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August 20, 2008 12:28 PM   Subscribe

A People's History for the Classroom [pdf] is a high school history lesson plan/workbook based on Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. The entire 124-page workbook available for free as a downloadable PDF, as part of the Zinn Education Project, supported by Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change. You must enter an email and agree to take a later survey to download.
posted by Miko (60 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
Somewhere, Sean Hannity has bolted upright in bed, shrieking and drenched in sweat.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:41 PM on August 20, 2008 [6 favorites]


From the first pdf:

Is it possible for history to be objective?

Objectivity is neither possible nor desirable.... 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.


Of course this approach presupposes a person or organization who is responsible for choosing which "things" to "emphasize" in order to make students more "moral." As long as that person's view of what is "moral" jibes with your own, this sounds like a great idea. But when you start talking about a teacher (say, a pro-life teacher) who truly believes abortion is immoral, and decides to "emphasize" those things which might influence a student on the issue, objectivity be damned, you might be offended.

Objectivity may not be possible, but that doesn't mean aspiring to objectivity is a worthless endeavor. Stated differently, if the problem with many textbooks is that they're skewed, why don't we put our efforts towards fixing them by making them more accurate, rather than trying to balance the equation by stacking the deck in the opposite direction? How about we let students make up their own minds, and not choose which things to "emphasize" in order to try to mold them into our version of "morality"?
posted by pardonyou? at 1:06 PM on August 20, 2008 [9 favorites]


A good companion piece for Zinn's excellent history would be "No More Lies" by Dick Gregory.
posted by ahimsakid at 1:10 PM on August 20, 2008


I wish I were as simply, elegantly eloquent as pardonyou?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:13 PM on August 20, 2008


How about we let students make up their own minds, and not choose which things to "emphasize" in order to try to mold them into our version of "morality"?

As a former history TA, though I'm with you on encouraging students to make up their own minds, I can honestly say that the current educational system in the U.S. doesn't exactly make this easy -- with all the teaching to the test, "good" students are more interested in knowing what factoids will allow them to pass and/or please the teacher, while those who might really be interested in delving into historical topics are discouraged from doing so by the sorry state of our system. I wish that wasn't the case.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 1:24 PM on August 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


A People's History Of The United States was my AP History textbook back in high school. In retrospect, that was pretty awesome, but my memories of that class are mostly shaped by my teacher, Ms. Ferris-Fearnside, who was even more awesome.

History is important stuff. I'd be curious as to what would happen if this workbook was put into wide use. A nation with a considerable grasp on its own history is difficult to manipulate. Also, A People's History is a great bit more balanced than many would like you to believe - it's been a while since I've read it, but I recall its strength coming from how much not like a leftist polemic it reads.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:31 PM on August 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Of course this approach presupposes a person or organization who is responsible for choosing which "things" to "emphasize" in order to make students more "moral."

I remember when, in middle school or maybe early in high school, my dad handed me A People's History and told me in so many words that it was important that I read it but also important that I don't just trust it any more than the textbooks the public school system handed us.

The idea that, in the context of typical k12 education, Zinn was a kind of subversive, and that that wasn't really either a good thing or a bad thing but was definitely an important thing, was something he tried to underscore in a few different ways when I was growing up, and I didn't really appreciate that entirely at the time.

Teaching straight Zinn would be as bad as teach straight Awesome Dead Rich White Guys Of History curricula, and as far as that goes I totally agree with the objection to dismissing objectivity that the quote pardonyou? is reacting to. Being objective in your aims, seeking to avoid dogma or indoctrination in what you teach kids, is I think the ideal state of being.

But if there's a pervasive dogmatic or indoctrinal tradition out there already, it's hard to attack that without being antagonistic to some of the context thereof, and my impression of Zinn is that that's a big part of his motivation. Crusaders may not be objective; it's a weakness of zealousness, maybe, that there aren't so many zealot moderates out there. But an education that encompasses at least different ideologies, opposing zealous voices and conflicting dogmas, will, compared with a smoothly, consistently dogmatic education, in most cases create a better foundation for strong-minded, objectively-capable adult, I think.

The idea of a flatly objective education—one where every angle is treated with criticism, where nothing is allowed to be dogmatic—is one that I think would essentially have to be composed of subjective pieces subjected to meta-criticism. And that's a pretty good description of the best courses I took, in high school and in college. And as far as that seems not incompatible with a rejection of the idea of a purely objective history, I don't really object to that quoted bit so much.
posted by cortex at 1:34 PM on August 20, 2008 [9 favorites]


The danger in trying to achieve "objectivity" is that it ISN'T possible, so the author and reader are supposed to pretend that there's no other agenda. There's ALWAYS another agenda. At least Zinn is up front about his own. Learning critical thinking skills means teaching kids to find those agendas, whether they're on the surface or hidden somewhere. Zinn is a good stepping stone for that, but would be bad as an exclusive source for history (inasmuch as any exclusive source is a poor one).
posted by rikschell at 1:51 PM on August 20, 2008


I have a hard time distinguishing "Howard Zinn" from "Howards End."
posted by kirkaracha at 1:52 PM on August 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Stated differently, if the problem with many textbooks is that they're skewed, why don't we put our efforts towards fixing them by making them more accurate, rather than trying to balance the equation by stacking the deck in the opposite direction? How about we let students make up their own minds, and not choose which things to "emphasize" in order to try to mold them into our version of "morality"?

The impression I got from reading A People's History was that it is indeed a more accurate, more multi-faceted and more complex examination of American history than I read on when I was in high school. Zinn's outspoken nature has led many to think this book is some sort of leftist tract, with some reacting with precisely what you warn against - stacking the deck in the opposite direction. Only in this case, the reaction seems to be more against Zinn the person than anything else. The book itself is an important step forward towards accurate history as opposed to dogmatic history.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:01 PM on August 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Stated differently, if the problem with many textbooks is that they're skewed, why don't we put our efforts towards fixing them by making them more accurate,....

Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong
by James W. Loewen goes a long way toward explaining why fixing texts in this country is pretty unlikley..
posted by cccorlew at 3:01 PM on August 20, 2008


Zinn's book is definitely quite accurate. The problem people sometimes see in his work is one of interpretation. All history is necessarily interpretation; sheer reportage, as history, is rare, and of limited use, since it makes no broad statements about what's important and identifies no patterns. What seems to us like a more neutral or objective textbook view of American history is a progressivist narrative with a general argument for acceptance and approval of federalism and the means and ends of this nation's growth. Zinn's interpretations are by no means rare at the university level and not considered far out, though they definitely take Marxist perspective; he's become known for delivering those interpretations at the level of student/layperson.

It really is terribly hard to reconcile many facts of American history with the narrative most history textbooks present.
posted by Miko at 3:32 PM on August 20, 2008


The only way to make a completely balanced history book would be to list everything that has ever happened in strictly fact form with no interpretation. Some bias will always enter into history textbooks, and as long as people are aware of that bias that's okay. The best way to solve that is access to a lot of history books with different points of view, not one book that pretends to be correct.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 4:39 PM on August 20, 2008


This is a very, very bad idea.

Start with this: Zinn's A People's History of the United States isn't "quite accurate." It is factually correct, in that it is well-documented. Most people fall for this little trick, and accept the unspoken premise: that a well-documented history presents a complete history.

The true inaccuracy of Howard Zinn's book starts with the title. It calls itself "A People's History;" it is anything but. A miniscule proportion of people over the course of the history of the United States, for example, have believed, as Zinn and many of the people he points to seem to believe, that history can be reduced to class and economic struggle. A tiny minority of people in the history of the United States have thought or cared about labor movements, regardless of their importance. A vast majority of citizens of the United States have wasted their money on tabloids, have gossiped about who will become president, have argued at some point about what the hell freedom is, have believed in some misshapen idea of justice. A vast majority have never heard of Emma Goldman or Eugen Debbs, and never will. Those two people had almost no effect on the American experience. But A People's History doesn't mention Charles Bent and Ceran Saint Vrain, it doesn't discuss Crazy Horse in anything but detached terms abstracted to the point of meaninglessness, it doesn't give any careful interpretation at all to the ideas of Mr. A. Lincoln, which at least deserve some consideration.

In other words, A People's History isn't factually incorrect; the only sense in which it's incorrect is in its pretension to universality. It's a cute pretension, one that has appealed to those of the archaic-style socialist frame of mind like Zinn for at least ninety years. And it's a silly pretension, as was apparent even then, before Stalin and all the rest. It was apparent to Ralph Ellison, who was very eloquent in his depiction in The Invisible Man; so many of those who went on and on about "the people's this" and "the people's that" didn't really care one whit for the people when it came down to it.

But I wouldn't mind Zinn's bias if he didn't have such a defiant insistence that it's perfectly correct to embrace one's biases and presumptions. "It's hard to be neutral on a moving train" - well, yes, obnoxiously mixed metaphor aside, yes, it's hard to stay neutral in affairs that seem so important and so close to who we are. Hard - and necessary. "Great things are never easy," as the Greeks liked to say so long ago. In fact, the point of history is not, as Mr. Zinn seems to think, to impose one's notion of justice upon the world by banding together like-minded zealots. The point of history is to try to understand justice (which is harder than he thinks) - to understand it by leaving one's own mind and considering another point of view, by asking questions like, "what if I'm wrong, and this other person is right?"

If teaching kids to do this is the goal of history education, then A People's History of the United States is an atrocious way to do it. It's not a book that perplexes you, or confuses you, or amazes you. It's a book that pisses you off, and it's intended to do that. It makes things simple enough for anyone to be angry at them.

A good contrast can be made with the greatest history book of all time - Thucydides' Peloponnesian War. The heart of Thucydides' history is a series of speeches given by representatives of different cities who are at war with each other. My experience of his book is this: when I read the first speech he records, I'm astounded. I feel strongly that the speaker could not be wrong, and I begin to feel that Zinn-like anger that anyone could question this city and its outlook. And then the speech ends, and I feel the same way about the next speech - even though the two are diametrically opposed in viewpoint. This is vexing. Both sides are convincing, very convincing - why? Thucydides doesn't say. He doesn't tell you who's right. Someone wins out in the end - that doesn't mean they were right, they only won. And sometimes he'll give you five or six sides to the same argument, each side presented passionately and thoughtfully, and each one convincing.

That's what history's about - it's about the fact that you have to choose sides, and it's very, very difficult to do so. It's hard to see what's right, it's hard to see how people should be governed. And thinking about it is worthwhile. Howard Zinn's aims are utterly different - he believes that justice is simple, that people should do less thinking and more acting, and that the struggle is mostly to get the story told so people can see how obvious it is who is right and who is wrong. I can't help but disagree, and I feel as though teaching history this way is the farthest thing from education. If the ancients could see us now, it would be clear to them that the far, far left and the far, far right in our current society are of virtually the same mind. We can't see that because we've blinded ourselves into thinking that justice, and the study of history, are simple. Mr. Zinn is as guilty in this as the conservative screwheads who wrote the textbooks with which he's trying to compete.
posted by koeselitz at 4:50 PM on August 20, 2008 [14 favorites]


You must enter an email and agree to take a later survey to download.

"No offense, comrade, but we want to make sure we're all fellow-travelers here, don't we? Wouldn't want any nasty crypto-fascists looking at our documents, now, would we? Here, have one of these red pads of paper and a pencil - our local party chief's about to give us our lesson for the week, and you'll want to take notes. It's about 'How We Are All Individuals with Individual Thoughts and Feelings.'"

posted by koeselitz at 5:01 PM on August 20, 2008


Let's see. If I recall, Zinn tells the history of those who lost rather than telling history from the perspective of those who won. It seems that one can be objective when dealing with "l;osers" in history since they usually bear the scars of discrimination, suffering etc. One problem with the Zinn approach is that those who lost are--try to be polite--unable to to win out in the various struggles taking place. The native Americans (Indians), were readily defeated and of course got screwed by the white man, but then till whitey came along, they were fighting each other fairly often, and if the white guy came up with the questionable notion of land ownership, then where would we readers of this history be without that ownership? In fact, the history of the world shows that one group is always pushing out another group, invading, taking over a pre-existing place (Moses' guys got the land of milk and honey by conquest)...there are some few instances where a blending had taken place--the Norman invasion; Rome handing out citizenship to conquered peoples.

