Why Students Should Study History

An Interview with Howard Zinn

The following is condensed from an interview with Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States. He was interviewed by Barbara Miner of Rethinking Schools.

Why should students study history?

I started studying history with one view in mind: to look for answers to the issues and problems I saw in the world about me. By the time I went to college I had worked in a shipyard, had been in the Air Force, had been in a war. I came to history asking questions about war and peace, about wealth and poverty, about racial division.

Sure, there’s a certain interest in inspecting the past and it can be fun, sort of like a detective story. I can make an argument for knowledge for its own sake as something that can add to your life. But while that’s good, it is small in relation to the very large objective of trying to understand and do something about the issues that face us in the world today.

Students should be encouraged to go into history in order to come out of it, and should be discouraged from going into history and getting lost in it, as some historians do.

What do you see as some of the major problems in how U.S. history has been taught in this country?

One major problem has been the intense focus on US history in isolation from the world. This is a problem that all nations have, their nationalistic focus on their own history, and it goes to absurd lengths. Some states in this country even require a year-long course in the history of that state.

But even if you are willing to see the United States in relation to world history, you face the problem that we have not looked at the world in an equitable way. We have concentrated on the Western world, in fact on Western Europe. I remember coming into my first class in Spelman College in Atlanta in 1956 and finding that there was no required course in black history, or Asian or African history, but there was a required course in the history of England. And there on the board was this chart of the Tudors and the Stuarts, the dynasties of England.

For the United States, emphasis has been particularly glaring in terms of Latin America, which is that part of the world closest to us and with which we’ve had the most to do economically and politically.

Another glaring problem has been the emphasis in teaching American history through the eyes of the important and powerful people, through the Presidents, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the generals, the industrialists. History textbooks don’t say, “We are going to tell the story of the Mexican War from the standpoint of the generals,” but when they tell us it was a great military victory, that’s exactly what they are doing.

Taking that as an example, if one were to have a more inclusive view of the war with Mexico, what would be some of the themes and perspectives one would include?

The Mexican War is an example of how one event raises so many issues. You’d have to see the war first of all as more than a military action. So often the history of war is dominated by the story of battles, and this is a way of diverting attention from the political factors behind a war. It’s possible to concentrate upon the battles of the Mexican War and just to talk about the triumphant march into Mexico City, and not talk about the relationship of the Mexican War to slavery and to the acquisition of territories which might possibly be slave territories.

Another thing that is neglected in the Mexican War is the viewpoint of the ordinary soldiers. The soldiers who had volunteered for the Mexican War — you didn’t need a draft because so many people in the working classes were so destitute that they would join the military on the promise of a little bit of pay and mustering out money and a little bit of prestige — the volunteers went into it not really knowing the bloodshed it would involve. And then so many of them deserted. For example, seven regiments of General Winfield Scott deserted on the road to Mexico City.

You should tell the story of the Massachusetts volunteers who went into the Mexican War. Half of them died, and the half who returned were invited to a home-coming party and when a commanding officer got up to address the gathering, they booed him off the platform.

I think it’s a good idea also to do something which isn’t done anywhere so far as I know in histories in any country, and that is: tell the story of the war from the standpoint of the other side, of “the enemy.” To tell the story of the Mexican War from the standpoint of the Mexicans means to ask: How did they feel about having 40% of their territory taken away from them as a result of the war? How did they view the incident that President Polk used as a reason for the beginning of the war? Did it look real or manufactured to them?

You’d also have to talk about the people in the United States who protested against the war. That would be the time to bring up Henry Thoreau and his essay, Civil Disobedience.

You’d have to look at Congress and how it behaved. You’d have to look at Abraham Lincoln, who was in the House of Representatives in the Mexican War. You’d learn a lot about politicians and politics because you’d see that Abraham Lincoln on the one hand spoke up against the war, but on the other hand voted to give money to finance the war. This is so important because this is something that is repeated again and again in American history: the feeble opposition in Congress to presidential wars, and then the voting of funds for whatever war the President has initiated.

How do you prevent history lessons from becoming a recitation of dates and battles and Congresspersons and Presidents?

You can take any incident in American history and enrich it and find parallels with today. One important thing is not to concentrate on chronological order, but to go back and forth and find similarities and analogies.

You should ask students if anything in a particular historical event reminds them of something they read in the newspapers or see on television about the world today.

