For over twenty years, I have enjoyed reading and assigning Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” I especially like Zinn’s efforts to see history “from the bottom looking up,” that is, to capture the thoughts of not leaders and prosperous citizens but rather simple and subjugated people – workers, immigrants, women, African Americans, and Native Americans, among others. It therefore came as a surprise to learn that Mitch Daniels, Indiana’s former Governor and now President of Purdue University, attempted to drive Zinn’s book from Indiana’s schools.
While he was still Governor, Daniels emailed Indiana education officials asking them to prevent the use of Zinn’s book in the state’s K-12 classrooms. Daniels said “A People’s History of the United States” was a “truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation.” Daniels also called the book “crap,” and he seemed pleased that “this terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away.”
Daniels’ criticism of Zinn and his work is on one level political. To wit, we have a right-wing politician condemning a leftist historian, albeit one who is deceased. (Didn’t Daniels’ parents ever tell him to let the dead rest in peace?) On a more fundamental level, Daniels’ criticism of Zinn also betrays a failure to grasp what the writing and the study of history entails.
I think this is what the Organization of American Historians (OAH) had in mind when it said Daniels’ obtuseness provided a “teachable moment.” Use Daniels’ comments, the OAH said in a formal statement, to underscore that historians and history teachers do not simply report names and dates but rather interpret past developments, debate ideas, appraise each other’s works, and so forth. History as a discipline is neither a science nor a social science; it is one of the humanities.
Putting aside Daniels’ simplistic and tawdry comments, we might note some of the debatable interpretations mainstream historians and history teachers put forward: (1) The earliest settlers in the North American colonies stood for religious tolerance and freedom, (2) Manifest destiny necessitated moving aside the native peoples, (3) The northern states fought the Civil War to end slavery, and (4) A market economy results in unparalleled prosperity for one and all. These contentions have sizable toe holds in the “established historical wisdom,” but Howard Zinn was prepared to question them. Even if we do not agree with Zinn’s conclusions, we should thank rather than condemn him.
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