Women have nearly always been in a special category. Second fiddle, brought about often by religion. Zinn's treatment of enslaved Africans for sure indicated how oppressed they (and all slaves) were--Einstein noted the white slaves kept by the Greeks and Romans.

By all means study the oppression etc wrought by the winners and the losses suffered by those defeated, but you don't teach true history by merely focusing upon those who "lost."
posted by Postroad at 5:03 PM on August 20, 2008


Postroad: If I recall, Zinn tells the history of those who lost rather than telling history from the perspective of those who won.

You're correct that a history from the perspective of those who lost isn't complete history, but I want to point out: Zinn doesn't even cover the losers very well. He thinks he covers the Indians well, but he doesn't; he doesn't really try to give a good account of how any of them lived, or how any of them saw the encroachment of the US. There was a healthy and lively dialogue amongst the native tribes, all of them, about the coming of the white man, a dialogue that was rich and interesting. It is true that the white man almost without exception was brutal and unjust to the Indians, but I've always felt as thought Zinn makes them as one-dimensional as any white man ever did, and it's a shame.

It's the same with the Harlem Renaissance, a movement with points on all sides, with thinkers in every stream of the American experience - Zinn boils them down flat. Women - well, he can talk about them, and he can act as though he cares, but one doesn't get much of a feel for how other people lived from his narrative.

I'm tempted to say that his treatment of losers amounts to a kind of exploitation. He deifies the working class and the early unionization efforts, but nearly everyone else is subjugated to their advances and used as an example of why the workers are right.
posted by koeselitz at 5:11 PM on August 20, 2008


Wow, koeselitiz, I hope you didn't strain a muscle taking that enormous, canyon-wide leap there.

Anyway ...

A vast majority have never heard of Emma Goldman or Eugen Debbs, and never will. Those two people had almost no effect on the American experience.

This right here is a gross understatement, and a reflection of what's important about this book. History's written by the winners, and primarily represents their players, their events and achievements, disproportionately more than those who also took part, also helped shaped the future, also had an impact, but, for whatever reason, never rose to the top of the food chain. I don't particularly see what's so dangerous or even a bad idea about letting people learn about these people, their struggles, their achievements and their impact. This is why I can easily second the notion that A People's History can and should be taught along side White Christian Male history. Is broadening our spectrum on the important events of the past really so outlandish an idea? Is that what makes this book "designed to piss people off"? I personally don't see cause for all the chest-beating.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:16 PM on August 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


I attended an event last year at which Howard Zinn was the speaker... He is pretty amazing to listen to.... If you ever get the opportunity to hear him speak, don't pass it up.
posted by HuronBob at 5:28 PM on August 20, 2008


Marisa Stole the Precious Thing: This is why I can easily second the notion that A People's History can and should be taught along side White Christian Male history. Is broadening our spectrum on the important events of the past really so outlandish an idea? Is that what makes this book "designed to piss people off"? I personally don't see cause for all the chest-beating.

Right alongside, eh? So our kids can get White Socialist Male history along with their White Christian Male history?

I can't stand Zinn because he doesn't tell the story of history any better than those ridiculous textbooks. Why aren't we reading Bernard DeVoto's 1846: The Year of Decision or Mari Sandoz' Crazy Horse: Strange Man of the Oglalas or David Lavender's Bent's Fort in high school for example? And those are only western history books! The literary world is teeming with books about the "losers" of american history. Howard Zinn writes from the perspective of precisely one small group of those "losers" - the pre-WWII urban northeastern socialists. That is an interesting perspective, and I don't mean to say that it's not a valid one, but there are more perspectives, and reading an entire narrative of the US written in that perspective is ridiculous. Besides, Zinn's point of view would probably be communicated more succinctly and more eloquently if high school kids would just be asked to read a few poems by Carl Sandburg - and they damned well ought to.
posted by koeselitz at 5:29 PM on August 20, 2008


Sorry, you asked me a question -

Marisa Stole the Precious Thing: Is that what makes this book "designed to piss people off"?

It's "designed to piss people off" because it is, so far as I can tell, intended as a litany of outrages committed by the "haves" against the "have-nots." I read this book in high school, and you can bet I was pissed off - I wanted to start a revolution right then. Isn't that part of the effect? To show the effect that the "winners" of history have had on the "losers," and the oppression they've caused?

posted by koeselitz at 5:33 PM on August 20, 2008


It's "designed to piss people off" because it is, so far as I can tell, intended as a litany of outrages committed by the "haves" against the "have-nots." I read this book in high school, and you can bet I was pissed off - I wanted to start a revolution right then.

I don't think that's entirely fair. Here we have a history book that brings into the picture the words, deeds, struggles and impacts of people who don't belong to the top stone of the pyramid. That's going to cover a lot of people. And their not being at the top of the pyramid is, in many instances, due to their having been persecuted. So naturally you're going to read a lot about "outrages committed" in any book that attempts to catalogues the words and deeds of such people. If that inspires outrage and disgust in you, as a compassionate person, I still don't see how that proves that the book is designed to make you feel that way, anymore than the history of war is supposed to make you feel that war is bad.

