Zinn's influential history textbook has problems, says Stanford education expert

Dec 24, 2012 by David Plotnikoff
Stanford University School of Education Professor Sam Wineburg has written a new critique of Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States."

(Phys.org)—Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States –­ ­a radical alternative to established textbooks when it was first published in 1980 – has today become a standard source in how Americans learn about their nation's history. Now an analysis by Stanford University School of Education Professor Sam Wineburg shows how it perpetrates the same errors of historical practice as the tomes it aimed to correct.

It would be difficult to overstate the degree to which A People's History has resonated with the American public. Although its perspective is unabashedly from the far left, its reach and influence extend far beyond that quarter with more than 2 million copies in print and prominent displays in suburban superstores.

Zinn was a featured speaker in 2008 at the National Council for the Social Studies – the nation's largest gathering of social studies teachers. When he died two years later, his book rose to seventh on Amazon's best-sellers list.

"In the 32 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," Wineburg writes in an article in the latest edition of American Educator, which is now in the mail to its readers. "For many students, A People's History will be the first full-length history book they read, and for some, it will be the only one."

Wineburg, one of the world's top researchers in the field of history education, raises larger issues about how history should be taught. He says that Zinn's desire to cast a light on what he saw as historic injustice was a crusade built on secondary sources of questionable provenance, omission of exculpatory evidence, leading questions and shaky connections between evidence and conclusions.

Wineburg's critique focuses on the part of Zinn's narrative that covers the mid-thirties to the Cold War. Among the subjects it delves into is Zinn's assertion that African Americans were largely indifferent to the outcome of World War II. That claim, Wineburg explains, is based on three anecdotal bits – a quote from a black journalist, a quote from a black student and a poem published in the black press – and excludes any evidence to the contrary.

Indeed, says Wineburg, while Zinn pulled his anecdotes from a secondary source, Lawrence Wittner's 1969 book Rebels Against War, Zinn ignored evidence in that same book that undermines his claim. Among the examples Zinn overlooks is Wittner's point that 24 percent of the registrants eligible for the war were African American, while the percentage of draft-evasion cases involving blacks was only 4.4 percent of the total pursued by the Justice Department. And a similar trend held with conscientious objectors. "Surprisingly few black men became C.O.s," Wittner adds.

Similarly, Zinn roots his argument that the Japanese were prepared to surrender before the United States dropped the atomic bomb on a diplomatic cable from the Japanese to the Russians, supposedly signaling a willingness to capitulate. Wineburg writes that Zinn not only excludes the responses to the cable, but also that he fails in the later editions of the book to incorporate the vast new scholarship that emerged after the death of the Emperor Hirohito with the publication of memoirs and new availability of public records, all of which support the position of Japan's resolve to fight to the last.

Wineburg acknowledges that Zinn's book was an important contribution when first published. While the standard textbooks of that time presented a certainty about one view of the nation's history, from Manifest Destiny to the United States' moral superiority in the Cold War, Zinn put forward largely overlooked alternative perspectives, such as how slaves viewed the Constitution and how the Cherokees felt about President Andrew Jackson. Zinn weaved a seamless unified theory of oppression in which the rich and powerful afflict the poor and disenfranchised.

Over time, however, a problem emerged as Zinn's book became the single authoritative source of history for so many Americans, Wineburg said. In substituting one buttoned-up interpretation of the past for another, Wineburg finds, A People's History and traditional textbooks are mirror images that relegate students to similar roles as absorbers – not analysts – of information. Wineburg writes that a heavily filtered and weighted interpretation becomes dangerous when "we are talking about how we educate the young, those who do not yet get the interpretive game."

History, Wineburg notes, is messy. And the most responsible thing for educators to do is to leave elbowroom for the mess. "History as truth, issued from the left or the right, abhors shades of gray," Wineburg writes, adding, "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 insures ultimately that tomorrow we will think exactly as we thought yesterday – and the day before and the day before that."

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Caliban
3.4 / 5 (5) Dec 24, 2012


"In the 32 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,"[...] "For many students, A People's History will be the first full-length history book they read, and for some, it will be the only one." Wineburg, one of the world's top researchers in the field of history education, raises larger issues about how history should be taught. He says that Zinn's desire to cast a light on what he saw as historic injustice was a crusade built on secondary sources of questionable provenance, omission of exculpatory evidence, leading questions and shaky connections between evidence and conclusions.


Piss on Wineberg. Zinn intended it to be a supplement to(mainly) American history, to highight the struggle of citizens against the "usual suspects".

