Howard Zinn (1922-2010)

by John G. Turner

The world notices the passing of very few historians, but Howard Zinn's death yesterday made the headlines for obvious reasons. It's hard for me to think of an historian of Zinn's generation who exerted more influence on the way that Americans view their past.

For several years, I've been using a "dueling banjos" approach in my survey class (explicitly borrowed from Lendor Calder). I assign Zinn's People's History and a diametrically opposed text. Students identify and has out the differences. [I've tried Paul Johnson's History of the American People and Schweikart and Allen's Patriot's History. If anyone has a suggestion of something else to pair with Zinn, I'm all eyes].

The shortcomings of Zinn's book are obvious to me and to many students. For starters, there is hardly any sense of change over time, no recognition of the tremendous material gains for all classes of Americans over the past hundred years. If one cares about American religious history, it's a bit painful to give students a text that only touches on religion in a sympathetic manner by way of the Berrigan brothers. At the same time, I've never assigned a "textbook" that students so readily engage, whether they like Zinn's arguments or not. I am grateful to Howard Zinn for getting so many of my students to take an interest in U.S. History.

The Associated Press had this to say about Zinn on a more personal level:

Professor Zinn himself was an impressive-looking man, tall and rugged with wavy hair. An experienced public speaker, he was modest and engaging in person, more interested in persuasion than in confrontation.

I can attest to the latter. Several years ago, one of my classes noticed a rather obvious factual error in People's History. Zinn was trying too hard to make the case that many Americans opposed the Second World War.

Thus, we fired off an email to Zinn:

My undergraduate survey classes have been profitably reading your People's History this semester. We're learning to read all sources critically and have a question about a detail in your book. Can you help us resolve the following?

On p. 418 (2003 edition) you write, "Our of 10 million drafted for the armed forces during World War II, only 43,000 refused to fight. But this was three times the proportion of C.O.'s in World War I."

On p. 371 (WWI): "About 65,000 men declared themselves conscientious objectors and asked for noncombatant service."

How could 43,000 in WWII be a larger proportion than 65,000 in WWI? Our understanding is that more individuals were drafted during the Second World War. Can you help?

The then 84-year-old Zinn promptly wrote back:

Thank you for calling that to my attention. A gross error! I think my absolute figures are right, but what I say about "proportion" is wrong. I don't remember where I got that information but I'll look into it. You can use this as a lesson for your students on how historians can get things wrong!

Best wishes,
Howard Zinn

For a man who received sacks of both positive and negative mail about his work, I found the response extraordinarily gracious and a testimony to a kind and gentle spirit. May we respond similarly to our critics!


John Fea said…
Great story, John. Thanks for sharing. I did a post on it.

After reading your post I am one step closer to using the Calder approach to teaching historical thinking in the survey course. Would you recommend Schwiekart or Marshall for the conservative reading? Which one worked better?
John G. Turner said…
Thanks for the link.

I like Johnson better than Zinn, but Johnson's very hard to break up into manageable chunks for students. Plus, he's rather subtle much of the time. S&A's contains lots of interesting conservative arguments, but the chapters are too long and comprehensive.

Basically, I (and perhaps you) need to explore other options.

Especially when I do the first half of the survey, I follow Calder's approach of supplementing the two books with a variety of primary sources.
Manlius said…
I like your opposing ideological histories approach, John. Having students read supposedly objective texts, as if there were such things, may hinder them from discerning the power of perspective. Texts with more obvious "tendenz", within reason anyway, are more instructive in apprehending a sense of historiograpy. Moreover, history as dueling sport, and I mean that in the best sense, is a heckuva lot more interesting to most students.

You probably know that Matt Damon grew up in Zinn's neighborhood and knew him quite well. That may explain the scene in "Good Will Hunting" where Damon's character goes off on the gov't intelligence guy with a bunch of Zinn references.