Sometimes You Read Something That Says Everything You Wish You'd Said
I got an email the other day from an excellent New York public high school librarian asking me if I'd read Sam Wineburg's essay on Howard Zinn. I hadn't, but boy was I glad she directed me to it. (Here is an article about the article, with a link that will take you directly to it: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/december/wineburg-historiography-zinn-122012.html). Wineburg is a paragon of fairness -- granting Zinn not only his popularity, but the moral fervor behind his work and the importance of some of his historical claims. But then, in the most careful use of primary sources and secondary scholarship he shows the flaws in Zinn -- the sense in which, under the cover of writing a new form of history, he is writing his own ideological textbook which omits what it does not want to consider, chooses not to shade what it prefers to make black and white, and rest strong claims on thin sources. Zinn, one clearly sees, offers to those on the left the same assurance that the kinds of "patriotic" textbooks they detest give to those on the right -- in both cases a familiar and appealing stance allows the author to ride roughshod over the complexity of real history. Hurray for our side (whichever side that may be), says the book, and that comforts those who feel it important to tell that particular appealing story to children.
Because Zinn is juxtaposed against older more conservative textbooks, he feels -- to some -- like a relief, a healthy corrective. And that is precisely how I would suggest using him -- pair Zinn and an anti-Zinn book, let students see the differing points of view, and compare them. But the key is comparison.We should no more treat Zinn as finally true than we should a 1950s All white America First textbook. This is the key to nonfiction as it should be, especially in the age of the Common Core. We are teaching students to be critical readers of all nonfiction -- whether we agree with it or not. That is why we must tell them where we get not only our quotations but our ideas -- what secondary sources do we use, and how reliable are they? Having Zinn to juxtapose against older textbooks is good. But encouraging students to compare both and question their sources is even better. Now that I think about it, teachers who use Zinn shouldn't stop, they should just hand out Wineburg's article to their students. Welcome to the world of real history, that would say, where we all take our shots at getting it right. Wineburg's article is called "Undue Certainty" and that perfect -- we know the past in fractions, and need to be honest with students about the gaps.