I don't agree that the book is disproportionately White Socialist Male, although I can fully support the notion that history in general needs to broaden beyond the scope of the white Western male.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:49 PM on August 20, 2008


koeselitz, i'm sorely tempted to trot out the example, after example, after example from zinn's various books to show that you really are over-simplifying what he does.

but, seeing what -- and how -- you've already communicated on this thread, and combining that with my own unrelated exhaustion, i just don't have it in me. i doubt anyone will get you to change or open your mind.

all i can say is this: the curriculm and teachers' guide that are the focus of this FPP were not written by zinn. they were written by public classroom teachers, and show just a few examples of some of the really neat activities and discussions which can come out of "a people's history."

and, i would encourage/challenge you to hold up your not-quite-accurate criticisms of zinn in light of the companion piece to "a people's history" -- "voices of a people's history of the united states," which is over 800+ pages of primary source documents. in "voices," he and co-editor anthony arnove minimize the editorializing and compartmentalization that necessarily come with any historical project, instead compiling the original speeches, essays and such of the many dozens of "ordinary people" who often go unrecognized in the retelling of US history. it is a remarkable book...from a 500+ year old essay by bartolome de las casas to the lyrics of an NWA song, he steps back from interpretation (beyond the inherent interpretation involved with the selection process) and presents the source documents on their own merit.

i am no huge zinn apologist. indeed, i am critical of him from another perspective -- i believe he does a huge disservice to the history that he explicates by stripping it of all religious influence. zinn goes a long way towards fleshing-out the real-life struggles of people who are visibly different than those who have traditionally had power (people of color, women, immigrants, etc). but, i think he is sorely lacking in meaningful explication of the plight of those with invisible differences -- religion, sexuality, and the like.

nevertheless, i think that "voices" is an incredibly rare and noble effort, one which, in my opinion, should redeem what may be lacking in "a people's history." ultimately, i guess, i believe you're looking at "a people's history" with too narrow an eye. zinn has turned the original project over to new people -- to the teachers who are helping to adapt his work for practical use in real classrooms, and to the actual people whom he writes about in "a people's history" to tell their own story in their own words. where, 15 years ago, i might have agreed with your criticisms of him, i think that the democratizing or popularizing intent of these additional resources shows him as something other than the white socialist zealot you attempt to paint him to be.
posted by CitizenD at 6:04 PM on August 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


Marisa Stole the Precious Thing: Here we have a history book that brings into the picture the words, deeds, struggles and impacts of people who don't belong to the top stone of the pyramid. That's going to cover a lot of people.

I think you're right about what we disagree on.

Take an example: my grandfather, a steelworker and shipbuilder in New York during the '30s, '40s and '50s. My grandfather hated unions. He felt that they were mob-like conglomerations of thugs who forced themselves on other people. He could sit there all day and tell you about friends he'd had who'd been beaten up by a union, who'd been kicked and punched and what-have-you for not following the rules. He was quite clear about how little he trusted the bosses and what-have-you, but to him, the union and the bosses were generally the same thing: the big guy who had it out with the little guy.

A lot of people held this perspective. But those people don't make their way into Zinn's book. I'm not saying the unions were evil, or that they were perfect. But I don't think it's as simple as it seems in A People's History.

Here's another example: Crazy Horse, a hero of mine. Crazy Horse did not live and die by any of the terms that seem to be in Zinn's vocabulary. Zinn's treatment of the Indians is chiefly in terms of the oppression that we committed. I have no problem with this, but he bends over backward to try to point of that this oppression was economically motivated. It was not! It was simple stupidity and hatred. Not all stupidity and hatred is greed. That distinction makes it difficult to see in Zinn the more important and essential things in Crazy Horse's world; the rage he felt, the bond he had with white men and the hatred he felt for it, the contradiction that leads someone to kill because he hates the killing that other men do. Crazy Horse's experience was fully as difficult to parse as that of an american soldier in Viet Nam, but it has rarely been considered as deeply.

Viet Nam is, in fact, another conflict that I think Zinn skips over pretty loosely. It's not easy to write a history of that war at this time, but his easy stance, like his stance about WWII, that the conflict was simply and stupidly wrong leaves out all the shades of moral dilemma that led to the conflict and that kept us there. The war may well have been a mistake, but every president that took office throughout it knew that it was very hard to tell whether leaving or staying would cause more killing. Even now, when our country's turned its back on Viet Nam, the fact is that for decades after we left Vietnamese people were being run ragged by an unjust Communist regime that killed detractors indiscriminately. But that's not in Zinn's book because it's a hard reality, and it's something that we as americans ignore because we'd rather not have to face the fact that our noble decision finally to leave Viet Nam and our haphazard way of doing it might also have caused some killing, too.

I believe that there are lots of marginalized groups in history, and that there are lots of points that should have been seen that have not. Isn't it possible that Howard Zinn doesn't do a very good job of representing these groups?
posted by koeselitz at 6:04 PM on August 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


To discuss the Viet Nam war moves the arguement to new grounds: the American political system, our foreign policy moves, mistakes, fuckups etc. Please recall that it was American voters who, tired of our losses and the draft and the drain on America for....? finally brought about the withdrawal of America from Viet Nam.

Having badmouthed Zinn's book somewhat I will say this in his defense: by focusing on lost causes, the underdog etc Zinn at least gets us to revise our perspective, perhaps, and to see things from a slightly different angle that from what we are conventionaly taught in our schooling. And that is well worth the doing.
posted by Postroad at 6:19 PM on August 20, 2008


A Cuban friend of mine was looking for a good book to study American history before he took his naturalization test. He's rather right leaning so I recommended "A People's History". He still passed...
posted by Drab_Parts at 6:47 PM on August 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


Take an example: my grandfather, a steelworker and shipbuilder in New York during the '30s, '40s and '50s. My grandfather hated unions. ... A lot of people held this perspective. But those people don't make their way into Zinn's book. I'm not saying the unions were evil, or that they were perfect. But I don't think it's as simple as it seems in A People's History.

Alright, I can appreciate that, but let's compare this to the way unions are typically covered in high school US history class rooms, i.e., very marginally, with considerable emphasis placed on ties to organized crime, despite the fact that unions made tremendous changes not only to labor legislation, but also in the way we view work. When it comes to labor law, I and many of my peers were taught that FDR was pro-labor, as if he simply woke up one morning and that it would be swell to make changes to labor law.

Naturally, such significant changes seldom come from the top down, but we never learned the movements and the people that led them that brought them into implementation - movements that begin at the grassroot. That, I believe, is what Zinn means by calling this a "people's" history - not "people that I agree with" history, but "popular and populist forces that worked to change history" history.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:53 PM on August 20, 2008


"we need to emphasize those things which will make students more active citizens and more moral people."