Not his fault if educators don't use it IN CONJUNCTION with standard texts.

mhenriday
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 25, 2012
Rather than Professor Zinn, it is Professor Wineburg who is in error here, at least with regard to the factors which motivated the Japanese surrender in 1945. For a recent investigation of this matter, see, e g, Professor Tsuyoshi Hasegawa's recent article, "The Atomic Bombs and the Soviet Invasion: What Drove Japan's Decision to Surrender?" in "Japan Focus" (http://japanfocus...a/2501). Rather than the US bombs, it seems that it was the Soviet invasion of Japanese-held Manchuria which was the decisive factor in convincing the Japanese government and the Japanese military that the war could no longer be prosecuted. But of course, Professor Wineberg's pronouncement are part and parcel of the attempt to down play the role of the Soviet Union in WW II and portray the US as the sole victor....

Henri
Birger
4 / 5 (4) Dec 27, 2012
"Although its perspective is unabashedly from the far left"

Um, no. A European reader will proably find it "mainstream" or "moderately lefty". If your world-view has been shaped inside USA, you are unlikely to have encountered many uncomfortable facts about your history, apart from the indians and the slavery.
Meanwhile, Europeans are used to have their colonial, slave trading ancestors exposed as crooks. Likewise their more recent ancestors and their shenagians. A belief in exceptionalism for any nation simply does not survive an encounter with reality.
ryggesogn2
2.3 / 5 (6) Dec 27, 2012
" Zinn put forward largely overlooked alternative perspectives, such as how slaves viewed the Constitution and how the Cherokees felt about President Andrew Jackson. Zinn weaved a seamless unified theory of oppression in which the rich and powerful afflict the poor and disenfranchised."

This must be where dj gets his history, or this is the book his wife uses in school.
The teacher at my kids charter school wouldn't use a US history text published after 1979. This must be why.
Caliban
3 / 5 (8) Dec 27, 2012
" Zinn put forward largely overlooked alternative perspectives, such as how slaves viewed the Constitution and how the Cherokees felt about President Andrew Jackson. Zinn weaved a seamless unified theory of oppression in which the rich and powerful afflict the poor and disenfranchised."

This must be where dj gets his history, or this is the book his wife uses in school.
The teacher at my kids charter school wouldn't use a US history text published after 1979. This must be why.


Probably because many history texts from the 70s made an effort to incorporate much of the material Zinn showcased. Maybe the teacher at your kids' charter school is a goddam crypto-communist!

You better get your kids back to the house for homeschooling, so that they won't be exposed to anything resembling a truthful analysis of US History!

FrankHerbert
2.6 / 5 (10) Dec 27, 2012
my kids charter school

Socialist.
ryggesogn2
2 / 5 (8) Dec 27, 2012
my kids charter school

Socialist.

The govt plunders my wealth for govt run schools so I try to get what I am forced to pay for.
FrankHerbert
2.6 / 5 (10) Dec 27, 2012
Socialist hypocrite.
cantdrive85
2 / 5 (2) Dec 28, 2012
Carroll Quigley's 'Tragedy and Hope' is the history of the elite, taken with Zinn's history you get a fairly complete history of the last couple hundred years.
fir
3 / 5 (2) Dec 28, 2012
why not look at both sides and form your own conclusions...happen to have a copy of Zinn's book and when I am looking up something factual all I get is opinion...want to know what happened not why and how certain people feel about it...
dabbler
1 / 5 (4) Dec 28, 2012
why not look at both sides and form your own conclusions...happen to have a copy of Zinn's book and when I am looking up something factual all I get is opinion...want to know what happened not why and how certain people feel about it...

Believe you have hit the real issues about what passes as recorded history upon the head. Subjective interference or recorder bias is always present. If the Zinn fabrication is the only source of input as to what is taught as American history at present no wonder this country is in shambles...... Factual representation is definitely the most important aspect of recording and teaching history. You won't hear or see it being presented or taught that way in most school environments though now.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (5) Dec 28, 2012
"n an interview three years later, Zinn elaborated that his goal in producing A People's History had been neither to write an objective history nor to write a complete one:

"There's no such thing as a whole story; every story is incomplete. My idea was [that] the orthodox viewpoint has already been done a thousand times.""
http://frontpagem...of-hate/

Why was in required reading in govt schools?

"That self-flagellation, which has been a feature of the academe for a generation, is quite corrosive, because if you teach a generation that the West was essentially wicked and its passing shouldn't be mourned, then your students aren't going to feel tremendously committed to its values." {What the socialists need.}

"http://news.harva...f-doubt/
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (4) Dec 28, 2012
Second worst book on history:
"And the Worst Book of History Is …"
"After a week of voting by readers, David Barton's "The Jefferson Lies" won with some 650 votes, narrowly edging the left-wing historian Howard Zinn's "People's History of the United States," which received 641 votes. "
http://artsbeat.b...tory-is/
This is from the 'liberal' NYT.

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