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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 12/14/2009

How should history be taught?

By Valerie Strauss

Most historians writing about the historic events of the last year in the United States would likely concentrate on the election of the first black president, Barack Obama, and the conditions that led to his victory. Not Howard Zinn.

The longtime historian and social activist said he would instead focus on “people who are still struggling,” those who eat only with food stamps and those forced out of their homes because they couldn’t pay their mortgages.

He would, he said, talk to GIs fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those who have already returned home, rather than on generals and politicians. “You get a very different view of war from talking to the ordinary GI than when you talk to the generals,” he said.

Zinn’s approach to history--getting the view of ordinary citizens--was on display last night in a film documentary that premiered on The History Channel and that will be released on a DVD.

Called “The People Speak,” it is based on Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” and “Voices of a People’s History of the United States,” which Zinn co-authored with co-executive producer Anthony Arnove. A live version has been touring college campuses for some time.

The People Speak” features dramatic performances that chronicle the history of the Unite States through stories taken from documents, letters, diaries and other sources that show how ordinary citizens helped turn history.

Actors including Matt Damon (one of the co-producers), Marisa Tomei, Josh Brolin and Don Cheadle perform against music by Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder and others.

The goal, Zinn said, is to inspire young people to become “more interested in history and to become more active citizens.”

The way history is taught in most classrooms, he said, would not compel anyone to understand how the actions of ordinary people actually matter in a democracy.

“There are two problems,” he said. “....One is that it is too often boring. And second it is too often told from the point of view from the top, of presidents, Congresses, Supreme Courts, generals and industrialists.”

He said, for example, that he remembers learning about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad when he was young.

“It was an exciting story, but you’re not told that thousands of Irish workers and Chinese works put that railroad together, died in large numbers in the heat and the sickness of the time. You’re not told about the working people who made this country the economic miracle that it is.... And women have been too often left out of our history.”

Zinn’s work inspires great passion--in people who believe he is an unrivaled truth teller, and in people who think that he is unfairly critical of the U.S. government and that he romanticizes the oppressed.

I asked him about his favorite stories in “The People Speak.” The first that he mentioned:

A young black woman is reminiscing about growing up in the segregated South. She talks about how she looks longingly at a playground that is only for whites. When she gets to school she refuses to sing “The Star Spangled Banner.”

“When she is asked why,” Zinn said, “she says, ‘It talks about the land of the free and this isn’t the land of free and the home of the brave when I can’t swing on the swing in this white-only park.’ ....That’s a very daring thing to do, to be so independent. It’s that independence of spirit that we are trying to portray.”

I’m curious how many of you have read Zinn’s books in history class, how many teachers use it as an alternative text, and how you think history should be taught in public schools. Let me hear from you here in the comments or at theanswersheet@washpost.com

By Valerie Strauss  | December 14, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  History  | Tags:  teaching history  
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Comments

To be honest, I'm tired of Zinn's posturing as a lonely voice in the wilderness. For decades, thousands of history teachers across the U.S. have spent considerable time exploring the lives of ordinary Americans in both high school and college classes. Some of them have been inspired by Zinn. Many were committed to do it long before his People's History was published and would have done it regardless of Zinn.

My guess is that if talk to 10 college history teachers in the DC area, you'll find several who said they reworked how much time they spent on 19th century depressions and the 1930s to address the questions students would (or should!) raise from our current recession. And most of them would not be using any of Zinn's stuff. They're just good history teachers.

Posted by: ShermanDorn | December 14, 2009 8:06 AM | Report abuse

I have used Zinn's book in my US History classes for years. I especially like his chapter on women in colonial America called "The Intimately Oppressed." My students, and especially the girls in my classes, are always fascinated by this topic. That said, we should not rely soley on Zinn's point of view to teach history. It is better to expose students to as many viewpoints as possible and then let them decide which is valid. We are here to educate, not indoctrinate! Zinn's emphasis on race, gender, and class is neither exceptional nor unique in itself. Other historians have been writing this kind of history for years. Zinn wasn't the first, and he won't be the last to do history from the ground up. My biggest complaint about Zinn is that he has not really done anything new since the publication of People's History in 1980 except to continually revise and promote this book. This is not history - it is marketing.

Posted by: ronmaggiano | December 14, 2009 9:52 AM | Report abuse

I would like to see "The People Speak" in its entirety as well as read Zinn's book. I haven't had that experience. History can be lost on anyone, even a history student like myself, if not presented well. As for Mr. Maggiano's observation about continual revisions, he's very much on point. I recall my senior year in college, I was using Thomas Bailey's diplomatic history text that was on its tenth revision and that was over 20 years ago. In a word: Boring. There's nothing improved in the presentation, just adding in material that occurred since the most recent presidency. We can't present history in a "politically correct" manner, but we do need to put events in perspective.

Posted by: kodonivan | December 14, 2009 5:06 PM | Report abuse

I won't say Zinn's is the only approach, but its definitely a great way to teach history.

Posted by: johnt4853 | December 14, 2009 8:42 PM | Report abuse

"History from the ground up" was the fashion almost 40 years ago when I was in grad school. Zinn's approach is nothing new. The problem is not that it is not being used in the public schools but that history in general is not considered important in the public schools. I recently subbed for a history teacher. The material seemed fairly standard, but he was also the track coach, and it was obvious from the papers and plaques on the walls of the room that he considered track his real job. In my own state of Ohio, there is no requirement that a high-school history teacher has to have even taken a college history course!

Secondly, textbooks are designed to be visually appealing; if the chapter title takes up too much space to include certain facts, the facts get cut.

All too few history teachers share Arthur Schlesinger's approach to history. I read many years ago that Schlesinger (Sr., I think) began a speech to a group of high school history teachers by asking, "Why do we study history?" As the teachers squirmed in the same boredom their students do when asked that, he continued, "Because it's the most fascinating story you'll ever read!"

Posted by: opinionatedreader | December 15, 2009 9:53 PM | Report abuse

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