One of Howard Zinn’s harshest, and most influential, critics is Sam Wineburg, the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford University, and Director of the Stanford History Education Group.
In the Winter 2012-2013 issue of American Educator, Professor Wineburg published an eight-page essay entitled “Undue Certainty: Where Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Falls Short.” My new book, Zinnophobia: The Battle over History in Education, Politics, and Scholarship (Zero Books, 2018), contains a lengthy, point-by-point rebuttal to the criticisms he advances in that essay. But now it has come to my attention that Wineburg includes a shortened and revised version of his anti-Zinn article (available at slate.com) in his new book, Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone). In response, I offer a brief account, largely adapted from my book, of a few of his many errors.
One of Wineburg’s main criticisms of Zinn’s history is that it is dogmatic. This is the point of the title (“Undue Certainty”) of his original article, and of the sub-title of the newer version, published at Slate, which claims that Zinn’s text is “closed-minded.” We are told that Zinn “speaks with thunderous certainty,” and that his narrative is “strident, immodest, and unyielding.”
What evidence does Wineburg produce in support of these charges? For Wineburg certainly claims to be motivated by a great concern for evidentiary quality:
I am less concerned here with what Zinn says than his warrant for saying it, less interested in the words that meet the eye than with the book’s interpretive circuitry that doesn’t. Largely invisible to the casual reader are the moves and strategies Zinn uses to tie evidence to conclusion, to convince readers that his interpretations are right.
So we can expect from Wineburg a high level of scrupulousness in his own conduct of providing evidence in support of his claims.
How, then, does Wineburg demonstrate that Zinn’s text is “closed-minded,” and exhibits “undue certainty”? He argues that, whereas “historians frequently use qualifying language to signal the soft underbelly of historical certainty,” Zinn does not do so: “a search in A People’s History for qualifiers mostly comes up empty”; Zinn’s approach “detests equivocation and extinguishes perhaps, maybe, might, and the most execrable of them all, on the other hand.”
Well then, are Wineburg’s claims true? For example, does Zinn’s text “extinguish” the word “perhaps”? To the contrary, his book employs that term a total of 101 times, not counting instances in which the word appears in quotations, or in Zinn’s paraphrases of the views of others. Zinn uses this “extinguished” word on pages 2, 5, 11, 16 (twice), 17, 18 (three times), 21, 22, 29 (twice), 32, 36 (twice), 37, 47, 49 (twice), 60, 67, 77, 81, 99, 110, 112, 114, 120, 138, 141, 162, 172 (three times), 174, 185, 188, 208 (twice), 233, 236, 238, 242, 249, 268, 273, 281, 289, 294, 326, 331, 340, 354, 357 (twice), 360, 366, 372, 387, 395 (three times), 404, 422 (twice), 426, 427, 428, 443 (twice), 449, 459, 463, 484, 486, 501, 506, 510, 511, 514, 517, 519, 557, 564 (twice), 567, 585, 591, 594, 596, 597 (three times), 598, 619, 636, 638, 648, 655, and 679.
Similarly, while it is true that Zinn uses “maybe” and “might” infrequently, he makes up for it by using “seem,” “seems,” and “seemed” to qualify many of his assertions. Excluding the use of these words in quotations from others, Zinn himself employs them in A People’s History 130 times. They can be found on pages 5, 14, 15, 19, 35, 40 (three times), 47, 50, 53, 54, 60, 61, 65, 66, 68, 70 (twice), 72, 79, 80, 83, 86 (twice), 90, 95, 99, 100 (three times), 103, 104, 106, 109, 136, 142, 150, 160, 164, 198, 219, 228, 235, 264, 273, 295, 301, 303, 346, 353 (twice), 359 (twice), 374, 382 (twice), 395, 402 (twice), 409, 410, 411, 414, 418, 419, 422, 424, 425, 426, 428, 434, 440, 441 (twice), 442 (twice), 450, 453, 459, 463, 474, 476, 479, 492, 499, 504 (twice), 506, 510, 512, 523, 524, 536, 541, 546, 548, 553, 554, 555 (twice), 559, 561, 562, 564, 565 (twice), 575, 576, 579, 582, 584, 585, 594, 595, 596 (twice), 597, 599, 610, 611, 612, 613, 621, 638 (three times), 676, and 679 (twice).
Even “on the other hand,” the qualifying phrase that Wineburg claims to be, from the standpoint of a dogmatist like Zinn, “the most execrable of all,” is not “extinguished,” but rather appears fifteen times in A People’s History, not counting its use in a quotation from another writer. More to the point, the idea that there is another “hand,” that is, another side to things—evidence that points in a direction other than, and often opposite to, what Zinn has been saying, is expressed often in his text. It is just that he doesn’t usually mark this with the phrase “on the other hand,” preferring “still,” “yet,” “and yet,” “though,” “although,” “nevertheless,” “but,” and several other words and phrases. Sometimes he simply begins a new sentence or paragraph by laying out counterevidence to what he has been saying or arguing, without indicating this with any special word or phrase.
So we are left with this. Wineburg asserts that Zinn is closed-minded and dogmatic. His evidence? That Zinn extinguishes modest qualifiers when issuing historical claims, as revealed by “a search through A People’s History” for such qualifiers. But we aren’t given any information about the nature of this “search,” or about its specific findings. And an independent attempt to verify the conclusion that Zinn’s book is unusually lacking in such language turns up, instead, precisely the opposite result. This, I’m afraid, is not an aberration, but rather is entirely consistent with the evidentiary standards running throughout Wineburg’s commentaries on Zinn.
Wineburg does offer one specific example of a passage in which he thinks Zinn can be faulted for insufficiently qualified language. This concerns Zinn’s treatment of the decision by the United States to drop two atomic bombs on Japan. Whereas traditional, patriotic history textbooks justify the use of the bomb as having been necessary to end World War II, shortening it by months, if not years, and thereby saving more lives that would have been lost in the prolonged fighting than were lost as a result of the use of the bombs, Zinn, by contrast, argues that Japan was already primed for surrender prior to the dropping of the bombs, and would have done so had the allies been willing to grant one minor concession—allowing Emperor Hirohito to remain as a figurehead.
