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Back to April Ed Reporter

Education Reporter
NUMBER 279 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS APRIL 2009

Howard Zinn's Revisionist History Text
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By Bettina Esser

My husband and I first became aware of revisionist history in the early 1990s through an English class. My oldest son came home with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I was delighted. After all, so many schools wouldn't touch that book with a ten-foot pole. What a great time in one's life to read a wonderful coming-of-age book! I had visions of us discussing the symbolism of the river and the raft, freedom versus responsibility; but that was not how the teacher planned to present this book. This book was to be critically read only in the context of racism in America. This book was not to be discussed with anyone outside of class, and the only outside materials that the students were allowed to read were in a packet consisting of newspaper clippings and articles related to the racism of Huck Finn. The most fair and balanced among those articles was one by Clarence Page.

That same year, my 5th-grade son came home with a new history textbook. It was beautiful — lots of color pictures, timelines, and even a CD-ROM. When I perused it, I noticed that there were many oral history entries, even though oral history is one of the least reliable sources of historical information. There was a chapter on the Seneca Falls Convention and the woman's movement, but no mention of Thomas Edison or the Wright Brothers. The new President, Bill Clinton, got his own page as "The Man from Hope," but George H. W. Bush was not mentioned; nor was Tiananmen Square or the fall of the Berlin Wall. Richard Nixon got two pages: one for Watergate and one for losing the Vietnam War. My husband and I realized that our children were being taught with a post-feminist, multicultural curriculum. We wanted them to learn reading, writing, and Western civ. We first became aware of Howard Zinn when my eldest son was a junior in high school taking American history. Who is Howard Zinn? He is the author of A People's History of the United States, 1492-Present. This book is the #2 bestseller on the Social History list of Amazon's American History section. First published in 1980, the book has sold over 1.5 million copies, which ironically has made Zinn, one of American capitalism's most vicious critics, quite wealthy.

It is not a bestseller because it has blazed new trails in historical research. In fact, Zinn gives no primary sources in this book. The book intersperses secondary sources, without individual citation, with Zinn's own stream-of-consciousness commentary. It is not a bestseller because it covers history in breadth and/or depth. In fact, it only covers 25 historical events and movements in finite time-spans. Often, in spite of its 680+ pages, we are left to wonder how the story ended.

It is not a bestseller because it best supports one of the traditional approaches to America's story, such as the "Great Man" or "Great Idea" theories. In fact, the book's overarching thesis could best be summarized in this way: "America is not a republic but an empire controlled by white men, but only certain white men, and its heroes are anti-establishment protestors and those in the trenches of class warfare."

This book is a bestseller because it is required reading in most colleges and an increasing number of high schools. Because this is the only book on American history that many students will read, Howard Zinn has become one of the most dangerous men in America. Most insidiously, the power of this man's thinking will only expand, because new versions of his book have come out in comic-book form (which is great for teens who have limited critical reading skills or limited attention spans), as well as a multi-volume set rewritten for upper-elementary and middle-school students.

Howard Zinn was born in 1922 in Brooklyn, the son of Russian immigrants, and much of his attitude to American history was shaped by the time and place in which he grew up. He was one of four sons, one of whom died before Zinn's birth while the family was on a "cheap vacation in the country." The child died of spinal meningitis on the trip, forcing the parents to ride home holding their deceased child. Although he did not know this brother, Zinn retells the story often, and its importance in shaping his attitude toward their poverty cannot be underestimated.

Zinn's parents were poor, but he remarks on how much he was loved. In fact, he reflects that no child who is loved ever feels poor. During the Depression, his father, a factory worker, saved 25 cents to get Howard a complete set of the works of Charles Dickens. He was a voracious reader, but from reading his later work, one would think that the 19th-century British world of rigid class structure and static economic conditions still dominates 21st-century America.

Zinn was an avid basketball player in high school and it was on the public courts that he met a group of young communists who helped form his worldview. This worldview crystallized when Zinn participated in an anti-Hitler march and was hit on the head by a policeman. He writes, "I woke up, perhaps half-an-hour later, with a painful lump on my head. From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal - a believer in the self-correcting character of democracy. I was a radical, believing something was fundamentally wrong with this country."

Zinn's attitude toward class struggle is also traceable to a New Year's Eve when he helped his father as a waiter in the restaurant where his father worked. About the job, he writes, "I hated it. All his life [my father] worked hard for very little. I've always resented statements of politicians, media commentators, [and] corporate executives who talked of how, in America, if you worked hard you would become rich. The meaning of that was, if you were poor, it was because you hadn't worked hard enough. I knew it was a lie, about my father and millions of others, men and women who worked harder than anyone, harder than financiers and politicians, harder than anybody if you accept that when you work at an unpleasant job, that makes it very hard work indeed."