No, no we don't. The term for doing so is not "educating" or "informing," it's "indoctrinating" and there's more than enough of it already going on in the schools, thank you. There's a place for contrarian and marginalized perspectives, sure, but let's not go around using textbooks to create opinions, particularly when you're talking about high school textbooks. Students have no voice in the quality, utility, or biases of the textbooks forced on them; it's irresponsible in the extreme to push a morality agenda on that captive audience.

We need to emphasize those things which will make students more informed and intelligent citizens, capable of forming their own judgements -- whether you or I agree with such judgement or not -- without parroting someone else's agenda.

"There's ALWAYS another agenda. At least Zinn is up front about his own."

Fair enough (though I disagree with the notion that just because objectivity is difficult we not only shouldn't try for it but should just say "fuck it" and use history as a tool of indoctrination) but when the agenda isn't "let's turn students into educated citizens" it's one that should be rejected.
posted by majick at 7:29 PM on August 20, 2008


There was a healthy and lively dialogue amongst the native tribes, all of them, about the coming of the white man, a dialogue that was rich and interesting. It is true that the white man almost without exception was brutal and unjust to the Indians, but I've always felt as thought Zinn makes them as one-dimensional as any white man ever did, and it's a shame.

It's the same with the Harlem Renaissance, a movement with points on all sides, with thinkers in every stream of the American experience - Zinn boils them down flat.


koeselitz, your point here is valid -- but any history book that tries to cover so much material is going to be guilty of failing to do justice to some of its topics.

There are only so many pages that publishers will allow authors to get away with. At some point, they have to leave things out or compress them.
posted by jason's_planet at 7:35 PM on August 20, 2008


[from A People's History pdf - "Unsung Heroes" by Howard Zinn, Page 61]:

"I was at a symposium in New Jersey where I pointed to the terrible crimes against the indigenous people of Hispaniola committed by Columbus and his fellow explorers. Afterward, the other man on the platform, who was chairman of the New Jersey Columbus Day celebration, said to me: “You don’t understand— we Italian Americans need our heroes.”Yes, I understood the desire for heroes, I said, but why choose a murderer and kidnapper for such an honor? Why not choose Joe DiMaggio, or Toscanini, or Fiorello LaGuardia, or Sacco and Vanzetti? (The man was not persuaded.)"

I think from this quote -- which i recalled semi-vaguely from the last time i had a conversation about this very book -- demonstrates that Zinn does recognize his aims as far as showcasing the less popular (at least when it comes to classroom curriculum) faces and events in history. He seems to be opposed mainly to the idea that we're teaching children to have an absolute heroism and to idolize the winners of any conflict, whom at least in his eyes seem to have won great places in history books while simultaneously under-representing or outright omitting the less shining aspects of their careers.

It seems odd to me that this book should cause such outrage in anyone. While having it alone would be foolish to be the single source of any class, i cannot see the harm in adding it as a way to counterbalance the conquistadors, business-leaders, and war heroes that might otherwise take up the bulk of any American History class.
posted by phylum sinter at 7:54 PM on August 20, 2008


"i cannot see the harm in adding it as a way to counterbalance the conquistadors, business-leaders, and war heroes that might otherwise take up the bulk of any American History class."

A man that reduces Columbus to a "murderer and kidnapper" and puts Sacco and Vanzetti on the same level as Toscanini is not looking to counterbalance anything - this is a rabid ideologue who should be kept out of classrooms at all costs.

To keep it in a level that the average MeFite would understand: teaching the odes to the "oppressed" disguised as history to children is the right there on the same level with teaching Intelligent Design as if it were science. It's criminal, to say the least.
posted by falameufilho at 8:18 PM on August 20, 2008


I was assigned a howard zinn book once for my history class. I was just supposed to write a full two page summary of every chapter. At first it was interesting, and i found it easy to do. But in at the end of the first week it was soooooo boring. That is a book full of tangents!
posted by Suparnova at 8:25 PM on August 20, 2008


Do we really need an "objective history"? For what? This is a partisan world. It always will be. A terrible injustice is at the foundation of every state, and the youth are still taught that they are part of a noble enterprise. Because we believe that we represent a great tradition, we continue to maintain the values we were taught. Of course we are going to be selective looking back. We espouse equality between men, respect for private property, and freedom of religion. Since that's a good part of what we see as best about ourselves we select episodes from the past that exemplify it and thereby promote those values. Prominent examples that make the blackest mockery of our ideals, e.g. slavery, genocide of the natives, filibusters, etc. are taught as examples of our own capacity to sin and our fallibility. This is hardly a problem that needs "fixing".

I also read Zinn in High School and I enjoyed A People's History. Now, I think it's one dimensional. A sequence of outrages doesn't tell us much beyond the facts of those events. Multiculturalism is nonsense. A people, a nation, especially a multi-ethnic one, is largely defined by a common set of values. What does Zinn have to say on that subject? That we're all hypocrites? No shit. The curious can discover more details on their own. There is no need for this in the curriculum. Our sense of what it means to be an American has diminished enough.

A generation or two back, a history professor (perhaps William Buckley's?) commented that some worldviews were incompatible with the American project. The two examples he gave were Nazism and Communism. From the 2002 announcement of an NEH initiative to encourage the teaching of U.S. history:

"A recent National Assessment of Education Progress test found that more than half of high school seniors thought that Germany, Italy or Japan was our ally in World War II.

A Columbia Law School survey found that 35 percent of voting-age Americans thought that Karl Marx's dogma, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs," was in the United States Constitution. Another 34 percent responded that they weren't sure."

Funny if it wasn't so sad. The Founding Fathers believed that a just government would restrict itself to the protection of life and property. What would they have thought about all the rhetoric regarding a "right to education" or a "right to healthcare"? But the ideas get less emphasis as our focus shifts to making sure every group's experience be equally documented. Phrases like "Dead European Male" or "Dead White Protestant" try to imply that the traditional history is just a small segment of the whole and there is nothing that sets it off as grander or more meaningful than "20th Century Half Jewish Crippled Lesbians". Please. As if Madison, Hamilton and Jay writing the Federalist Papers, is of equal importance as the day to day life of Hispanic women in the Big Bend region of Texas between the two world wars.