In his criticism of Zinn’s handling of this issue, Wineburg focuses on the following sentence from A People’s History:
If only the Americans had not insisted on unconditional surrender—that is, if they were willing to accept one condition to the surrender, that the Emperor, a holy figure to the Japanese, remain in place—the Japanese would have agreed to stop the war.
Not might have, not may have, not could have. But ‘would have agreed to stop the war.’ Not only is Zinn certain about the history that’s happened. He’s certain about the history that didn’t.
Notice, however, that Zinn does not actually say that he is certain. Wineburg’s interpretation of his statement as entailing a claim to certainty rests on the dubious premise that “x would have happened,” issued without a modest qualifier, can accurately be paraphrased as “I am certain that x would have happened.” But the failure to qualify one’s assertions with such phrases as “may,” “might,” “perhaps,” “maybe,” “seems,” and the like does not mean that one is claiming certainty for the utterance that is unencumbered by such utterances.
Moreover, while Wineburg mentions some of the sources that Zinn cites in support of his conclusions on this issue, there is one that Wineburg omits, even though Zinn quotes it in the body of his text, and despite the fact that it is the one that is most directly relevant to his counterfactual claim. The text in question is: United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Japan’s Struggle to End the War (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1946). Here is what Zinn says about it in A People’s History:
The United States Strategic Bombing Survey, set up by the War Department in 1944 to study the results of aerial attacks in the war, interviewed hundreds of Japanese civilian and military leaders after Japan surrendered, and reported just after the war:
Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.
Notice that Wineburg, in criticizing Zinn for allegedly claiming to know with certainty that Japan would have surrendered in 1945 even without the dropping of the atomic bomb, somehow fails to mention his quoting from a U.S. government study that explicitly supports Zinn’s conclusions as to what would have happened. And this U.S. government study qualifies its claim, not, as Wineburg would prefer, with “perhaps” or “might” or “maybe”—but with “certainly.”
This omission conforms to a disturbing pattern that is in evidence throughout Wineburg’s critique of Zinn. Despite his repeated pronouncements on the importance of recognizing the many-sided character of things, and thus the constant need to confront “the other hand” of every issue, Wineburg repeatedly omits evidence that would undermine his own criticisms of Zinn.
For example, while he complains in his Slate essay that Zinn’s text is “naked of footnotes, thwarting inquisitive readers who seek to retrace the author’s interpretive steps,” he chooses not to inform his readers that A People’s History does make use of a documentation system. It contains a 20-page bibliography, organized by chapter, containing full bibliographical information. Then, throughout the body of the text, Zinn provides brief citations (just author and title), so as to refer the reader to the more complete information in the bibliography.
The book abounds in passages like this:
During those years, trade unions were forming. (Philip Foner’s History of the Labor Movement in the U.S. tells the story in rich detail).” And this: “Lloyd Gardner concludes (Economic Aspects of New Deal Diplomacy) that ‘the Open Door Policy was triumphant throughout the Middle East’.
In 1928, according to Akira Iriye (After Imperialism), American consuls in China supported the coming of Japanese troops.
Literally hundreds of passages of this sort stud Zinn’s text. What are the scholarly and ethical standards guiding a decision to omit any mention of them while simultaneously criticizing an author for supposedly “thwarting inquisitive readers who seek to retrace the author’s interpretive steps”?
Another recurring problem with Wineburg’s critique of Zinn is that he frequently chooses to bypass Zinn’s own words so as to attack, instead, his own inaccurate and tendentious paraphrases of them. A sentence from Zinn’s discussion of World War II reads as follows:
There seemed to be widespread indifference, even hostility, on the part of the Negro community to the war despite the attempts of Negro newspapers and Negro leaders to mobilize black sentiment.
Zinn claims that an attitude of ‘widespread indifference, even hostility,’ typified African Americans’ stance toward the war.
Wineburg distorts Zinn’s meaning in at least three ways:
(1) Wineburg leaves out Zinn’s introductory “seemed to be” locution. This is an important omission, given Weinberg’s claim, debunked above, that “a search in A People’s History for qualifiers mostly comes up empty.” I trust that the reader will agree that anyone who wants to accuse someone else of being allergic to qualifying language must not edit out of quotations from that person such phrases as “seemed to be.”
(2) Wineburg converts Zinn’s more modest claim that indifference and hostility were (we’ll waive the “seemed to be” issue for the moment) widespread among the black community, to the much stronger claim that indifference and hostility typified (a word not used by Zinn) the stance of that community. “Widespread” means “found or distributed over a large area or number of people.” So, for example, while to say that poverty is widespread in America is definitely to say that there is a lot of it, and it is found in many places, it certainly carries no implication that most Americans are poor. But to say that poverty “typifies” Americans is to say that most Americans are poor—indeed, it is to make a stronger claim even than that. For “typify” is a verb meaning “to embody the essential or salient characteristics of,” while its related adjective, “typical,” means “having the distinctive qualities of a particular type of person or thing.”
So if Zinn had said what Wineburg claims he did, he would have been asserting that most black Americans were indifferent to or hostile toward the war, indeed, that such attitudes embodied the essential or salient characteristics of the response to the war by the American black community. By contrast, Zinn’s actual claim was much more modest. It was merely that such attitudes were (well, actually, “seemed to be”—but we’re letting that go) found among a large number (though a number that might come nowhere close to constituting a majority) of black Americans, and in many parts of the country.
These distortions are crucial, because they go directly to the issue of Zinn’s handling of evidence. While the evidence that Zinn cites may well be, as Wineburg charges, inadequate for supporting the claim that Wineburg puts in his mouth (that an attitude of indifference, even hostility, “typified” African Americans’ stance toward the war), perhaps it fares better when it is put in support of Zinn’s actual thesis (that such attitudes were merely “widespread” among African Americans).
(3) In another passage Wineburg distorts Zinn’s thesis even further. Wineburg, in connection with the black press having referred to the “Double V,” meaning victory over fascism in Europe and victory over racism at home, attributes to Zinn the claim that “black Americans restricted their support to a single V: the victory over racism.” Note that Wineburg inserts no qualifier here. He claims that Zinn “asserts” not that “many black Americans restricted their support to a single V: the victory over racism,” or that most of them did so, but rather, simply that “black Americans” did so.