When you press students to make connections, to abstract from the uniqueness of a particular historical event and find something it has in common with another event — then history becomes alive, not just past but present.

And, of course, you must raise the controversial questions and ask students, “Was it right for us to take Mexican territory? Should we be proud of that, should we celebrate that?” History teachers often think they must avoid judgements of right and wrong because, after all, those are matters of subjective opinions, those are issues on which students will disagree and teachers will disagree.

But it’s the areas of disagreement that are the most important. Questions of right and wrong and justice are exactly the questions that should be raised all the time. When students are asked, “Is this right, is this wrong?” then it becomes interesting, then they can have a debate — especially if they learn that there’s no simple, absolute, agreed-upon, universal answer. It’s not like giving them multiple choice questions where they are right or wrong. I think that’s a tremendous advance in their understanding of what education is.

Teachers must also address the problem that people have been mis-educated to become dependent on government, to think that their supreme act as citizens is to go to the polls and vote every two years or four years. That’s where the history of social movements comes in. Teachers should dwell on Shay’s Rebellion, on colonial rebellions, on the abolitionist movement, on the populist movement, on the labor movement, and so on, and make sure these social movements don’t get lost in the overall story of presidents and Congresses and Supreme Courts. Emphasizing social and protest movements in the making of history gives students a feeling that they as citizens are the most important actors in history.

Students, for example, should learn that during the Depression there were strikes and demonstrations all over the country. And it was that turmoil and protest that created the atmosphere in which Roosevelt and Congress passed Social Security and unemployment insurance and housing subsidies and so on.

How can teachers foster critical thinking so that students don’t merely memorize a new, albeit more progressive, set of facts?

Substituting one indoctrination for another is a danger and it’s very hard to deal with. After all, the teacher, no matter how hard she or he tries, is the dominant figure in the classroom and has the power of authority and of grades. It’s easy for the teacher to fall into the trap of bullying students into accepting one set of facts or

ideas. It takes hard work and delicate dealings with students to overcome that.

The way I’ve tried to deal with that problem is to make it clear to the students that when we study history we are dealing with controversial issues with no one, absolute, god-like answer. And that I, as a teacher, have my opinion and they can have their opinions, and that I, as a teacher, will try to present as much information as I can but that I may leave out information. I try to make them understand that while there are experts on facts, on little things, on the big issues, on the controversies and the issues of right and wrong and justice, there are no experts and their opinion is as good as mine.

But how do you then foster a sense of justice and avoid the trap of relativity that, “Well, some people say this and some people say that?”?

I find such relativity especially true on the college level, where there’s a great tendency to indecisiveness. People are unwilling to take a stand on a moral issue because, well, there’s this side and there’s that side.

I deal with this by example. I never simply present both sides and leave it at that. I take a stand. If I’m dealing with Columbus, I say, look, there are these people who say that we shouldn’t judge Columbus by the standards of the 20th century. But my view is that basic moral standards are not different for the 20th century or the 15th century.

I don’t simply lay history out on a platter and say, “I don’t care what you chose, they’re both valid.” I let them know, “No, I care what you chose; I don’t think they’re both valid. But you don’t have to agree with me.” I want them to know that if people don’t take a stand the world will remain unchanged, and who wants that?

Are there specific ways that teachers can foster an anti-racist perspective?

To a great extent, this moral objective is not considered in teaching history. I think people have to be given the facts of slavery, the facts of racial segregation, the facts of government complicity in racial segregation, the facts of the fight for equality. But that is not enough.

I think students need to be aroused emotionally on the issue of equality. They have to try to feel what it was like, to be a slave, to be jammed into slave ships, to be separated from your family. Novels, poems, autobiographies, memoirs, the reminiscences of ex-slaves, the letters that slaves wrote, the writings of Frederick Douglass — I think they have to be introduced as much as possible. Students should learn the words of people themselves, to feel their anger, their indignation.

In general, I don’t think there has been enough use of literature in history. People should read Richard Wright’s Black Boy; they should read the poems of Countee Cullen; they should read the novels of Alice Walker, the poems of Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansbury’s A Raisin in the Sun . These writings have an emotional impact that can’t be found in an ordinary recitation of history.

It is especially important that students learn about the relationship of the United States government to slavery and race.