Of course history is written by the victors, that doesn't automatically make it hero worship. If we want our culture to remain vibrant, we should privilege our story. It doesn't mean we have to lie or be shallow, we don't. And we don't need to spend time trying to portray every last immigrant group as our cultural equal.

Speaking of how our sense of America has changed, take a look at the following proposals. Are they all that inconsistent with what we consider American? Does early exposure to Zinn (and I consider High School early) support respect for individual freedom and choice, a traditional American value, or the need for a wiser, benevolent government to step in and rescue the people from tragedy?

[The TEN PLANKS of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO]

These measures will, of course, be different in different countries.

Nevertheless, in most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable.

1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.

2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.

3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.

4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.

5. Centralization of credit in the banks of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly.

6. Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state.

7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state; the bringing into cultivation of waste lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.

8. Equal obligation of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.

9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.

10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children's factory labor in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, etc.
posted by BigSky at 12:34 AM on August 21, 2008


Say what you will about his motivations, but as long as Zinn's facts check out there's nothing wrong with his book. It's a sobering assessment of a lot of people who've historically been placed on pedestals, and students should absolutely be aware of the facts that get glossed over in everything else they'll read.
posted by mullingitover at 12:56 AM on August 21, 2008


and puts Sacco and Vanzetti on the same level as Toscanini is not looking to counterbalance anything

of course not -- Toscanini wasn't murdered because of a crime he did not commit
posted by matteo at 1:26 AM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


teaching the odes to the "oppressed" disguised as history to children is the right there on the same level with teaching Intelligent Design as if it were science. It's criminal, to say the least.

The one glaring difference between the history recorded in ZInn's book and the concept of Intelligent Design being that the former is observable, verifiable, and factual, while the latter is pure conjecture.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:27 AM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Not being able to be "Objective" isn't a surrender of the ambition to be objective, but rather an acknowledgment that it's impossible to be free of bias.

It's and obvious statement, but since so few seem to make it and the idea of Truth still exists in peoples minds, it isn't a bad idea to mention it. Especially in a school setting, where your critical faculties should be fostered.

At least Zinn is upfront about whose story he's trying to tell, as opposed to all my grade & high-school text books that just assumed a "neutral position" as if one was possible.
posted by monocultured at 4:05 AM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


In fact, I think that assumption of "neutrality" in the study of history is a bit dangerous, because there seems to be nothing in neutrality to take exception to. If that's how it is, why argue with it? Even what some think of as more objective textbooks are fairly clear in their stances toward slavery and slaveowners, the Third Reich and the inevitability of World War II, the right of all citizens to vote, etc. That's not objectivity, it's a specific narrative of gradual progress and national growth constructed to support the ideals of American democracy.

The thing is, Zinn doesn't exist in a vacuum. He articulates points which contrast with prevailing popular notions about history and which elicit a response. There is a method at play in his work.

Ideally, the job of a secondary history teacher isn't to advance a particular ("neutral" or radical or other - take your pick) narrative of events, blow-by-blow. It's to teach people new to the concept about what history is: the process of studying evidence from the past and using it to craft a story, or narrative, that has meaning and import for current and future understandings of past events. You can do that just as effectively with Zinn's book as you can with a traditional history text, or even America (The Book). The book is the launching place. Too many teachers stop at the book, which is in part responsible for our obsession with the general history text as a transmitter of political thought. But a text is not simply a conduit by which students imbibe perspective and hew to that viewpoint forevermore.

Teaching history without teaching about the validity of a variety of perspectives on events isn't teaching history, it's teaching timelines. The high school history teacher has two tasks (a) to create an aquaintance with the major events and episodes in the American past and (b) to build the skills of historical thinking: analysis, awareness of sources, evaluation of sources, interpretation, cause and effect, etc. It's very easy to do (a), much less easy to do (b) effectively.

I think using Zinn's materials, among others, in a secondary classroom would engender quite a bit more learning and debate, because the provocative nature of the narrative would make the very process of doing history move to center stage. As a teacher, I would think that students would be far more interested and engaged, and learn much more, by working with the writings of someone whose written interpretation of American history reasons from the same basic set of facts as the more familiar narrative, yet views those facts through a different lens, one with tremendous emphasis on class and power differentials. I agree that it would be an incomplete look at American history, but all history is incomplete, let alone a general secondary history curriculum. Koeselitz mentions a number of topics and authors that are indeed interesting, but in the secondary curriculum, with its emphasis on basic historical literacy, there's very little room for the kind of topical study of primary texts that occurs at the university level. There's some room, certainly, but the process of judiciously selecting the texts there is time for is, once again, not value-free.

So for me, the question is not whether Zinn's work is the best possible general history of America. The question is: does it reason from evidence, demonstrate historical thinking, and deliver an interpretation worth discussing? I'd say absolutely. Of course it may be inadequate as a standalone text. But so, without a doubt, are traditional history texts, which because of their mantle of 'neutrality' convey a pointed narrative which is almost never surfaced enough to be challenged or complexified.
posted by Miko at 6:53 AM on August 21, 2008 [7 favorites]


this oppression was economically motivated. It was not! It was simple stupidity and hatred.

minor beef with this assertion about exploitation/brutality against native americans: for politicians, land owners, traders, and the various other interests that stood to benefit materially from oppressing the native population, it was definitely economically motivated. stupidity and hatred just provided a useful rationalization and good PR to mask the fundamental immorality of their efforts to make a killing.


whoa. on review, i seem to have wandered into the middle of a right-wing pissing contest here. moving on...
posted by saulgoodman at 7:42 AM on August 21, 2008


phew. i stand corrected. should have previewed.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:43 AM on August 21, 2008


Funny if it wasn't so sad. The Founding Fathers believed that a just government would restrict itself to the protection of life and property. What would they have thought about all the rhetoric regarding a "right to education" or a "right to healthcare"? But the ideas get less emphasis as our focus shifts to making sure every group's experience be equally documented. Phrases like "Dead European Male" or "Dead White Protestant" try to imply that the traditional history is just a small segment of the whole and there is nothing that sets it off as grander or more meaningful than "20th Century Half Jewish Crippled Lesbians".

