanford, that discusses how APH is problematic on many levels, bereft of references, and all-around bad history:

But in other ways—ways that strike at the very heart of what it means to learn history as a discipline—A People’s History is closer to students’ state-approved texts than its advocates are wont to admit. Like traditional textbooks, A People’s History relies almost entirely on secondary sources, with no archival research to thicken its narrative. Like traditional textbooks, the book is naked of footnotes, thwarting inquisitive readers who seek to retrace the author’s interpretative steps. And, like students’ textbooks, when A People’s History draws on primary sources, these documents serve to prop up the main text but never provide an alternative view or open a new field of vision.

Zinn’s undeniable charisma turns dangerous, especially when we become attached to his passionate concern for the underdog. The danger mounts when we are talking about how we educate the young, those who do not yet get the interpretive game, who are just learning that claims must be judged not for their alignment with current issues of social justice but for the data they present and their ability to account for the unruly fibers of evidence that jut out from any interpretative frame. It is here that Zinn’s power of persuasion extinguishes students’ ability to think and speaks directly to their hearts.

This could ring true for any youth who doesn’t get the “interpretive game,” and certainly applies to every textbook in every history course. Why Zinn is singled out says a lot about Wineburg. Moreover, by virtue of Zinn’s iconoclastic portrayal of American history, it may force the student to actually think far more than they would when receiving the turgid received wisdom of mainstream American doctrine – whether that’s the catalyst for further investigation, or constructing a reactionary defense for the venerable stars and stripes. One might even say it jump-starts the “interpretive game.” It definitely played a part in that for me.

In the 38 years since its original publication, A People’s History has gone from a book that buzzed about the ear of the dominant narrative to its current status, where in many circles it has become the dominant narrative. It shows up on college reading lists for economics, political science, anthropology, cultural studies, women’s studies, ethnic studies, Chicano studies, and African American studies courses, along with history. A People’s History (in its various editions and adaptations) remains a perennial favorite in courses for future teachers, and in some of these classes, it is the only history book on the syllabus.

A citation is sorely needed for this (something he accuses Zinn of not doing). Anecdotally, I know of no one who had to read it for any high school or college course, much less it being the ONLY one. Noted douchebag Jonathan Chait tweeted the following about this:

After receiving responses akin to what I wrote, he qualifies his initial tweet by saying he “received several replies like this from MSM journalists. I have no idea if using Zinn as a primary text is common, but i’s [sic] a thing that happens.” One response I enjoyed comes from Professor of Russian History at Georgetown, Greg Afinogenov:

The tweet thread devolves from there as one expects from Twitter with many proponents of many viewpoints tearing each other apart. Regardless, the prevalence of APH as a primary text doesn’t seem to have much evidence.

For what it’s worth, in 2015 Politifact, in response to a claim made by Rick Santorum, rated the question “Is book by Howard Zinn the ‘most popular’ high-school history textbook?” as mostly false.

The final point of Wineburg’s I bring up in order to introduce a rebuttal written by David Detmer, Professor of History at Notre Dame, and author of the recently released Zinnophobia. Wineburg writes:

In many ways, A People’s History and traditional textbooks are mirror images that relegate students to roles as absorbers, not analysts, of information—only at different points on the political spectrum. In a study that examined features of historical writing, linguist Avon Crismore found that historians frequently use qualifying language to signal the soft underbelly of historical certainty. However, when she looked at historians’ writing in textbooks, such linguistic markers disappeared. A search through A People’s History for qualifiers mostly comes up short. Instead, the seams of history are concealed by the presence of an author who speaks with thunderous certainty.

One of Detmer’s more devastating critiques comes in response to this:

How, then, does Wineburg demonstrate that Zinn’s text is “closed-minded,” and exhibits “undue certainty”? He argues that, whereas “historians frequently use qualifying language to signal the soft underbelly of historical certainty,” Zinn does not do so: “a search in A People’s History for qualifiers mostly comes up empty”; Zinn’s approach “detests equivocation and extinguishes perhapsmaybemight, and the most execrable of them all, on the other hand.”

