Who’s Afraid Of Zinn?

A recent Associated Press expose — drawing on e-mails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act — revealed that in 2010, Mitch Daniels, then Indiana’s Republican governor, covertly set out to ban Howard Zinn’s best-selling A People’s History of the United States from Indiana’s classrooms.
Innovative history teachers across the United States have for decades used A People’s History at the high-school level in rigorous ways.
High school teachers desperate to breathe some life into their classes have distributed Xerox copies of Zinn’s most provocative chapters to offer a contrast to state-mandated textbooks, seeking to engage students in historical debate so they learn that history involves sorting out competing interpretations of the past rather than mere memorization of names and dates.
These teachers have been drawn to Zinn because he offered their students a uniquely accessible introduction to the new social history, which revolutionised historical scholarship beginning in the 1960s. As its title indicates, A People’s History presented American history “from the bottom up” focusing on the experience of workers, women, African-Americans and Native Americans.
It brought a New Left sensibility to the analysis of foreign policy and was profoundly critical of the US tendencies towards violence, expansionism, racism and militarism from the Indian wars up through Vietnam.
Extensive evidence in the Zinn archives at NYU’s Tamiment Library, including student and teacher letters, shows that students develop their historical thinking skills when their teachers have them compare Zinn’s radical history with conventional textbook history. For example, more than 100 Oregon high-school students wrote Zinn in the 1980s and 1990s as part of their class work comparing their textbook’s account of Columbus, Andrew Jackson, the Progressive era and various wars in which the US engaged with Zinn’s treatment of those topics in A People’s History.
Most of the students were startled to learn that Columbus, who their textbook depicted as a heroic explorer, can also be seen as a greed-driven imperialist who was cruel to the indigenous people of the ‘New World’. They were shocked to learn that Andrew Jackson, a democratic icon of textbook history, was an Indian killer and slave-owner.
Some students admired Zinn’s iconoclasm, while others challenged his version of the past. But whether or not they found his radical view of the American past convincing, most students found it liberating to learn that there was more than one way to think about history. As one student wrote to Zinn, “American history has been entirely one-sided for too long. Your work showed me another side of history I never knew existed.”
Another wrote that he “really enjoyed reading your work and value it much when it comes to discussing our history… Our history books should be rewritten, told, and questioned from more than one perspective.”
A student who told Zinn he disagreed with his negative portrayal of President Jackson’s Indian removal policies was still glad to have access to Zinn’s telling of US history: “It was incredible to read something so extremely different than the account given in history (text) books.”
Even a conservative student came to appreciate Zinn, writing, “I’m still a conservative, and I still love America, but your articles make me take a look at America from a different angle.” Some right-wing students did display intolerance towards Zinn’s radicalism by suggesting he was unpatriotic. In response, a number of their classmates wrote to Zinn to describe refutations of such attacks.
“On the contrary, I feel that you are one who is tired of people lying to themselves about the ‘greatness’ of our country, and only dwelling on positive achievements,” wrote one such student, “So if people with our thoughts and opinions are to be thought of as ‘Anti-Americans’ then let us be known that way. I’ll stand by that name proudly.”
There is the letter from a teacher on a South Dakota Indian reservation who reported that one of her students was so moved by A People’s History that he had “stayed up all night…and could not put the book down.”
A Japanese-American student wrote that she was “part of a minority called the ‘Quiet Americans;’” her parents had “as young children been sent to the concentration camps,” and she told Zinn that he was the first historian she’d read who “tells the side of the minority… It’s really nice to know that there is someone out there that doesn’t go with the flow and follow the majority.”
These letters attest that, unlike Daniels, students are not afraid of radical history, but thrive by reading and debating it.