Holy crap those are some stupid, provincial ideas you've got rattling around with some of those good ones in your head there.

My own perspective is something like what you (BigSky) attribute to the Founding Fathers, only as applied universally to humanity (without privileging any culture or nationality) and as applied more consistently (meaning protection of life, property, freedom of association and the pursuit of happiness are extended universally and also include meaningful protections against more subtle forms of theft and fraud, including regulatory functions to prevent marketplace collusion and fraudulent business practices). The development of programs like universal education, healthcare, etc., may not necessarily be justified purely on principle, but without them, America suffers economically and culturally, so our practical needs have to be balanced against our ideological commitments whatever they are. Without universal education, for example, none of America's accomplishments in the modern era would have been possible--zilch. We'd be a backwater nation with no better prospects or economic fortunes than any of those we deride as third-world countries. You're deluded if you don't see that.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:10 AM on August 21, 2008


argh. but i got suckered into derailing. please flag me.

on zinn: there's nothing wrong with telling this part of american history alongside the rest. it's not as insignificant as many suggest. i recently learned through family research that my now predominantly conservative, mostly anti-union working-class family actually includes an ancestor who was a minor historical figure in the early american progressive/anti-imperialist movement. who even knew there was such a thing, to read the history i got in high school?
posted by saulgoodman at 8:16 AM on August 21, 2008


I'm not rabidly pro-union; I can see the obvious negatives of some aspects of labor unionization. And yet I think a flatly anti-union stance is ridiculous: it was the action of unions that created the weekend, the 8-hour work day, the 40-hour/five-day work week, many workplace safety standards, the idea of a minimum wage, the idea of overtime pay, paid vacation leave, the idea of employee benefits, etc. None of these were standard features of the pre-Civil War workplace; most people take them for granted. Though they've posed their share of problems, conditions for regular people have largely improved because of unions. Even those of us who have never been in a union benefit from the standards they set and policy and law that resulted from union activity.
posted by Miko at 8:34 AM on August 21, 2008


saulgoodman,

I expressed myself poorly. This isn't about insisting that the U.S. never alter from its original principles but that we should teach history as the story of those principles without looking to undercut them in the telling.

A mandatory high school history classes should be something more than a heart rending tale of woe. It's function is to foster patriotism and promote the values of the nation. A cosmopolitan perspective can come later. The revisionist concern to look at the story from all angles goes hand in hand with a universal, internationalist perspective.

I'm not suggesting that the original principles be held sacrosanct, only that some set of principles be consistently privileged in the telling. Without question, part of the story is the change of ideals. The Founding Fathers opposed universal suffrage and supported slavery but these changes can be presented as extensions of the original conversation. When we speak of entitlements as rights, as we often do, we are not engaging with ideas; it's little more than a soft hearted response to tragedy. And that's what we promote when we focus on difference. As a side note, if there was more substance to these proposals than an emotional appeal alone, we would be discussing them in terms of the duties of government rather than the rights of man. The notion that an individual has some sort of God given right to health care is almost comic. While it may be debatable whether there is such a thing as a God given right to free speech, the idea is engaging and fertile, and for that matter so is the idea that government may, or may not, have duties to provide instead of functions to execute.

Disillusioning students about the United States and pushing them towards a woolly headed internationalist view is counter productive. Take a look at student's conviction in our values and culture. We're not doing ourselves any favors here. Our own self-conscious vision of what we are about may only be a story and the cast may not be balanced along racial and gender and sexual preference lines as some may prefer but that is the real story, and it deserves a fair hearing. Passionate narratives exposing our failing leave nothing in their place. This is about teaching high school students, not upperclassmen at Amherst majoring in history. They don't know even the crudest outlines of the narrative. There's precious little for them to question. I'm skeptical that bringing in more of Zinn's material will convey anything more than, "Life should be more fair", i.e. a good push towards 'Worker's Paradise'. If they want to make that trade at least they should be conscious of what they are giving up.

P.S. Perhaps we can debate the merits of universal education some other time.
posted by BigSky at 5:51 PM on August 21, 2008


BigSky: A mandatory high school history classes should be something more than a heart rending tale of woe. It's function is to foster patriotism and promote the values of the nation.

Why would that be the function of a class? I know high school students have a limited capacity for understanding (I sure did), but do they really need to be shielded from the messiness and complexity of history?

Also: what would those values be, and who gets to say what they are? Elected officials? Academics?
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 6:19 PM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's function is to foster patriotism and promote the values of the nation.

It is? Says who? Which values? What are the values of the nation? What about patriotism - is it to be encouraged all the time, even when the actions of the nation or its governments are morally wrong?

A cosmopolitan perspective can come later.

When? And how? Relatively few people get to study history at the college level. High school history may be the last time a majority of students are asked to consider the events of the past - so it's pretty important that it be as comprehensive an approach as possible. Developmentally, doesn't it make sense start by creating the broadest possible awareness of views, letting each person then choose his or her own individual viewpoint from a number of schools or thought, or perhaps creating their own new lens of interpretataion?

The revisionist concern to look at the story from all angles goes hand in hand with a universal, internationalist perspective.


1. All history is revisionist; there's no such thing as history without revisionism. History, quite literally, means 'retelling,' and there is no way to retell without influencing the account. 2. A universal internationalist perspective? Is that supposed to be a bad thing? I don't agree that it is.
posted by Miko at 6:57 PM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


1. All history is revisionist; there's no such thing as history without revisionism. History, quite literally, means 'retelling,' and there is no way to retell without influencing the account. 2. A universal internationalist perspective? Is that supposed to be a bad thing? I don't agree that it is.

There is no claim in either of my posts that there is some sort of comprehensive objective account. I acknowledge that we selectively emphasize incidents that promote the chosen values and sure, ultimately, it's just a story.