It’s very easy to fall into the view that slavery and racial segregation were a southern problem. The federal government is very often exempted from responsibility for the problem, and is presented as a benign force helping black people on the road to equality. In our time, students are taught how Eisenhower sent his troops to Little Rock, Ark., and Kennedy sent troops to Oxford, Miss., and Congress passed civil rights laws.

Yet the federal government is very often an obstacle to resolving those problems of race, and when it enters it comes in late in the picture. Abraham Lincoln was not the initiator of the movement against slavery but a follower of a movement that had developed for 30 years by the time he became president in 1860; it was the anti-slavery movement that was the major force creating the atmosphere in which emancipation took place following the Civil War.

And it was the President and Congress and the Supreme Court that ignored the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments after they were passed. In the 1960s it wasn’t Johnson and Kennedy who were the leaders and initiators of the movement for race equality, but it was black people.

In addition to focusing on social movements and having a more consciously anti-racist perspective, what are some other thematic ways in which the teaching of history must change?

I think the issue of class and class conflict needs to be addressed more honestly because it is ignored in traditional nationalist history. This is true not just of the United States but of other countries. Nationhood is a cover for extreme conflicts among classes in society, in our country, from its founding, from the making of the Constitution.

Too often, there’s a tendency to overlook these conflicts, and concentrate on the creation of a national identity.

How does a teacher deal with the intersection of race, class, and gender in terms of U.S. history, in particular that the white working-class has often been complicit, consciously or unconsciously, in some very unforgivable actions?

The complicity of poor white people in racism, the complicity of males in sexism, is a very important issue. It seems to me that complicity can’t be understood without showing the intense hardships that poor white people faced in this country, making it easier for them to look for scapegoats for their condition. You have to recognize the problems of white working people in order to understand why they turn racist, because they aren’t born racist.

When discussing the Civil War, teachers should point out that only a small percentage of the white population of the South owned slaves. The rest of the white population was poor and they were driven to support slavery and to be racist by the messages of those who controlled society — that they would be better off if the Negroes were put in a lower position, and that those calling for black equality were threatening the lives of these ordinary white people.

In the history of labor struggles, you should show how blacks and whites were used against one another, how white workers would go out on strike and then black people, desperate themselves for jobs, would be brought in to replace the white workers, how all-white craft unions excluded black workers, and how all this creates murderously intense racial antagonisms. So the class and race issues are very much intertwined, as is the gender issue.

One of the ways of giving some satisfaction to men who are themselves exploited is to make them masters in their own household. So they may be humiliated on the job, but they come back home and humiliate their wives and their children. There’s a wonderful short story by a black woman writer, Ann Petry, “Like a Winding Sheet” that should be required reading in school. It’s about a black man who is humiliated on the job and comes home and, on the flimsiest of reasons, beats his wife. The story is told in such a way as to make you really understand the pent up anger that explodes inside a family as a result of what happens out in the world. In all these instances of racial and sexual mistreatment, it is important for students to understand that the roots of such hostility are social, environmental, situational, and are not an inevitability of human nature. It is also important to show how these antagonisms so divide people from one another as to make it difficult for them to solve their common problems in united action.

How can we explain the roots of this complicity in racism and sexism by white working class people without falling into the trap of condoning it?

That’s always a problem: how do you explain something without justifying it? That issue, as a theoretical issue, needs to be explained because it’s a common confusion. You need to make the point again and again that trying to understand why people do something is not the same as justifying it. And you need to give specific historical examples of that problem, or, as I suggested, literary examples.

How can you teach white students to take an anti-racist perspective that isn’t based merely on guilt over the things that white people have done to people of color?

If such a perspective is based only on guilt, it doesn’t have a secure foundation. It has to be based on empathy and on self-interest, on an understanding that the divisions between black and white have not just resulted in the exploitation of black people, even though they’ve been the greatest victims, but have prevented whites and blacks from getting together to bring about the social change that would benefit them all. Showing the self-interest is also important in order to avoid the patronizing view of feeling sorry for someone, of giving somebody equality because you feel guilty about what has been done to them.

At the same time, to approach the issue merely on the basis of self-interest would be wrong, because people should learn to empathize with other people even where there is no visible, immediate self-interest.

In response to concerns about multiculturalism, there’s more lip service to include events and perspectives affecting women and people of color. But often it’s presented as more facts and people to learn, without any fundamental change in perspective. What would be the approach of a truly anti-racist, multicultural perspective in US history?

