Keep Calm and Zinn On

On September 16, 2018, Slate published an excerpt from Sam Wineburg’s new book, Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone). The piece, “Howard Zinn’s Anti-Textbook,” comes from a chapter entitled “Committing Zinns.” As the Slate byline makes clear, Wineburg believes that Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (originally published in 1980) is “as limited — and closed-minded — as the textbook it replaces.” Wineburg argues that A People’s History shares similarities with traditional secondary textbooks. His primary complaints include how Zinn relies “almost entirely on secondary sources, with no archival research to thicken its narrative” and “when A People’s History draws on primary sources, these documents serve to prop up the main text but never provide an alternative view or open a new field of vision.” [1]

Ursula Wolfe-Rocca, a teacher and the Zinn Education Project Organizer/Curriculum Writer for the 2018-2019 school year, responded in “What Sam Wineburg Gets Wrong About Teaching Howard Zinn’s A People’s History,” published on the Zinn Education Project website on September 25, 2018. She observes that Wineburg “assumes teachers and students are passive victims of Zinn’s ‘charisma’ and ‘thunderous certainty’” and that “Zinn is ‘the curriculum.’” Wolfe-Rocca notes that few, if any, teachers rely solely on A People’s History. She believes that teachers who employ Zinn in their classrooms understand the nuances of the past and states that “it is Sam Wineburg who cannot tolerate complexity and shades of gray.” Wolfe-Rocca also accuses Wineburg of having “no room for students who mobilize both heart and mind in analyzing the past, and no room for curricula that manage to amplify marginalized voices.” On this last point, she claims that Wineburg wants to impose a Great Man interpretation of the past on the nation’s students. [2]

In this war of words, I find myself siding with Wolfe-Rocca for one reason: skillful teachers employ a range of texts (broadly defined) in meaningful ways. When I taught teaching methods courses at Teachers College, Columbia University, I stressed the importance of competing interpretations of the past. [3] I relayed how A People’s History, when supplemented with other primary and secondary sources, builds the historical thinking skills Wineburg has built a career around. In fact, what I find perplexing about Wineburg’s stance on Zinn is this: he doesn’t see how A People’s History has been useful for teachers who have students engage with historical interpretation. Wineburg even makes this point when he criticizes Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history of education at Penn, for suggesting that teachers give students two monographs with competing interpretations of U.S. History. Where Wineburg sees a flawed teaching approach, I have always seen opportunity.

In the introduction of Why Learn History, Wineburg contends that students “regrettably put a spurious document on the same footing as legitimate historical evidence.” [4] Teaching historical interpretation can help students build the skills to detect suspect sources, though. History instructors, both at the secondary and undergraduate levels, have paired Zinn with Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People to improve close reading and critical thinking skills. When I used these two books in my Honors U.S. History course, for example, I challenged students to read between the lines. Nearly every student liked Zinn’s book better, although they pointed out, almost from the beginning, that Zinn was “biased.” [5] Over the course of the year, I did what a teacher should do — I asked questions so that students could see how Johnson politicized the writing of history. Once Johnson moved into the twentieth century, my students noticed some of Johnson’s conservatism. These beliefs became especially clear when we discussed Johnson’s thoughts on the New Deal and the Great Society. With careful questioning from me, the teacher, students improved their critical reading skills. I placed so much emphasis on the acquisition of these skills because I share Wineburg’s concern that students have a difficult time deciphering accurate reporting from misleading information.

It’s also important to remember this: competing interpretations of the past don’t have to clash, with a “liberal” monograph and a “conservative” one. The next time I teach a section of the U.S. survey, I’m looking forward to pairing Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America with Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. Neither will be “the curriculum,” as Wineburg accuses A People’s History of being for teachers who use Zinn. Rather, they will be, along with a range of primary sources, texts for students to scrutinize. As the instructor, I will do what I’ve always done — push students to read critically, hoping that this builds the transferable skills we need to be engaged, and critical, citizens.

Examining sources in this way is one of the goals Wineburg proposes for history education. My experience shows that teaching historical interpretation is a powerful way to foster students’ media literacy. Indeed, as Wineburg argues in Why Learn History, building media literacy is paramount for the survival of American democracy.

[1] Sam Wineburg, Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 52. Wineburg has a host of other concerns about A People’s History, including how Zinn didn’t update many of the chapters from the original edition. A fair amount of “Committing Zinns” is focused on this critique.

[2] This isn’t the first time Wineburg has squared off against the Zinn Education Project. See Wineburg, “Undue Certainty: Where Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Falls Short,” American Educator (Winter 2012-2013), 27-34 and Alison Kyasia’s rebuttal, “Bashing Howard Zinn: A Critical Look at One of the Critics,” posted on November 18, 2013 on the Zinn Education Project’s website.

[3] One of the pleasures of being at Teachers College was learning from Dr. Abby Reisman, one of Wineburg’s Ph.D. advisees. Dr. Reisman taught the doctoral seminar in social studies education one of the semesters I was an Ed.D. student at Columbia. The critiques in this post will sound familiar to everyone in that seminar.

[4] Wineburg, Why Learn History, 5.

[5] I don’t like to use the word “bias” in history classrooms. Over time, I have grown fond of the term “perspective.”

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