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History Uncovering History

Howard, Sam, Mitch, and Me

I have a somewhat deserved reputation for tardiness.  Just after I finally  read Sam Wineburg’s critique of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and began drafting some thoughts, Zinn and Wineburg were in the news thanks to Purdue University President Mitch Daniels.  Then, I went on vacation…So, here are my belated thoughts on all of this. I found myself agreeing with Wineburg’s critique of Zinn, but, like him, find only problems in Daniel’s attempt to censor it.

Book Cover, "Howard Zinn" (red letters), "A People's History of the United States" (blue letters) on white background
Cover image courtesy of HarperCollins

One thing that interests me about  Wineburg’s critique is how it traces my own evolution as a teacher of history. I read A People’s History after I had been teaching high school history for about ten years, although I had been aware of it longer.  At that time I appreciated how Zinn turned the conventional textbook narrative on its head, although I found some of his reframing to be old news.  I especially liked and continue to appreciate the first few pages, which open “Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder…”  I still think that  Zinn excerpts such as this expose students to the subjectivity of history. What I didn’t appreciate at the time was the difference between simply being critical of some one else’s construction of historical knowledge and understanding history as the product of critically reading primary sources  My goal was to replace a triumphalist, largely political narrative of a white, American republic with narratives that stressed the experiences of many peoples underrepresented in this traditional history.

My  approach to teaching history increasingly emphasizes encouraging students to critically construct knowledge as historians.  I want to help students to develop enduring skills, especially around literacy.  The work of Sam Wineburg has been useful to me in this process, and his criticism of Zinn’s lack of historical rigor fits my view of the epistemology and appropriate pedagogy of history.   Importantly, the goals of expanding skills and students perspectives are not mutually exclusive, and this is why Mitch Daniel’s intervention against Zinn strikes such a sour note. Daniels seems to simply want to maintain the traditional, triumphalist story of an exceptional America.  Like Zinn he wants information to reinforce his notion of the essence of American history. He is only unhappy with Zinn’s conclusions, and doesn’t care about his method. Daniels’s conflation of consensus historian Arthur Schlesinger with Marxist Zinn as part of an amorphous “left” demonstrates the bluntly political nature of his attack.

Almost fifteen years after my initial reading of A People’s History, I still work to include  the histories of many Americans underepresented in the.  But, I now want students to critically read sources, to hear people in their own words and learn to support conclusions with evidence.  In this work I have taken much from Bruce Lesh, Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answers,  and Bruce VanSledwright, The Challenge of Rethinking History Education.  Both encourage student inquiry in the history classroom, but both also assume that a teacher-driven narrative approach to US History will also be a traditional, optimistic, white story.  Howard Zinn shows us that this is not always true, as does my own experience of trying to tell students a more multicultural version of US History, in concert with talented and well-intentioned colleagues.  Historical perspective and methodology are not always the same.  We can and should have students participate in writing history from the bottom up.
Update: On twitter, Bill Chapman (@classroomtools) alerted me to a sloppy aspect of Wineburg’s LA Times Op-Ed to which I linked above.  Wineburg claims:

“But Zinn got important facts wrong. In successive editions, from the original 1980 imprint to the 2006 “Modern Classics” edition, Zinn quoted a cable supposedly sent by Japanese Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo in 1945 to his ambassador to Moscow. “Unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to peace,” the cable was supposed to have said. Zinn concluded from those words that Japan would have been willing to surrender if the U.S. would have agreed that its emperor could remain in place. Yet no cable with these words exists: not in the Japanese archives, the American archives or anywhere else.”

Using the powers of the internet Bill and I quickly found two places with a cable from Togo to the Japanese Ambassador Sato.  Togo wrote “as long as American and England insist on unconditional surrender, our country has no alternative but to see it through in an all-out effort for the sake of survival and the honor of the homeland.”  Wineburg is correct that Togo didn’t write “only”, and by rejecting unconditional surrender Togo was clearly implying that an unnamed number of conditions could prevent surrendering. But, his criticism, like A People’s History would have benefitted from more nuance.

Another update: To be clear Wineburg’s critique in American Educator was clear.  The problem came in translating this argument into the op-ed format.  A lesson in itself that good historical writing more complex than opinion writing.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

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