But Zinn says no such thing. A search reveals that the phrases “double V,” “single V,” “victory over fascism,” and “victory over racism” do not appear in Zinn’s text. They are introduced as part of Wineburg’s alleged paraphrase of what Zinn says about the attitudes of black Americans toward the war. Immediately after issuing his (false) claim that Zinn “asserts that black Americans restricted their support to a single V: the victory over racism,” he offers this explanation: “As for the second V, victory on the battlefields of Europe and Asia, Zinn claims that an attitude of “widespread indifference, even hostility,” typified African Americans’ stance toward the war.” We have encountered this before.
So not only does Wineburg incorrectly think that “there seemed to be widespread indifference, even hostility, on the part of the Negro community to the war” can be accurately paraphrased as “an attitude of ‘widespread indifference, even hostility,’ typified African Americans’ stance toward the war” (with the “seemed to be” qualifier dropped, and the word “typified” added—so that a significant minority of black Americans can be converted to a huge majority of them), but we now see that he also thinks it can be accurately paraphrased in such a way as to entail that “black Americans (all of them, without exception) cared nothing about a victory over fascism in Europe, because “black Americans restricted their support to a single V: the victory over racism.” In this way Wineburg converts Zinn’s hedged (“seemed to be”) statement about the beliefs and attitudes of many black Americans both into an insufficiently qualified and inadequately documented statement about most black Americans (that is, about beliefs and attitudes that “typified” African Americans’ stance) and, finally, into a wildly dogmatic claim about all black Americans. Ironically, it is Wineburg who, apparently with a straight face, uses such words and phrases as “slippery” and “plays fast and loose” when discussing Zinn’s work!
Unfortunately, there is more—so much more! Wineburg also asserts, in connection with Zinn’s claim about black indifference to and hostility toward World War II, that “Zinn hangs his claim on three pieces of evidence.” There is nothing subtle, unclear, or ambiguous about this statement. Adding to its admirable clarity, Wineburg lists the three pieces of evidence, and cites the page number where they can be found in Zinn’s text. And yet, Wineburg’s claim is flatly wrong, and wrong in a way (as is true of all of his mistakes) that slights Zinn and (illegitimately) lends support to Wineburg’s own thesis. For on the very page that Wineburg cites, Zinn provides, not three pieces of evidence, but five—with the two omitted pieces being of the same (admittedly anecdotal) type and character as the three included ones.
Here is Wineburg’s list of three:
(1) a quote from a black journalist that “the Negro … is angry, resentful, and utterly apathetic about the war”;
(2) a quote from a student at a black college who told his teacher that “the Army jim-crows us. The Navy lets us serve only as messmen. The Red Cross refuses our blood. Employers and labor unions shut us out. Lynchings continue”; and
(3) a poem called the “Draftee’s Prayer,” published in the black press: “Dear Lord, today / I go to war: / To fight, to die, / Tell me what for? / Dear Lord, I’ll fight, / I do not fear, / Germans or Japs; / My fears are here. / America!”
But, ignored by Wineburg, we find, between items (1) and (2) from his list, the following: “A black army officer, home on furlough, told friends in Harlem he had been in hundreds of bull sessions with Negro soldiers and found no interest in the war.”
Even more significantly, Wineburg omits another piece of evidence that is presented immediately following item (2) from his list. To give the full context, I will quote the full version of item (2), as it is presented in Zinn’s text, with the quotation continuing to include the evidence that Wineburg leaves out (indeed, the evidence that he explicitly denies, falsely, even exists in Zinn’s book):
A student at a Negro college told his teacher: ‘The Army jim-crows us. The Navy lets us serve only as messmen. The Red Cross refuses our blood. Employers and labor unions shut us out. Lynchings continue. We are disenfranchised, jim-crowed, spat upon. What more could Hitler do than that?’ [Then, the piece of evidence that Wineburg misses]: NAACP leader Walter White repeated this to a black audience of several thousand people in the Midwest, thinking they would disapprove, but instead, as he recalled: ‘To my surprise and dismay the audience burst into such applause that it took me some thirty or forty seconds to quiet it’.
Think about what we are witnessing here. While citing a page in Zinn’s writings in which Zinn presents what appear to be five distinct evidentiary items, Wineburg, without offering any explanation for the discrepancy whatsoever, baldly asserts that Zinn provides only three pieces of evidence, and then proceeds to condemn him for this evidentiary deficiency.
As if this were not enough, notice that the two evidentiary items that Wineburg excludes are stronger than the three he acknowledges, because the excluded two report on the attitudes of many (hundreds of bull sessions, audience of several thousand), while the included three each reflect the voices of single individuals (a black journalist, a soldier, a poet). So Wineburg illegitimately makes Zinn’s case weaker not only by excluding forty percent of his evidence, but also by cherry picking that evidence in such a way as to leave standing only his weakest examples.
Note, also, a striking irony in Wineburg’s text. While his central point seems to be that history is messy, complicated, and difficult, and thus must be practiced with extreme caution and modesty (including the liberal use of “perhaps,” “on the other hand,” and other similar qualifiers), Wineburg appears not to notice that his own writings on Zinn utterly fail to exhibit these qualities, but rather might fairly be characterized as “strident, immodest, and unyielding.”
Consider, for example, what he says about Zinn’s alleged “Undue Popularity.” The popularity of A People’s History is indeed remarkable (a thirty-plus year-old book, with an initial print run of just 4,000 copies, it has now sold over 2.6 million copies, and remains a perennial bestseller). As a result, several commentators have advanced hypotheses to explain its success. Wineburg quotes historian Michael Kazin, who suggests that the book’s popularity is due to its offering “a certain consolation” to the American left, which has otherwise not fared well since 1980. But Wineburg knows better:
Kazin often hits the mark, but on this score he’s way off. Zinn remains popular not because he is timely but precisely because he’s not. A People’s History speaks directly to our inner Holden Caulfield. Our heroes are shameless frauds, our parents and teachers conniving liars, our textbooks propagandistic slop. Long before we could Google accounts of a politician’s latest indiscretion, Zinn offered a national ‘gotcha.’ They’re all phonies is a message that never goes out of style.
