Monday, January 7, 2013

Misunderstanding Howard Zinn's "A People's History?"

Robert Cohen, who teaches Social Studies at New York University, has responded to Sam Wineburg recent article slamming Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.  (We did a post on Wineburg's piece here).

Writing at History News Network, Cohen argues that Wineburg does not understand how most teachers use Zinn's left-wing analysis of American history.  Most teachers use Zinn not as a primary textbook, but as a "comparative" text.  Here is a taste of his piece:

Had Wineburg spoken to high school history teachers, he would have learned that Zinn is most often used in a comparative context, so it is a mistake to analyze A People’s History as a solo textbook, as he did. Indeed, contrary to Wineburg’s misleading claim that Zinn “has gone mainstream,” it is the state- or school-adopted textbooks that constitute the mainstream in most public schools, while Zinn is considered far too radical to be adopted officially as a textbook. Actually, Zinn most frequently ends up in high school classroom in the form of xeroxes of A People’s History’s most provocative chapters, which innovative teachers, (fed up with bland, boring textbooks assigned by their schools) provide to spark historical and historiographical debate. 

Cohen calls our attention to teachers who wrote letters to Zinn explaining how they were using the book. These letters can be found in the Zinn papers at NYU's Tamiment Library.

If Cohen is correct, then it seems that many high school teachers are using Zinn in the same way Lendol Calder uses Zinn in his U.S. survey course--to teach historiography and historical thinking.