History Distorted: Sam Wineburg’s Critique of Howard Zinn

By David Detmer

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.

Wineburg’s comment:

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’.

And this:

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.

Wineburg’s paraphrase:

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
Slate 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.

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