Well then, are Wineburg’s claims true? For example, does Zinn’s text “extinguish” the word “perhaps”? To the contrary, his book employs that term a total of 101 times, not counting instances in which the word appears in quotations, or in Zinn’s paraphrases of the views of others. Zinn uses this “extinguished” word on pages 2, 5, 11, 16 (twice), 17, 18 (three times), 21, 22, 29 (twice), 32, 36 (twice), 37, 47, 49 (twice), 60, 67, 77, 81, 99, 110, 112, 114, 120, 138, 141, 162, 172 (three times), 174, 185, 188, 208 (twice), 233, 236, 238, 242, 249, 268, 273, 281, 289, 294, 326, 331, 340, 354, 357 (twice), 360, 366, 372, 387, 395 (three times), 404, 422 (twice), 426, 427, 428, 443 (twice), 449, 459, 463, 484, 486, 501, 506, 510, 511, 514, 517, 519, 557, 564 (twice), 567, 585, 591, 594, 596, 597 (three times), 598, 619, 636, 638, 648, 655, and 679.

Similarly, while it is true that Zinn uses “maybe” and “might” infrequently, he makes up for it by using “seem,” “seems,” and “seemed” to qualify many of his assertions. Excluding the use of these words in quotations from others, Zinn himself employs them in A People’s History 130 times. They can be found on pages 5, 14, 15, 19, 35, 40 (three times), 47, 50, 53, 54, 60, 61, 65, 66, 68, 70 (twice), 72, 79, 80, 83, 86 (twice), 90, 95, 99, 100 (three times), 103, 104, 106, 109, 136, 142, 150, 160, 164, 198, 219, 228, 235, 264, 273, 295, 301, 303, 346, 353 (twice), 359 (twice), 374, 382 (twice), 395, 402 (twice), 409, 410, 411, 414, 418, 419, 422, 424, 425, 426, 428, 434, 440, 441 (twice), 442 (twice), 450, 453, 459, 463, 474, 476, 479, 492, 499, 504 (twice), 506, 510, 512, 523, 524, 536, 541, 546, 548, 553, 554, 555 (twice), 559, 561, 562, 564, 565 (twice), 575, 576, 579, 582, 584, 585, 594, 595, 596 (twice), 597, 599, 610, 611, 612, 613, 621, 638 (three times), 676, and 679 (twice).

Even “on the other hand,” the qualifying phrase that Wineburg claims to be, from the standpoint of a dogmatist like Zinn, “the most execrable of all,” is not “extinguished,” but rather appears fifteen times in A People’s History, not counting its use in a quotation from another writer. More to the point, the idea that there is another “hand,” that is, another side to things—evidence that points in a direction other than, and often opposite to, what Zinn has been saying, is expressed often in his text. It is just that he doesn’t usually mark this with the phrase “on the other hand,” preferring “still,” “yet,” “and yet,” “though,” “although,” “nevertheless,” “but,” and several other words and phrases. Sometimes he simply begins a new sentence or paragraph by laying out counterevidence to what he has been saying or arguing, without indicating this with any special word or phrase.

This, to me, is pretty strong evidence against one of Wineburg’s main theses (in my opinion, the rest of them are also pretty much demolished by Detmer). Detmer further singles out specific events and painstakingly shows why Wineburg’s interpretation of Zinn’s presentation of the event in question appears to be faulty.

Detmer continues:

What might a more complete analysis reveal? First, by nearly all accounts, including those of Zinn’s critics, A People’s History is clearer, and written in a more agreeable style, than other standard American history texts. Secondly, Zinn’s text, because of his definite point of view and strong authorial presence, exhibits a coherence and consistency of tone that greatly enhances its readability. In this respect it differs markedly from the competitor texts, many of which are written by committee. These texts typically strive to be “objective” and inoffensive, with the result that they largely consist of masses of facts piled promiscuously on top of one another, in such a way as to make no point, tell no story, and hold no one’s interest. Clear, well-written books with a consistent point of view are more likely to be read than are bland, play-it-safe, compendiums of unthreatening facts. Thirdly, Zinn’s book pays substantial, and largely positive, attention to people who are often slighted in traditional texts: women, blacks, other racial and ethnic minorities, laborers, artists, writers, musicians, and political radicals. Students who are members of these groups, or are children of parents who are, may well as a result take a greater interest in A People’s History than they would in a book that excludes, marginalizes, or denigrates them [emphasis added – this more than anything is what has stayed with me over the years; it’s what I loved most and thought was so important about APH]. Fourthly, Zinn’s book offers an understanding of American society that runs counter to the dominant narrative that one encounters relentlessly throughout the culture. Accordingly, it seems likely that it would challenge some readers (principally those who have accepted the dominant narrative) and inspire others (primarily those who have been marginalized by that narrative, or who, for some other reason, have regarded it with suspicion). All of these factors seem likely to result in Zinn’s book being read, analyzed, pondered, discussed, quarreled with, and argued about much more than is the case with traditional texts.

Detmer ends by circling back to the idea of “certainty” and critiques Wineburg’s unwarranted certainty and contrasts it with his conception of how much of it is supposedly displayed by Zinn:

But Wineburg exhibits no doubt that he knows better than the hundreds (if not thousands) of teachers [out of some 3.2 million high school teachers (the fraction of which teach history I don’t know) plus another 21,000 professors of history, this is a pretty small percentage of the total] who seem to think that they are achieving good educational outcomes by teaching Zinn’s text. As a measure of his certainty, consider the following chart, which shows, both in his original American Educator essay and the updated Slate version, the number of times he uses “perhaps,” “maybe,” and “on the other hand” (not counting their use in quotations from others) when he is writing about Zinn:

“perhaps”  “maybe” “on the other hand”
American Educator article 0 0 0
Slate article 0 0  0

Oops! I forgot that in arriving at these statistics I also had to exclude Wineburg’s use of these words in sentences in which he claims that Zinn’s failure to use them condemns him as a closed-minded dogmatist.

In sum, Wineburg’s essays do indeed succeed in calling attention to work that is “closed-minded” and guilty of “undue certainty.” But this work is that of Sam Wineburg, not Howard Zinn.

The arguments in Wineburg’s article might make sense if APH is widely used and recognized as the be-all end-all of how one learns about US history. I don’t think this is the case and I don’t think many actually think it. This is not to say APH is beyond reproach – I’m certain if I reread it I would find faults with it. But I doubt they would line up with what Wineburg thinks.

Finally – Detmer may want to consider sending Wineburg a thank you note for lofting up easily refuted softballs right before the release of his book. Unfortunately, a quick Google search shows that his response has only shown up in George Washington University’s History News Network and Counterpunch. Neither of which has the readership of Slate. It’s pretty shitty to think how many were introduced to Zinn this way.


  1. says

    My dad, the historian, once observed that when Zinn published A People’s History there were no reviews, no critiques, no discussion, at all, in the “official” halls of history. The American Historical Association (I remember Dad going off to meetings…) journal didn’t have any refereed papers about Zinn, the New York Review of Books managed to ignore the book, and – for such a massive best-seller – it was only a runner-up for one award.

    The attitude of “real historians” has been that Zinn was corrupting history by politicizing it. Therefore, let’s ignore him! Simple! That there is a ripple of argument regarding Zinn, now that he is safely dead, ought to tell you a lot: the servitors of the establishment are circling around trying to get the boot in. In fact, Zinn already addressed those criticisms, himself many times when he was alive. If I recall correctly, it’s in the preface to the damn book – we assemble history as much by what we leave out as by what we leave in, and history should not just be the story of the winners, it should talk about the losers as well.

    It’s pretty shitty to think how many were introduced to Zinn this way.

    Hardly an accident.

    • says

      “My dad, the historian, once observed that when Zinn published A People’s History there were no reviews, no critiques, no discussion, at all, in the “official” halls of history. The American Historical Association (I remember Dad going off to meetings…) journal didn’t have any refereed papers about Zinn, the New York Review of Books managed to ignore the book, and – for such a massive best-seller – it was only a runner-up for one award.