Fans of Howard Zinn believe that his military service during World War II gives his anti-war sentiments credibility. Zinn enlisted and became a bombardier, riding in the nose cone of the B-17 Flying Fortress and operating the Norden Bombsight. At this time, Zinn met a tail gunner who convinced him that World War II was a war for empire, not a war against totalitarianism. When he asked the tail gunner why he was there if he felt that way, the tail gunner replied that he was there to "talk to guys like you." Two weeks later, the tail gunner was killed in action. Zinn's war experience contributed to his opinions that "U.S. policy is rarely, if ever, driven by anything other than corporate interests," and that politicians use war as a way to distract citizens from domestic problems.

After the war, using the G.I. Bill, Zinn received his B.A. from New York University, and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia. He was a post-doctoral fellow in East Asian Studies at Harvard. Spellman University dismissed him from his first professorship when he became involved in creating student dissent. From Spellman, Zinn moved to Boston University, with which he has been affiliated since 1964. He was involved in the civil rights movement while at Spellman and the anti-war movement during Vietnam. He counted among his friends Noam Chomsky, as well as the Berrigan brothers and Daniel Ellsburg, with whom he went to Hanoi to escort three returning POWs. The North Vietnamese wanted liberal sympathizers to be the escorts, and Zinn received official approval from the U.S. enemy.

Zinn is bipartisan in his criticism, but his essays stop abruptly, never telling the reader how the rest of the story turned out. In the world of Zinn, things never evolve, economies don't recover, victims never overcome adversity, and white men are always to blame. Once a person is labeled as "evil," there is no personal redemption. "Robber barons" are not recognized for their own personal achievements or the risks and losses they endured, but only for their manipulation of people and money. In Zinn's economic view, where everybody is out for the most he can get, there is no room for voluntarism, charity, or philanthropy.

Zinn could never explain sacrifice for a greater cause if it involved a traditional definition of "patriotism." He could never justify a volunteer military, nor acknowledge that many copies of his book probably are on the shelves of libraries that bear the name "Carnegie." His writing style is not necessarily chronological, which can be problematic for the reader. Worst of all, he interjects unrelated phrases or ideas, forcing the reader to assume connections that might not be there. For example, when discussing the Pullman strike, he takes time to explain that the workers lived in houses and shopped at stores owned by the company. At the end of the unit, he writes, "A century later this would be called the Race To The Bottom and it would also become the business model for Wal-Mart." Neither of these comments is exactly true, and Zinn gives no further explanation. These "buzz phrases" could become distractions in any discussion with an ill-informed, Zinn-educated student.

Zinn's new books for an even younger and more vulnerable audience are frightening. The comic-book format is used specifically to create the same primal reaction created by cave drawings as they "lend themselves best to storytelling," particularly when paired with shocking photographs and other drawings of the period. Furthermore, Zinn makes no apologies about his intention in presenting history exactly as he does. Of the new junior reader, he writes,

Is it right to take down the traditional heroes of the nation, like Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt? Is it unpatriotic to emphasize slavery and racism, the massacres of Indians, the exploitation of the working people? . . . It seems to me it is wrong to treat young readers as if they are not mature enough to look at their nation's policies honestly. . . . Why should we think it heroic to do as Columbus did, arrive in this hemisphere and carry on a rampage of violence, in order to find gold? Why should we think it heroic for Andrew Jackson to drive Indians out of their land? Why should we think of Theodore Roosevelt as a hero because he fought in the Spanish-American war, driving Spain out of Cuba, but also paving the way for the United States to take control of Cuba?

In the world of Zinn, these were the only things that Columbus, Jackson, or Roosevelt ever did, and no other actions in their lives could compensate for their sins. In his chronology, the reader goes from one unpleasant climactic event to the next, and nothing good happens in the interim.

Perhaps the most lasting "achievement" of Zinn's writing is to deprive young readers the opportunity to feel that they are part of the greater continuing story of American exceptionalism. His book inspires guilt, and forces the reader to feel that success must come only through exploitation. Zinn denies historical process and negates hope for the future. He belittles patriotism and never allows pride of person or place.

I have no problem with students reading Zinn, as long as they have the time and equal support to read other material. One doesn't have to read the entire book to get the picture, and one should not be required to buy it and dissect it like a homiletic text. There are other books on the market that offer alternative points of view and create balance.

Zinn told one interviewer that he had set "quiet revolution" as his goal for writing A People's History. "Not a revolution in the classical sense of a seizure of power, but rather from people beginning to take power from within the institutions. In the workplace, the workers would take power to control the conditions of their lives." Perhaps it is we who should begin a quiet revolution of our own, and take back the power that Howard Zinn has to tell America's story.


Bettina Esser is the mother of four children, ages 19 to 28. Her children attended both public and private schools in St. Louis County, Missouri.
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