December 13, 2018

The Problem with Howard Zinn’s Anti-Textbook

“With more than 2 million copies in print, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is more than a book. It is a cultural icon. “You wanna read a real history book?” Matt Damon asks his therapist in the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting. “Read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. That book’ll … knock you on your ass.” The book’s original gray cover was painted red, white, and blue in 2003 and is now marketed with special displays in suburban megastores. Once considered radical, A People’s History has gone mainstream. By 2002, Will Hunting had been replaced by A. J. Soprano of the HBO hit The Sopranos. Doing his homework at the kitchen counter, A. J. tells his parents that his history teacher compared Christopher Columbus to Slobodan Milošević. When Tony fumes, “Your teacher said that?” A. J. responds, “It’s not just my teacher—it’s the truth. It’s in my history book.” The camera pans to A. J. holding a copy of A People’s History.

History, for Zinn, is looked at from “the bottom up”: a view “of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army.” Decades before we thought in such terms, Zinn provided a history for the 99 percent. Many teachers view A People’s History as an anti-textbook, a corrective to the narratives of progress dispensed by the state. This is undoubtedly true on a topical level. When learning about the Spanish-American War, students don’t read about Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill. Instead, they follow the plight of foot soldiers sweltering in the Cuban tropics, clutching their stomachs, not from Spanish bullets but from food poisoning caused by rancid meat sold to the army by Armour & Company. Such stories acquaint students with a history too often hidden and too quickly brushed aside by traditional textbooks.”

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