Note that there is no “perhaps,” “maybe,” “might,” or “on the other hand” to be found here. I would have thought that the question of why a particular book catches on and attracts a wide readership would, in most cases (including this one), be difficult to determine and impossible to prove. Accordingly, I would also have thought that it would be appropriate for any attempt to answer it to be issued with some modesty.
One also wonders what warrant Wineburg could have for positing such a condescending explanation for Zinn’s success. After all, Wineburg speaks of Zinn’s “undeniable charisma,” achieved, in part, by his having “lived an admirable life, never veering from the things he believed in.” Moreover, he concedes that A People’s History “is written by a skilled stylist,” adding that “Zinn’s muscular presence makes for brisk reading compared with the turgid prose” of most textbooks. Finally, he also admits that, at least on a topical level, it is “undoubtedly true” that Zinn’s text provides “a corrective to the narrative of progress dispensed by the state.”
One wonders why these factors might not be sufficient to explain the book’s success, rendering it unnecessary for Wineburg to offer instead a gratuitously insulting comparison of Zinn’s admiring readers to immature teenagers who enjoy the spectacle of seeing their parents and teachers being taken down a peg.
And just as Wineburg’s assertions about the causes of Zinn’s success are shaky (indeed, I think it is fair to say that he “hangs” them on just—let’s see—zero pieces of evidence), his claims about the effects of Zinn’s text on students must be judged equally speculative. He claims that A People’s History relegates students to the role of “absorbers—not analysts—of information,” and that the strategy of pairing Zinn’s book with a conservative, “patriotic” American history text, so that the students might compare, contrast, and draw their own conclusions, would yield the disappointing result that instead of “encouraging” students “to think,” it would only “teach” them “how to jeer.”
And then we have the words with which Wineburg concludes his original essay:
A history of unalloyed certainties is dangerous because it invites a slide into intellectual fascism…. Such a history atrophies our tolerance for complexity. It makes us allergic to exceptions to the rule. Worst of all, it depletes the moral courage we need to revise our beliefs in the face of new evidence. It ensures, ultimately, that tomorrow we will think exactly as we thought yesterday—and the day before, and the day before that.
Is that what we want for our students?
One problem with Wineburg’s speculations about the educational effects of Zinn’s text is that they are based solely on a consideration of the book’s alleged defects, ignoring its more positive features. Wineburg’s insistence that A People’s History will harm students rests on his critique of that book as simplistic, dogmatic, and one-sided (no “on the other hand”). But because his analysis considers only these (alleged) characteristics, and fails to take into account features that might be expected to yield more positive educational outcomes, that analysis shows itself to be simplistic, dogmatic, and one-sided. There is certainly no “on the other hand” here.
What might a more complete analysis reveal? First, by nearly all accounts, including those of Zinn’s critics, A People’s History is clearer, and written in a more agreeable style, than other standard American history texts. Secondly, Zinn’s text, because of his definite point of view and strong authorial presence, exhibits a coherence and consistency of tone that greatly enhances its readability. In this respect it differs markedly from the competitor texts, many of which are written by committee. These texts typically strive to be “objective” and inoffensive, with the result that they largely consist of masses of facts piled promiscuously on top of one another, in such a way as to make no point, tell no story, and hold no one’s interest. Clear, well-written books with a consistent point of view are more likely to be read than are bland, play-it-safe, compendiums of unthreatening facts. Thirdly, Zinn’s book pays substantial, and largely positive, attention to people who are often slighted in traditional texts: women, blacks, other racial and ethnic minorities, laborers, artists, writers, musicians, and political radicals. Students who are members of these groups, or are children of parents who are, may well as a result take a greater interest in A People’s History than they would in a book that excludes, marginalizes, or denigrates them. Fourthly, Zinn’s book offers an understanding of American society that runs counter to the dominant narrative that one encounters relentlessly throughout the culture. Accordingly, it seems likely that it would challenge some readers (principally those who have accepted the dominant narrative) and inspire others (primarily those who have been marginalized by that narrative, or who, for some other reason, have regarded it with suspicion). All of these factors seem likely to result in Zinn’s book being read, analyzed, pondered, discussed, quarreled with, and argued about much more than is the case with traditional texts.
But Wineburg exhibits no doubt that he knows better than the hundreds (if not thousands) of teachers who seem to think that they are achieving good educational outcomes by teaching Zinn’s text. As a measure of his certainty, consider the following chart, which shows, both in his original American Educator essay and the updated Slate version, the number of times he uses “perhaps,” “maybe,” and “on the other hand” (not counting their use in quotations from others) when he is writing about Zinn:
|“perhaps”||“maybe”||“on the other hand”|
|American Educator article||0||0||0|
Oops! I forgot that in arriving at these statistics I also had to exclude Wineburg’s use of these words in sentences in which he claims that Zinn’s failure to use them condemns him as a closed-minded dogmatist.
In sum, Wineburg’s essays do indeed succeed in calling attention to work that is “closed-minded” and guilty of “undue certainty.” But this work is that of Sam Wineburg, not Howard Zinn.
David Detmer is a Professor of Philosophy at Purdue University Northwest. He is the author of Zinnophobia: The Battle over History in Education, Politics, and Scholarship (Zero Books, 2018), Freedom as a Value (Open Court: 1988; winner of the Choice “Outstanding Academic Books” award in philosophy), Challenging Postmodernism: Philosophy and the Politics of Truth (Humanity Books: 2003), Sartre Explained (Open Court: 2008), and Phenomenology Explained (Open Court: 2013), as well as articles and book chapters on such topics as Sartre, vegetarianism, the Beatles, Rorty, the death penalty, Baudrillard, Woody Allen, the U.S. mass media, Habermas, Husserl, U.S. foreign policy, modern art, existentialism, Gadamer, Ricoeur, Heidegger, Nietzsche, phenomenology, and virtue-based epistemology. He is a past President of the North American Sartre Society.