      The attitude of “real historians” has been that Zinn was corrupting history by politicizing it. Therefore, let’s ignore him!”

      The reception from academia and the general public to APH and how it changed through time is something that I’ve long wondered about. It looks like Zinnophobia exhaustively covers it and I can’t wait to check it out.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    I started A People’s History with high expectations and finished with a sense of disappointment.

    On reflection, I decided my main problem was the title. Zinn tells important-but-neglected stories, centered around the themes of oppression and resistance – but someone ignorant of the overall history of the US, given only APH, would walk away with disjointed images, a spotlight flashing here and there on darkened corners but no good view of the proverbial Big Picture.

    A book that lives up to Zinn’s title has yet to be published (sfaik).

    • says

      That’s the thing with “big history” books like The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan; 1491 & 1493 by Charles Mann; or Collapse & Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond. The authors of such books are sometimes overambitious – that is, to the extent they actually purport to give a coherent, consistent narrative while appropriately highlighting both top-down and bottom-up approaches in their historiography (of this I’d accuse Frankopan, and to some extent Diamond). I always got the impression that Zinn was well aware of the shortcomings of what he was trying to do. I always interpreted the title as doing what you wrote – “a spotlight flashing here and there on darkened corners” – while never making the claim that APH was intended to be a comprehensive look at the history of the US.

  3. says

    I’m about 40 and even when i was in high school in a relatively left-center area of the US, we never learned evolution or history from vietnam forward in high school. It’s a common experience. Everything most amurricans my age know about nam comes from chuck norris. The idea there’s a high school anywhere in this fascist-ass nation that teaches zinn is pure mythology. I’m so sick of hearing bullshit from media – both pundits and supposedly unbiased reports.

  4. springa73 says

    I haven’t read A People’s History, so I can’t comment on its quality or bias. I am pretty sure, however, that the charges of political bias and over reliance on secondary sources and choosing only facts that support a particular narrative, are charges that could legitimately be made against almost any broad narrative history. Indeed, Wineberg admits as much when he compares the weaknesses of APH to those of traditional textbooks.

    History is immensely complicated – not surprising when you consider that it is an account and analysis of the actions and thoughts of billions of people, and then consider how complicated the life and legacy of just one single person can be. Any broad account of history covering centuries and many millions of people is going to be highly selective and simplified and, yes, biased.

  5. says

    over reliance on secondary sources

    Yeah, like using the Lakotah account of Wounded Knee and not the 7th Cavalry’s – the 7th Cavalry’s historian being a primary source.

  6. polishsalami says

    Historians are, for the most part, dependent on the State to finance their work. Most merely repeat the Conventional Wisdom of their time.

  7. says

    I did in fact take a high school class where Zinn was the only book we used. I got several chapters in, before realizing that the teacher had no expectation that students would actually read it.

    I don’t know that assigning Zinn was a good idea. But I did find Zinn to be far more interesting and readable than any other history textbook before college. The fact of the matter is that bias, ideology, reductionism, etc. did not matter one wit to my life, because I didn’t retain any of my history education from before college, not from the traditional textbooks, not from Zinn, nothing. I wasted a bunch of time trying to read textbooks, processing the information just enough to get through the class, but not processing it enough that I cared about it, or retained any of it. I didn’t see the point of history at all. And now looking back, I can see that there is a point to history, but there was no point to those classes, because I clearly didn’t retain anything.

    So, maybe the solution isn’t Zinn, but there sure needs to be something filling the niche of grade school history education that isn’t absolutely worthless.

    • says

      Further details: I went to a good private high school, but I was in the non-honors history classes with all the “dumb” kids. Rather than describing it as a Zinn-only class, it would be more accurate to describe it as a textbook-free class that had recommended readings from Zinn, that were mostly ignored. Also, this was just one year, and every other year used a more traditional textbook. So I think it’s completely overstating the problem to act like these students aren’t getting any alternative viewpoints.