Lesson 2: A Critical Examination of Howard Zinn

We the People: Considering Howard Zinn’s Approach to History


calvin history

Overview |

What was Howard Zinn’s approach to history, and what values are inherent in it?

What issues does his work raise about the purpose and significance of studying history?

What are the benefits and drawbacks of his method?

Warm-Up | Repsond to the following two questions  in your  journals:

In writing history, what do you think should be a historian’s goal(s)?

Why do you think people should study history?

From Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”:

I don’t want to invent victories for people’s movements. But to think that history-writing must aim simply to recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat. If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past, when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare. That, being as blunt as I can, is my approach to the history of the United States. The reader may as well know the before going on.

How would you paraphrase this historian’s approach to United States history?

What does he seem to value and why?

What does he seem to think the purpose and function of history is?

How does this approach seem similar to and different from how you have studied history in school?

What are the connections between what you wrote earlier in your journals and these ideas?

Related | In the obituary “Howard Zinn, Historian, Is Dead at 87,” Michael Powell notes that Mr. Zinn’s book “A People’s History of the United States was a “best-seller that inspired a generation of high school and college students to rethink American history”:

Almost an oddity at first, with a printing of just 4,000 in 1980, “A People’s History of the United States” has sold nearly two million copies. To describe it as a revisionist account is to risk understatement. A conventional historical account held no allure; he concentrated on what he saw as the genocidal depredations of Christopher Columbus, the blood lust of Theodore Roosevelt and the racial failings of Abraham Lincoln. He also shined an insistent light on the revolutionary struggles of impoverished farmers, feminists, laborers and resisters of slavery and war.

**Please note: Such stories are more often recounted in textbooks today; they were not at the time.

 Questions | For discussion and reading comprehension:

  1. What does it mean that Howard Zinn “delighted … in lancing what he considered platitudes, not the least that American history was a heroic march toward democracy”?
  2. Why did the book meet with some skepticism and opposition? How did Mr. Zinn respond to critics?
  3. How has Mr. Zinn and his work penetrated popular culture? Why do you think that is?
  4. How do you think Mr. Zinn’s life might have contributed to his worldview and historical approach and vice versa? Why?
  5. What “personal philosophy” do you think is expressed in the title of Mr. Zinn’s memoir, “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train”?
  6. How do you think the way you study history is different from how it was taught to your parents and grandparents?

Activity | Examine Howard Zinn’s approach to history writing by comparing a subject in a typical American history textbook with Mr. Zinn’s portrayal of the same event in his book “A People’s History of the United States.”

The example here is about Shays’ Rebellion.

Read the following textbook account of Shays’ Rebellion, from the middle school-level United States history textbook “The American Nation,” by James West Davidson and John E. Batchelor, Prentice Hall, 1986.

While Congress dealt successfully with the Northwest Territory, it failed to solve other problems. Among the most serious were the problems of farmers.

During the Revolution, the demand for farm products was high. Farmers borrowed money for land, seed, animals and tools. But after the war, the nation suffered an economic depression. An economic depression is a period when business activity slows, prices and wages fall, and unemployment rises. When prices for farm goods fell, farmers could not repay their loans.

Farmers in western Massachusetts were hard hit by falling farm prices. To make matters worse, Massachusetts raised taxes. The courts threatened to seize the farms of people who did not pay their loans and taxes.

Captain Daniel Shays was a Massachusetts farmer who had fought in the Revolution. In 1786, Shays gathered a force of about 1,000 angry farmers. They attacked courthouses and tried to take a warehouse full of rifles and gunpowder. Massachusetts quickly raised an army and ended the rebellion.

Shays’ Rebellion worried many Americans. It was a sign that the Articles of Confederation were not working. Leaders of several states called for a convention to discuss ways of reforming the Articles. They decided to meet in Philadelphia in May 1787. When they met, however, they took more drastic action.

 1.  After reading these two sources, work individually or in pairs to write a short summary of what happened during Shays’ Rebellion. 

2.  Read Mr. Zinn’s account of Shays’ Rebellion, from “A People’s History of the United States.”

3.  Compare and contrast Mr. Zinn’s account with the textbook versions. Questions for consideration include these

a.  What are similarities and differences between the passages? What do you make of these differences?

b.  What characters does Mr. Zinn introduce that the textbook and summaries do not mention?

c. What significant perspectives or information may have been left out of each passage? Do you feel that either of the passages offered a more adequate retelling of this event? If so, which one?

d.  Explain how reading historical accounts influences your understanding. What did you take away from the textbook passage? What did you take away from Mr. Zinn’s account? When would a simple textbook passage be most helpful? When would it be more useful to read an account like those in “A People’s History”?

e.  Why do you think an account like Mr. Zinn’s could make some historians and readers dismiss him?

f.  Why do you think that the way Mr. Zinn approaches history led to some historians to dismiss him and brand him a “radical”?

Listen to/read the following:

  • transcript of an interview with Howard Zinn from WBUR in which he connects the story of Shays’ Rebellion to present-day America: “We could learn from that history, because people are being foreclosed, they’re losing their homes. Instead of waiting for the president and Congress to act, who are very slow to act and who are not going to really represent the interests of these poor people or even middle class people who are evicted from homes. People should be organizing, doing what citizens have done, doing what democracy requires to prevent these evictions from taking place.” Invite students to consider that comparison further for similarities and differences in circumstance, context and so on.

Going Further | Students revisit their warm-up writing and discussion by re-exploring the question of how history should be “told” in a written piece that explores some of the following questions:

What power and responsibility does a historian have in telling a story?

Is there a way to write history completely objectively? Or, do historians always add some form of personal bias?

How does a concentration on “the people” make Mr. Zinn’s version of history different than an emphasis on, say, politics, economics or foreign relations?

Do you think a voice like Mr. Zinn’s is an essential part of the historical record?

Is it important, in your opinion, that historians use primary sources in their exploration of history? Why or why not?

How do you most like to learn about history? Why?


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