What Sam Wineburg Gets Wrong About Teaching Howard Zinn’s A People’s History by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca.
Bashing Howard Zinn: A Critical Look at One of the Critics by Alison Kysia.
Beacon Press has published an new edition of Howard Zinn’s 1994 autobiography You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History in which Zinn tells his personal stories about 50 years of fighting for social change. This updated version includes a foreword by professor of African American Studies and author Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. We share an excerpt from the foreword.
This was not a scholastic endeavor for Zinn, even though he was a professor of history. But history was not academic exercise; it was a means to make sense of the world we live in and, if necessary, a guide to action. Zinn, a prolific writer and scholar, tore down the wall intended to separate activism—or partisanship—from the professed objectivity of scholarship. Instead Zinn told his students that he did not “pretend to an objectivity that was neither possible nor desirable. ‘You can’t be neutral on a moving train,’ I would tell them. … Events are already moving in certain deadly directions, and to be neutral means to accept that.”
Zinn eschewed neutrality, choosing to write reports, news stories, and multiple books from the perspective of the movements that he was active in. Prolific and without pretension, Zinn chronicled the civil rights and anti–Vietnam War movements for the general public. His writing exposed the broader world to the realities facing ordinary Black people across the South while also challenging the assumptions that the United States, by the sheer volume of its bombing campaign in Vietnam, could impose its will on that tiny country.
Zinn’s magnificent autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, is his own telling of the events and experiences within those movements that shaped his people-centered rendering of his history. It is a thin volume, barely two hundred pages, belying Zinn’s extraordinary life from his days as a bombardier in the Air Force during World War II, to his arrest as a civil rights activist in the South, to his negotiating the return of prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. The power of Howard Zinn the writer has overshadowed his fascinating history as an active participant in these powerful social movements. As Zinn said in an interview, “[I] had begun to wander out of the classroom to go see some history.”
This is a book written with a purpose that goes beyond touting the lifetime achievements of a well-known and influential person. What makes this an essential read is that Zinn is writing in response to the timeless questions that burn within anyone who cares about creating a more just society and world. Is change possible? Where will it come from? Can we actually make a difference? How do you remain hopeful? Zinn returns to these questions graciously and with humility by exploring his own journey toward radicalism. There are times when leftists disparage liberals for their continued faith in the system, becoming exasperated when they have not yet come to radical conclusions. Zinn makes the simple yet critical point that people make their own way to political consciousness: “You read a book, you meet a person, you have a single experience, and your life is changed in some way. No act, therefore, however small, should be dismissed or ignored.” For Zinn, this fluidity of political consciousness—people who may be completely passive in one moment but can be moved to act in a different moment—was the key to the emergence of a mass movement. To write off the possibility of change was to essentially write off the possibility of building the kind of movement necessary to change what was wrong in the world.
Abraham A. Callahan has shared his paper “Two Rebel Historians: Thucydides, Howard Zinn and Telling Truth for Social Good ” with HowardZinn.org. Written as an honors thesis in the Department of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin, Callahan compares the history writing of Thucydides and Howard Zinn. Callahan argues,
In order for historians to positively influence their readers, they must remove ideologies that distort a clear vision of human history. Thucydides and Howard Zinn sought to do this after being disillusioned by how their respective societies abused history. Thucydides thought that Herodotus’ supernaturalism kept readers from understanding their roles in society. Zinn, similarly, argued that the exceptionalism of American history textbooks prevented readers from participating in society. Both demythologized their writings of history by eliminating those ideologies that prevented the positive influence they thought society desperately needed.
Thucydides and Zinn expected criticism for their histories because they thought that the unpleasant truths of human history would prove of most use to their readers. The following are the main questions of this study: Who are these men? How did they come to produce histories that were antithetical to the mainstream histories of their respective societies? And, lastly, how do their histories try to positively influence the lives of their readers?
Before continuing, it is crucial to examine the purpose and function of history in human society by asking some fundamental questions: What is history? Why do people use or even need it? What events make history? Who should write it? What are the criteria that determine a particular history’s trustworthiness?
The fifth annual Howard Zinn Book Fair will take place on Sunday, Dec. 2, at the San Francisco City College Mission Campus from 10am-6pm. This year’s theme is “Fighting for the Air We Breathe.” Theme description:
The effects of human-caused environmental devastation have become impossible to ignore. The land we live on, the water we drink, and the air we breathe are under threat by relentless fossil fuel extraction and the toxic byproducts of profit driven mass production. The suffocation of our natural world is paralleled in society at large. Persistent poverty, racism and sexism are exacerbated by countless mass shootings, police violence, escalating wars, and the violence of an emboldened far right. While conventional politics often expect market forces or new technologies to solve the world’s problems, we know the real solutions will come from the collective action of everyday people, through the very struggles chronicled by historian Howard Zinn under the banner of “a People’s History.”
Get updates and learn more at howardzinnbookfair.com.
The University of Georgia Press has published Howard Zinn’s Southern Diary: Sit-Ins, Civil Rights, and Black Women’s Student Activism by Robert Cohen with a foreword by Alice Walker. The book includes diary entries from Howard Zinn’s time teaching at Spelman College (1956-1963). Historian Robert Cohen offers a substantial overview of Zinn’s role at Spelman and other archival documents.
Below are excerpts from Cohen’s overview and the diary entries. Visit the Zinn Education Project to read a transcript excerpt from Zinn’s debate with E. Fulton Lewis III, House of Un-American Activities Committee research director.
This excerpt (pages 3-6) is from Robert Cohen’s overview, “Mentor to the Movement,” in Howard Zinn’s Southern Diary.
. . . [Howard] Zinn’s involvement with the Atlanta student movement and his closeness to Spelman’s leading student and faculty activists gave him an insider’s view of that movement and of the political and intellectual world of Spelman, Atlanta University Center, and SNCC. Thus it was no surprise that Zinn would write the first nationally circulated accounts of the Spelman movement in the Nation and then in his book The Southern Mystique (1964); the most detailed contemporary report on the black freedom struggle and its segregationist foes in Albany, Georgia (for the Southern Regional council), Albany: A Study in National Responsibility (1962); and the first book-length history of SNCC, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (1964). Zinn would always view his years at Spelman (1956-63), which connected him to the civil rights movement and a remarkable generation of Spelman students, as among the most significant in his life, which is why he devoted the first three chapters in his memoirs to that time.
