Twisted history

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History is supposed to be the “anti-textbook,” a “corrective to the narrative of progress dispensed by the state,” writes Sam Wineburg in Undue Certainty in American Educator.  But Zinn’s widely popular book only includes evidence that props up his agenda while ignoring the rest, charges Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford.  The book “contains unsubstantiated claims, uses anecdotes as evidence and presents complicated questions in simplistic yes-or-no terms.”

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  1. A nice article from a very thoughtful writer on history education. While no historian (or any author for that matter) is free from bias, any writer who sets out to prove a point with their writing like Zinn does is bound to introduce inaccuracies into their writing. When presenting claims that are controversial and run contrary to established wisdom, I believe a good academic will present potential objections and counterarguments and use evidence to refute them. As Wineburg points out, Zinn often does not do this and resorts to tactics like presenting a single anecdote as representative of large groups.

    All that being said, I still enjoy Zinn’s “A People’s History” in the same way that I enjoy reading James Loewen’s “Lies My Teacher Told Me” or popular science books by people like Malcolm Gladwell or Jonah Lehrer. While I know that much of the content is inaccurate, I find the challenge to conventional wisdom intellectually refreshing. I have learned a lot simply by reading something controversial, saying “wait, that sounds like BS” and then doing some additional reading. Often I am right and the claim is wrong or exaggerated, but I have certainly learned many new and interesting things.

    Rather than simply replacing traditional textbooks (many of which should be thrown out anyways) I think a great use of Zinn’s “A People’s History” would be in a package of source analysis documents for older students. I would place his account of an event beside a traditional textbook account, along with a number of primary sources from people who actually witnessed or took part in the event, then ask the students to assess the accuracy and strengths and weaknesses of the two secondary accounts.

    • “Inaccuracies” is a very (IMHO overly) charitable evaluation of Zinn.  I would say extremely tendentious and prejudiced to the point of blatant bigotry.

  2. The true tragedy of Zinn is that AP courses all across the country use his work as their textbook.