Is “A People’s History” Useful for Classroom Instruction?

Last week, the Washington Post blared this provocative headline about a recent story on its website:

Socialist history curriculum strides toward Philadelphia schools

The comments section of this article was littered with comments that had nothing to do with socialist history, Philadelphia, or public education. Commentors shared a range of beliefs, including the idea that academics live in fantasy worlds that don’t mirror the realities of society, that President Obama is a communist, and that the real victims of racism today are white people. What was it that caused all of this commotion? Why are people so angry? Why does a story about public education provoke so many questions about the larger society in which educational institutions are operated?

The catalyst for all of this was an announcement from city council members in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, declaring that socialist historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to the Present would be allowed for use in Philadelphia public school history classrooms. The book-which purports to tell the history of America from the perspective of “America’s women, factory workers, African-Americans, Native Americans, working poor, and immigrant laborers”-was deemed by city council members as necessary in order to “recognize the need for students to be taught an unvarnished, honest version of U.S. history that empowers students to differentiate between moments that have truly made our country great versus those that established systemic inequality, privilege, and prejudice which continue to reinforce modern society’s most difficult issues.” The book still needs to be approved by the District Superintendent and school board, but the fact that Zinn’s book has gotten this far is notable.

What has happened in Philadelphia is important on its own merits, but it takes on a new significance when placed within the context of what has recently happened here in Indiana, where it was recently reported that former Governor Mitch Daniels wrote emails to former Education Superintendent Tony Bennett and other state education leaders calling for the outright banning of A People’s History from all Indiana classrooms. Daniels remarked in one email shortly after Zinn’s 2008 death that “this terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away. The obits and commentaries mentioned his book ‘A People’s History of the United States’ is the ‘textbook of choice in high schools and colleges around the country.’ It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”

Notwithstanding Daniels’ charges against Zinn’s book, the emails raised serious questions about academic freedom and government censorship in the classroom (even more disturbing has been the discovery that this is not the first time such an effort at censorship has taken place. See here and here). The American Historical Association condemned Daniels’ actions, stating that “attempts to single out particular texts for suppression from a school or university curriculum have no place in a democratic society.” “Read-In” presentations have taken place at Indiana schools throughout the state, including a “Zinn Read-In” at IUPUI this past Monday.

Some historians dismiss A People’s History and have lamented its lack of footnotes and reliance on secondary sources (see, for example, Sam Wineburg’s critique here). I’ve never read Zinn’s history book before, so I cannot comment on the merits of the book as a useful classroom resource with regards to scholarly content. However, even if we acknowledge the possibility that Zinn’s book makes problematic interpretations (and again, this is merely hypothetical), aren’t there possibilities for important learning outcomes through the use of A People’s History? I think there are two effective ways to use the book in a classroom:

1. If there’s one memory many adults have of their experiences in history classrooms growing up, it’s the worn-out story of the teacher who dutifully lectured fact-based content from a single history textbook. Good teaching inspires students to understand history not as a singular and static narrative, but a series of multiple and ever-changing narrative(s) with a range of perspectives. Howard Zinn undoubtedly brings a perspective of history that many American students are not acquainted with. Pairing Zinn’s book with another history textbook could challenge students to view history as a landscape of contested narratives.

2. If a teacher in Philadelphia thinks Zinn’s book is terrible, they could still use the book as an example of poor historical thinking. When I refer to “historical thinking,” I refer to the idea of students acknowledging that people in past societies thought, viewed, heard, and understood the world differently that us today (“the past is a foreign country”). Perhaps Zinn’s book reflects “presentism,” the act of inserting present-day political concerns into the actions of past historical actors. If it does, then students should learn how to avoid “presentism” so they can develop a sharper cognition for historical thinking. As I’ve stated before, far too many middle and high school history classes focus on content at the sacrifice of process. Why not use Zinn to teach students about historical method and process? Students need to learn about good and bad history, right?

In 2003, Joseph Moreau wrote a fine history of American history textbooks used in public schools, arguing that debates over history textbooks reflect larger disagreements about contemporary politics: “What sort of national identity should schools foster . . . Do competing versions our past . . . threaten our national unity?” If I buy Howard Zinn’s book for my library, I do so for my own personal reasons, whether for pleasure, learning, or both. If a school administrator or politician picks a book for reading in the history classroom, however, that person conveys a powerful message to students about their understanding of the world and what they consider important for the student to learn. “National soul-searching,” argues Moreau, “has always played out through textbooks, especially those purporting to explain the country’s past” (16). Whether written by Howard Zinn, Eric Foner, or Bill Bennett, public school history textbooks will make arguments and present perspectives about the past that may be unsettling to some. Rather than trying to censor these works, we should promote academic freedom and encourage our students to think critically about the weak and strong points made in these arguments. More perspectives-not less-will help our students decipher good historical thinking from bad. A democratic society functions much better when more questions (not less) are asked of those who purport to represent themselves as the chroniclers of our past, regardless of their views. Looking to the future, I can only hope that efforts to censor history in public education are avoided at all costs.


7 thoughts on “Is “A People’s History” Useful for Classroom Instruction?

  1. I’ve only skimmed through and read a few pages of “A People’s History” but my impression of it was that it could easily be problematic in terms of basic standards for a good textbook. It reads more like series of mini-encyclopedia articles strung together with an emphasis only on the bad things that have happened.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Andrew. If the book is structured in an encyclopedic manner, then it seems like its usefulness (which is rather limited) is in teaching students how NOT to frame arguments, interpret history, or use historical thinking.

      1. Sure thing. It’s not directly in an encyclopedic format, that’s just how it reads. It’s like lots of small blurbs without much narrative structure. When I have time, I’ll have to look at it much closer, but I know it’s a popular book.

        Zinn’s collection of primary sources, “Voices of a People’s History of the United States” and the DVD that goes with it are different and very good, IMO.

        For good history, both of these should be used in conjunction with books or lesson that provide additional perspectives.

        I think in general, students need good examples of history so they can learn – it’s hard to recognize the bad or not as good until you know enough.

  2. Exactly. It’s really tough to understand different perspectives if you’re only reading from one side. This is not to say that all sides are equal or “relative,” but it means taking all perspectives seriously and acknowledging their historical agency. I’ll have to check out Voice of a People’s History of the United States” sometime in the future.

  3. I read the book about 9 years ago. I really enjoyed it, and I’m about the furthest thing from a socialist. It was great to read another perspective on things. I think if it’s going to be a text it has to be balanced by other readings, though, and I don’t know if a high school class is going to have the time or the high school students the motivation to have that many readings.

    1. Hi Al, thanks for the comment. I agree that the book should be balanced by other readings so that students can see that history is composed of multiple perspectives. If I were using the book in a class I would probably go through and pick notable excerpts that were appropriate for a specific unit of study rather than having the students read the whole book throughout the semester or something along those lines. If studying the voyage of Columbus, for example, Zinn’s first chapter on Columbus could provide an interesting commentary to balance the writings of another classroom textbook that might take another perspective on the matter.

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