It is only now, however, well after Zinn’s death in 2010, and the opening of his papers at New York University’s Tamiment Library, that we can see that some of his most memorable writing on his Spelman days are from a daily journal he kept in his last semester there, during the winter-spring of 1963, which he never published. Not even his close friends, students, and colleagues at Spelman in that era were aware at the time that Zinn was keeping a diary. It was only with the publication of Zinn’s memoir in 1994 that the existence of the journal was even mentioned publicly–when he quoted from it as he narrated the story of his escalating conflict with the Spelman administration that led to his firing in June 1963. Similarly, historian Martin Duberman, drew on the diary to go over this same story in his biography, Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left (2012). Most recently, historian Staughton Lynd, a close friend and colleague of Zinn in his last three years at Spelman, used excerpts from the diary in an insightful essay on Zinn in his book Doing History from the Bottom Up (2014), in which he shows that Zinn thought strategically and deeply about the ways that legal change and interracial contact could overcome old patterns of racial discrimination.
Mere excerpts from the diary cannot, however, do justice to its historical significance. Read from start to finish, the diary, which has more than fifty entries on the student and faculty conflicts with the Spelman administration, is one of the most extensive records of the political climate in in a historically black college in 1960s America – a time when students at those colleges were on the cutting edge of that decade’s new student activism. Insightful as Zinn’s memoir and Duberman’s biography of Zinn are on his battles at Spelman, the unabridged diary offers a more in-depth view than either of the book chapters – recording in real time the free speech, academic freedom, and student rights battles that rocked Spelman in 1963 and led to Zinn’s firing and the abrupt ending of his Spelman years. The diary, in other words, merits publication because it illuminates far more than Zinn’s own story. It captures a pivotal time in the history of student protest in the 1960s, foregrounding the activism of African American young women and capturing the way race was lived in Atlanta–the relationships between that city’s black and white academics and activists and their generational and ideological tensions when the most idealistic among them were engaged in historic desegregation struggles. Zinn in Atlanta during the early 1960s was, as his wife Roslyn wrote their friends Ernie and Marilyn Young, “in the right place and at the right time.” Zinn had been at Spelman since 1956. But beyond this, he was a gifted writer and searing social critic who would go on later in the 1960s to write widely circulated books opposing the Vietnam War and defending civil disobedience, and in the 1980s he published the best-selling radical history of his time, A People’s History of the United States. So by 1963 even his immediate responses in his diary to the events he observed and was a part of in Atlanta, both on and off campus, were written with great clarity, and carried with them the insights of a veteran movement activist who had longstanding friendship in black Atlanta and had lived and taught in that community for years. For Zinn, living and teaching on a historically black college campus had opened a window onto black America to which few whites had access. Even when the Zinn diary’s accounts of events are incomplete or less than entirely persuasive, they often raise important questions about social and political life at a historically black women’s college and how this conversation institution navigated a time when its students became central actors in a revolution in southern race relations.
Zinn’s journal offers a vivid view of Spelman student activism during one of its most significant yet least well-known phases. Most of the historical writing on and commemorations of the Atlanta student movement and Spelman student protest have been devoted to the sit-in movement, especially in 1960, the historic first year when demonstrations in downtown Atlanta brought about the initial cracks in the Jim Crow line in Atlanta stores and eateries. By the time Zinn was recording his diary during the winter-spring semester of 1963, Spelman students and other activists from the Atlanta University Center, joined by a core of white progressives from Emory University, were engaged in a series of sit-ins and demonstrations to follow up on those of prior years, since the majority of restaurants and hotels in Atlanta—despite the desegregation agreement brokered by the city’s Chamber of Commerce president on 1961—were still racially segregated. While for Spelman students this ongoing struggle for racial justice remained central, they became increasingly engaged with a second kind of freedom struggle—one that occurred not downtown but on their own campus and that was about personal freedom, gender liberation, and free speech. They were seeking to end the paternalistic policing of their social lives by an overbearing administration, which treated them as though they were immature girls who needed constant chaperoning and rigid curfews and sought to suppress their free speech rights whenever they dared to protest these and other restrictions.
Here, as Zinn’s diary shows so clearly, you had Spelman students who had played very adult roles, committing civil disobedience downtown, getting arrested, and even risking their lives in sit-ins against Jim Crow, but on their own campus these young women were still regimented like children. This contradiction seemed increasingly glaring and intolerable to the college’s student activists. As Spelman civil rights activist Brenda Cole recalled, after the second wave of sit-ins during the fall of 1960-61 secured the rights of African Americans to be served on a nondiscriminatory basis at some of Atlanta’s largest commercial establishments, such as Rich’s department store, she and her classmates “started looking around saying ‘what has it profited us to go to Rich’s when [because of Spelman’s restriction on students traveling downtown] we’ve got to get five or six girls to go with us? We can’t even leave campus after a certain time or . . . .ride in cars . . . Then we started looking at the . . . rules on campus . . a lot closer and said . . . ‘we’re still not free.’” Activists at Spelman became convinced, as student movement veteran Lana Taylor (Sims) explained, that their college was “just too paternalistic. That you have women who. . . couldn’t go around the corner by themselves . .. The institution was just working against the thing that they were supposed to be fostering—growing up and maturity.’” And so the struggle against racial discrimination downtown, and its liberatory ethos, fostered a critique and revolt against gendered restrictions of their campus lives at Spelman.
Excerpted from pages 155-156 of Howard Zinn’s Southern Diary.
Thurs. May 9
David McReynolds of FOR [Fellowship of Reconciliation] visiting Staughton [Lynd] so he visited our class. Spoke to my Russian class on lawn, on disarmament. Realized at one point how many members of this 12 person class involved. Guy and Candy Carawan just back from Birmingham jail. Anna Jo Weaver just out of Fulton Cy. Jail. Betty S. a veteran of 14 days in jail. One fourth of [the] class.