I’ve noticed this problem in some of the new textbooks, which obviously are trying to respond to the need for a multicultural approach. What I find is a bland eclecticism where everything has equal weight. You add more facts, you add more continents, you add more cultures, you add more people. But then it becomes a confusing melange in which you’ve added a lot of different elements but without any real emphasis on what had previously been omitted. You’re left with a kind of unemotional, cold combination salad.

You need the equivalent of affirmative action in education. What affirmative action does is to say, look, things have been slanted one way for a long time. We’re going to pay special attention to this person or to this group of people because they have been left out for so long.

People ask me why in my book, A People’s History of the United States, I did not simply take the things that I put in and add them to the orthodox approaches so, as they put it, the book would be better balanced. But there’s a way in which this so-called balance leaves people nowhere, with no moral sensibility, no firm convictions, no outrage, no indignation, no energy to go anywhere.

I think it is important to pay special attention to the history of black people, of Indians, of women, in a way that highlights not only the facts but the emotional intensity of such issues.

Is it possible for history to be objective?

Objectivity is neither possible nor desirable.

It’s not possible because all history is subjective, all history represents a point of view. History is always a selection from an infinite number of facts and everybody makes the selection differently, based on their values and what they think is important. Since it’s not possible to be objective, you should be honest about that.

Objectivity is not desirable because if we want to have an effect on the world, we need to emphasize those things which will make students more active citizens and more moral people.

One of the problems for high school history teachers is they may have five periods and 30 kids in each class, and before you know it they’re dealing with 150 students. What types of projects and approaches can they use?

The most important thing is to get students to do independent reading and research. Tell the students, “Pick something that interests you, pick out a person that interests you.” Your job as teacher is to present them with a wide spectrum of events and people, and not just the usual heroes of history but all sorts of people or incidents that they may never have heard of but that might intrigue them. I find that when students have a research project of their own they can get excited about it — especially if they are allowed to choose from a complex set of possibilities.

How can a progressive teacher promote a radical perspective within a bureaucratic, conservative institution? Teachers sometimes either push the limits so far that they alienate their colleagues or get fired, or they’re so afraid that they tone down what they really think. How can a teacher resolve this dilemma?

The problem certainly exists on the college and university level — people want to get tenure, they want to keep teaching, they want to get promoted, they want to get salary raises, and so there are all these economic punishments if they do something that looks outlandish and radical and different. But I’ve always believed that the main problem with college and university teachers has been self-censorship. I suspect that the same thing is true in the high schools, although you have to be more sympathetic with high school teachers because they operate in a much more repressive atmosphere. I’ve seen again and again where college and university teachers don’t really have a problem in, for instance, using my People’s History in their classrooms, but high school teachers always have a problem. They can’t get it officially adopted, they have to get permission, they have to photocopy parts of it themselves in order to pass it out to the students, they have to worry about parents complaining, about what the head of the department or the principal or the school superintendent will say.

But I still believe, based on a lot of contact with high school teachers over the past few years, that while there’s a danger of becoming overly assertive and insensitive to how others might view you, the most common behavior is timidity. Teachers withdraw and use the real fact of outside control as an excuse for teaching in the orthodox way.

Teachers need to take risks. The problem is how to minimize those risks. One important way is to make sure that you present material in class making it clear that it is subjective, that it is controversial, that you are not laying down the law for students. Another important thing is to be extremely tolerant of students who disagree with your views, or students who express racist or sexist ideas. I don’t mean tolerant in the sense of not challenging such ideas, but tolerant in the sense of treating them as human beings. It’s important to develop a reputation that you don’t give kids poor grades on the basis of their disagreements with you. You need to create an atmosphere of freedom in the classroom.

It’s also important to talk with other teachers to gain support and encouragement, to organize. Where there are teachers unions, those are logical places for teachers to support and defend one another. Where there are not teachers unions, teachers should always think how they can organize and create a collective strength.

Teachers don’t always know where to get those other perspectives. Do you have any tips?

The orthodox perspective is easy to get. But once teachers begin to look for other perspectives, once they start out on that road, they will quickly be led from one thing to another to another.

So it’s not as daunting as people might think?

No. It’s all there. It’s in the library.

Howard Zinn has taught history and political science at Spelman College in Atlanta and at Boston University. He is the author of A People’s History of the United States, The Politics of History, Declarations of Independence and other works.