By Mary Grabar
The left cannot get enough of the late Howard Zinn. The radical professor's A People's History of the United States consistently holds a place in the top 15 of the 100 bestselling political books on Amazon's "blue," liberal side. The million mark in sales has long been passed, an outstanding figure for a work of history. This despite the fact that his "People's History" is an unrelievedly hostile take on the nation's past.
Healthy sales can be attributed in large part to the use of the book as a textbook in high school and college. Generally, 20 to 30 percent of students in my freshman composition classes say they have read Howard Zinn in high school. Students now have eNotes to explain Zinn. There is a teaching edition geared for college teachers, and at least one for high school teachers, especially those teaching Advanced Placement history. They assign his book in suburban Gwinnett County, Georgia, and in rural Hoschton, Georgia. I have a large file of syllabi for such AP history classes. Students who complete their college history requirements in high school do not escape Zinn.
Furthermore, an entire spin-off industry has developed for adapting Zinn's version of history for the lower grades. Publisher Seven Stories claims that Zinn's A Young People's History, for ages 10 and up, is their best-selling backlist title. A plethora of lesson materials is offered to teachers through the Zinn Education Project. At a Georgia State University College of Education-sponsored "teach-in" last February, I sat in on a workshop where students from area colleges of education learned strategies from teachers and education professors for using the Zinn version of history to teach elementary school students about Christopher Columbus's "real" accomplishment--namely genocide.
Many college students will get the Zinn version of history in their one U.S. history course. These include those taking History 102 at Yosemite Community College this semester and those taking an equivalent course at El Camino Community College in fall 2010 that relied on Zinn's Voices of a People's History of the United States. I found Zinn's books on the syllabi of U.S. history survey courses at Bloomsburg University (Summer 2011), San José State University (Spring 2011), Saddleback College (Spring 2012), and San Francisco State University (Spring 2012). At the University of Georgia, A People's History was included among the required texts for History 2111: U.S. History to 1865 taught in the spring of 2011.
At Georgia State University Mindy Clegg assigned nearly all 700 pages this semester for her History 2110 survey class. Clegg does add "primary documents" to her syllabus, but these include the likes of Upton Sinclair's muckraking novel, The Jungle, and early genre fiction of the 1920s, in addition to Paine's Common Sense and Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity." Zinn, however, provides the chronological narrative and prism through which such primary documents are viewed.
Zinn's version of history has been discredited by some historians on the left as well, like Michael Kazin, who said the book was suited to a "conspiracy monger's Web site." The late Eugene Genovese told me he refused to review the book when it first came out during his own Marxist days because it was nothing more than "incoherent left-wing sloganizing." Last summer, at the History News Network, Zinn came in a close second for top spot in the History News Network's list of the five worst histories, earning 641 votes. However, the paeans to Zinn keep coming; the presses keep rolling; and the teachers keep assigning.
The history Zinn presents, however, is wholly unreliable. For example, he insinuates that the executed Communist spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were innocents victimized by anti-Communist hysterics. Recent evidence, however, validates their conviction. Other sections are wildly unbalanced. In his discussion of the Constitution's origins, Zinn devotes ample time to Charles Beard's class-based interpretation and none to opposing arguments. Indeed, he contends that the Constitution was devised simply to formalize "the inferior position of blacks, the exclusion of Indians from the new society, the establishment of supremacy for the rich and powerful in the new nation." When such overstatements are made, and objectivity and scale abandoned, we no longer have real history. Zinn admitted as much when he wrote, "Objectivity is impossible, and it is undesirable." The true historian strives for objectivity. The abandonment of objectivity is an acknowledgement that one is no longer teaching history. And unless professors are using Zinn's books to discuss historiography or the rhetoric of propaganda in graduate seminars, they are simply propagandizing. Historians should strive to teach history "warts and all." Zinn, however, cared only about the warts.