Fri. May 10
An unprecedented meeting, from about noon to about 4 PM, took place today out on the Emory [University] quadrangle. A few Liberal Club students called it, to discuss informally, with no specific program of action, the events in Birmingham and elsewhere in connection with integration. About ten of our students went, including Anna Jo Weaver, Davis Satcher, Dot Myer, Robt Allen. Ralph Moore spoke at length. They had expected some trouble but there was none. Antagonistic questions, but nothing approaching violence. At one time 150-200 students were sitting on the grass listening. All in all, far more successful than anyone had anticipated. And Emory Univ. officials made no move to break it up. After it was over a faculty couple invited the Negroes home, followed by a score of white students. They brought in a keg of beer and had a ball.
Jeff gave an oral report in his class on Thoreau’s Walden. His teacher gave him an A plus, asked him to repeat it at her 11th grade class. The 11th graders gave him grades and comments on it—almost all A’s and praising it. One girl gave him an F, saying, “No eighth-grader could read Walden and understand it. I don’t believe you read that book.”
Myla’s English teacher told the class to write on “something I care deeply about.” Most wrote on integration—something that wouldn’t have happened two years ago (maybe not even two weeks ago—maybe the headlines have had this effect). Most against. But four or five for, and very bold. One girl said: “If I had Martin Luther King here I’d shoot him, and a few paragraphs on spoke of Negroes committing murder and said, ‘Don’t they know the Bible says Thou Shalt Not kill.‘” The class snickered at her obvious inconsistency, and the teacher called attention to it too.
Jeff’s math teacher mentioned I’d been quoted in Newsweek, got into [a] discussion with Jeff on integration. Turned out she’s from Albany, Georgia.
Purdue University faculty has created a Howard Zinn Memorial Research Award Fund in American Studies. This award is open to all Purdue University students majoring in American Studies, and offers at least $1,000 annually to “support interdisciplinary American Studies research focusing on the ways in which forms of social, cultural, intellectual, and technoscientific expression circulate among, between, and beyond the geographical borders of the United States. The resulting research will highlight the interconnected roles that gender, race, sexuality, class, science, technology, medicine, music, art, and design play in the continual redefinition of the United States.”
In 2013, the Associated Press published an article disclosing that Purdue University President Mitch Daniels tried to ban Howard Zinn’s books in public schools while he was governor of Indiana. Fundraising for this award began in 2014, with endowment funding secured in 2017, as an effort to counter this censorship and to increase the type of scholarship Howard Zinn promoted: “on the men and women typically left out of the master narrative — dissenters, African Americans, Native Americans, women, working people, and other underrepresented groups or a derivative area of research.”
The next award will be given in 2019. For updates and more information, visit Zinn Memorial Research Award.
Howard Zinn was the faculty adviser for the Boston University (BU) student newspaper, bu exposure.
In 1977-78, the administration of John Silber demanded that Zinn agree to review the contents of the paper before it was published and act as a censor. Zinn refused. The newspaper was then banned from campus. Given that BU’s campus is in the middle of a city, it was impossible for the BU administration to stop distribution of the paper. However, all student governments were prohibited from providing funds, the journalism department banned internships, student organizations could not reserve rooms for the paper, the paper was prohibited from registering as a student organization, and no fundraising events could be held on campus.
This screen print (right) features a story from the bu exposure about censorship on campus. After that issue came out, the student government voted to fund the newspaper, in violation of the banning order. The administration vetoed that allocation, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts filed a First Amendment lawsuit charging censorship.
Zinn stood behind the paper, supported the lawsuit, and helped students who worked on the paper in defiance of the administration’s dictates. The lawsuit was eventually settled. The paper continued to publish for a number years, but ultimately could not survive the banning order.
Our thanks to Stephen M. Kohn, one of the founders of the paper, and David Colapinto, a key staff member, for providing the photos and captions. The screen print is by Leslie Rose with Dennis O’Neil of the Handprint Workshop, Alexandria, Virginia. Kohn and Colapinto work at the National Whistleblower Center, where Howard Zinn served on the board.
The Summer 2017 issue of Bostonia, the Boston University alumni magazine, features a profile of Zinn Education Project co-founder William Holtzman and the recent book drive undertaken in response to a proposed Zinn book ban in Arkansas.
Hundreds of Arkansas teachers now own new copies of books by historian and longtime BU professor Howard Zinn—thanks in part to BU alums who took action against an effort to ban Zinn’s writings from their classrooms.
This spring, Republican state representative Kim Hendren filed a bill in the Arkansas House to prohibit the state’s public schools from including materials by or about Zinn in their curricula. Hendren told media outlets that he was not personally opposed to Zinn’s writings but that some of his constituents had raised concerns about Zinn’s approach to American history.
Zinn, who died in 2010, taught in the College of Arts & Sciences political science department from 1964 to 1988. His best-known and sometimes controversial book, A People’s History of the United States, tells the American story from the perspective of women, African Americans, Native Americans, immigrant laborers, and others who are often underrepresented in traditional textbooks.
The Arkansas bill died in committee, but not before it drew the attention of the Zinn Education Project (ZEP), a nonprofit that offers teaching materials to help middle and high school teachers present Zinn’s brand of history in their classrooms. After hearing of the Arkansas legislation, ZEP offered to send a book by Zinn and a teaching guide, A People’s History for the Classroom, to any Arkansas teacher who requested them.
On March 1, 2017, Arkansas Representative Kim Hendren (R) introduced Bill HB1834 to prohibit any publicly supported schools in Arkansas “from including in its curriculum or course materials any books or other material authored by or concerning Howard Zinn.”
This is not the first attempt to ban books by Howard Zinn in public schools. In 2010, Governor Mitch Daniels tried a similar move in Indiana. In 2011, A People’s History of the United States was removed from schools in Tucson, Arizona, as part of the ban on Mexican American Studies.
The Zinn Education Project (ZEP), a collaboration between Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change, responded by offering a free book by Howard Zinn and A People’s History for the Classroom to any Arkansas middle or high school teacher who requested one. There was an enthusiastic response with close to 800 requests in just five days. The teachers and school librarians wrote inspiring notes such as this one from a Little Rock middle school social studies teacher:
We must stand against censorship in Arkansas’ classrooms. Our students are bright and appreciate being challenged. They want to be exposed to all points of view, not shielded from those others find abhorrent.
The proposed book ban caught national attention with coverage on WBUR, Melville House, Democracy Now!, Bill Moyers & Company, Huffington Post, Common Dreams, Boston Magazine, and many more. More than 400 people have donated to help send books to Arkansas, and some included comments about why they contributed. Publishers Haymarket Books, Seven Stories Press, The New Press, Beacon Press, and HarperCollins donated books to ensure all requests were met.
The bill was sent to the Education Committee where it eventually died. Read “Arkansas’ Howard Zinn Witch-hunt Fizzles.”
In a Washington Post article on February 9, 2017, Fareed Zakaria compared Steve Bannon and Howard Zinn, concluding that,
In a strange way, Bannon’s dark, dystopian view of U.S. history is closest to that of Howard Zinn, a popular far-left scholar whose “A People’s History of the United States” is a tale of the many ways in which 99 percent of Americans were crushed by the country’s all-powerful elites. In the Zinn/Bannon worldview, everyday people are simply pawns manipulated by their evil overlords.
In response, two letters to the editor of the Washington Post were sent. The authors have given us permission to publish them here. Read More
The third annual Howard Zinn Book Fair was held in San Francisco on December 4, 2016. Historian Carl Mirra shared with us a description of one of the sessions at the book fair. Mirra describes the panel “Making of a Radical Historian: Howard Zinn & War” where he was one of the presenters along with Ambre Ivol and Luke Stewart. Read More
Nov. 22 marks the birthday of Staughton Lynd, longtime friend of Howard Zinn. They both taught at Spelman College and can be described as long-distance runners for justice.
“I have admired [Lynd] enormously ever since I first met him,” Zinn wrote shortly before his death, because he is an “exemplar of strength and gentleness in the quest for a better world.” Read more about Lynd in this tribute by Andy Piascik.
by Andy Piascik
Suddenly Staughton Lynd is all the rage. Again. In the last several years, Lynd has published two new books, a third that’s a reprint of an earlier work, plus a memoir co-authored with his wife Alice. In addition, a portrait of his life as an activist through 1970 by Carl Mirra of Adelphi University has been published, with another book about his work after 1970 by Mark Weber of Kent State University due soon.
In an epoch of imperial hubris and corporate class warfare on steroids, the release of these books could hardly have come at a better time. Soldier, coal miner, Sixties veteran, recent graduate—there’s much to be gained by one and all from a study of Lynd’s life and work. In so doing, it’s inspiring to discover how frequently he was in the right place at the right time and, more importantly, on the right side.
Forty-nine years ago, during the tumultuous summer of 1964, Lynd was invited to coordinate the Freedom Schools established in Mississippi by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The schools were an integral part of the Herculean effort to end apartheid in the United States and became models for alternative schools everywhere.
The Zinn Education Project collects stories from former students at Spelman College and Boston University about his role as a teacher. Here is one example, a story by Suzanne Baker, Class of 1985 and 1995. If you are a former student of Zinn, please contribute your story here.
By Howard Zinn
This essay, written for Z Magazine in 1990, and reprinted in my book Failure to Quit, was inspired (if you are willing to call this an inspired piece) by my students of the Eighties. I was teaching a spring and fall lecture course with four hundred students in each course (and yet with lots of discussion). I looked hard, listened closely, but did not find the apathy, the conservatism, the disregard for the plight of others, that everybody (right and left) was reporting about “the me generation.”
I can understand pessimism, but I don’t believe in it. It’s not simply a matter of faith, but of historical evidence. Not overwhelming evidence, just enough to give hope, because for hope we don’t need certainty, only possibility. Read More
The Zinn Education Project collects stories from Howard Zinn’s former students at Spelman College and Boston University about his role as a teacher. Here is one example, a story by David Detmer, class of 1980. If you are a former student of Zinn, please contribute your story here.
We revisit Howard Zinn’s essay, “If History Is to Be Creative,” published in A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, a collection of essays from The Progressive magazine. The following excerpt is a reflection on the role and responsibility of the engaged historian, and is an inspiration for us all to continue the fight for justice. Zinn writes, “If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, and occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.”
By Howard Zinn
America’s future is linked to how we understand our past. For this reason, writing about history, for me, is never a neutral act. By writing, I hope to awaken a great consciousness of racial injustice, sexual bias, class inequality, and national hubris. I also want to bring into the light the unreported resistance of people against the power of the Establishment: the refusal of the indigenous to simply disappear; the rebellion of Black people in the antislavery movement and in the more recent movement against racial segregation; the strikes carried out by working people all through American history in attempts to improve their lives. Read More
Actor and activist Jesse Williams, best known for his role on Grey’s Anatomy, won the BET Humanitarian Award on June 26, 2016. Williams, who read in the 2014 Voices Performance in Los Angeles, and serves on the board of the Advancement Project, is the son of public school teachers and a former U.S. history teacher (in Philadelphia) himself. He acknowledged the role of teachers and students learning history (outside the textbook) in his acceptance speech. Here is an excerpt,
I want to thank my parents for teaching me to focus on comprehension over career, they made sure I learned what the schools are afraid to teach us. Read More
The filmed stage performance of Howard Zinn’s play Emma is now available for rent or purchase.
Emma dramatizes the life of Emma Goldman, the famed anarchist, feminist, and free-spirited thinker who was exiled from the United States because of her outspoken views, including her opposition to World War I. Read More
Emma Goldman (June 27, 1869–May 14, 1940), was an anarchist and early advocate of free speech, birth control, women’s equality, and unions. After reading Richard Drinnon’s biography of Emma Goldman, Rebel in Paradise, Howard Zinn read Goldman’s autobiography, Living My Life.
As a historian with a PhD, Zinn was astonished he had never learned about Goldman in his studies. “Here was this magnificent woman, this anarchist, this feminist, fierce, life-loving person.” Read More