Yeah, I consider a universal, internationalist perspective to be a bad thing. Why, because it's not partisan. I'm not just begging the question here, instead of giving a negative definition, the shift in vocabulary points to what we are. It's human nature to love one's own, and to value it more than whatever is comparable but belonging to someone else, one's own child, one's own marriage, one's own house, one's own country, etc. Tolerance and acceptance have their place, but first we look after what is ours. Refusal to be particular, to be invested in one sect, is for the saints. A strong community, or a strong family for that matter, requires a dedicated investment from its members.

Samuel Huntington's article, Dead Souls covers this ground.

When? And how?

I said it can come later. It doesn't have to come at all.

Developmentally, doesn't it make sense start by creating the broadest possible awareness of views, letting each person then choose his or her own individual viewpoint from a number of schools or thought, or perhaps creating their own new lens of interpretataion?

No. What's important is that the students start out with good faith in their community. And to then internalize that ethos.

It is? Says who? Which values? What are the values of the nation? What about patriotism - is it to be encouraged all the time, even when the actions of the nation or its governments are morally wrong?

You didn't commit yourself to this interpretation but there's an ironic reading here. You ask which values, challenging the notion that the state defines ideals by implying that there are other, perhaps equally valid sets of values, and then immediately afterwards you posit an absolute good that the state falls short of. And I do understand there is space in between.

Setting aside absolute values vs. relativism, what about this ethical conflict between the state and the individual? Well, whatever happens, happens. It really isn't a concern. This is more about what is practical for the state, I'm not grading individuals' ethical decisions.

It is? Says who? Which values? What are the values of the nation?

&

Also: what would those values be, and who gets to say what they are? Elected officials? Academics?


Values aren't chosen consciously, they're absorbed. Or we can think of them as inherited. Just like we frequently credit parents and guardians for instilling values, the wider community passes some along as well. A community shares a view of the world and that view is part of what holds it together. If it doesn't reflect its members' ideals, then they don't identify with the larger group and their loyalty to it, withers. Ultimately, if the citizens don't believe in the story, the community doesn't survive. Did either of you read the 'Who Will Defend American Values?' link? That was less than a year after 9/11, which supposedly boosted patriotism. I don't think it's a coincidence that 84% of college students do not consider American values superior to Arab values and that 58% of those who would evade a draft supported Hussein's overthrow. Who would risk their person for a way of life that they themselves consider, at best, equal to any other?

The American values? an emphasis on individual freedom, government limited by higher law, the work ethic, esteem for the entrepreneur, decentralization, and loyalty to country (pretty much common to all nations) makes a partial list.

do they really need to be shielded from the messiness and complexity of history?

I'm not suggesting we hide anything. Only that it's important to present a compelling view of America before launching into the stories of atrocities which lie in her past. That we focus on government and law in our history and if that story doesn't have too many women or Samoans or working class Joes, it's OK. When fewer than half of a random pool of 17 year olds can name the dates of the Civil War, then we don't need to start with the Wounded Knee Massacre.
posted by BigSky at 9:32 PM on August 21, 2008


Well, I did read the link. Its conclusions do not follow from the data.

84% of college students do not consider American values superior to Arab values

Which is good: Suspending judgment about things we don't know is a great attitude, and I doubt even 1% of American college students could define what an "Arab" value is. I certainly can't (I must admit I know very few Arabs). Can you?

Only that it's important to present a compelling view of America before launching into the stories of atrocities which lie in her past.

Do you think that could be universalized? Would you support that for Germany or Italy?
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:06 AM on August 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


The American values? an emphasis on individual freedom, government limited by higher law, the work ethic, esteem for the entrepreneur, decentralization, and loyalty to country (pretty much common to all nations) makes a partial list.

Big Sky, I simply don't agree with you on these values. I understand your argument that core values of American democracy are a valid part of a history curriculum, but you will not find a broad consensus that the list you give are core values of American democracy. You are speaking in advocacy of teaching a specific philosophy of government that there is legitimate disagreement with within the American political conversation.

Moreover, I think that it is quite possible to teach in such a way that widely shared core values of American democracy are affirmed even while the uncomfortable facts of history are addressed. For instance, I am able to absorb and discuss the topics Zinn focuses on and still be a patriotic American, convinced that our method of government can serve its citizens well. I'm not naive enough to say it's the "best" form of government, or that our history makes us the "best" country on earth. I do think it's a usable form of representative government that should allow us to live together and advance common interests when well-informed citizens engage in shaping it. But there's nothing about teaching history using Zinn's materials that requires an anti-patriotic or anti-American stance.
posted by Miko at 7:13 AM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Suspending judgment about things we don't know is a great attitude, and I doubt even 1% of American college students could define what an "Arab" value is.

We don't have to be able to define the values of every last culture in order to support our own. I'm not looking to launch into a criticism of the Arab world. The larger point is that I don't believe citizens invest themselves, especially not their lives, without a strong belief in the value of their way of life. And that does imply superiority.

Do you think that could be universalized? Would you support that for Germany or Italy?

Are you suggesting that I think Germany and Italy should hide their involvement in WWII? Of course not, no more than we should hide slavery or the Indian Wars. My criticism is that studying the experience of the dispossessed is of secondary or tertiary importance. So the relevant comparison for Germany would be classes on the experience of Turkish immigrants. And if I was German I would be more than OK with high schools neglecting the topic.

You are speaking in advocacy of teaching a specific philosophy of government that there is legitimate disagreement with within the American political conversation.

Really? Maybe the esteem for the entrepreneur, but I believe the rest of it traces back to the Protestant experience in England.

Moreover, I think that it is quite possible to teach in such a way that widely shared core values of American democracy are affirmed even while the uncomfortable facts of history are addressed.

Sure, I do too. But it's a question of limited resources. Again, I can only point to the survey showing our high school students' appalling lack of knowledge. Knowing who Madison is and what he thought comes first. Considering a quarter thought Columbus discovered America sometime after 1750, their knowledge of the Constitution might not be too deep. Just a guess.
posted by BigSky at 11:29 AM on August 22, 2008


I believe the rest of it traces back to the Protestant experience in England.

Not really. Besides, the Protestant experience in England in the 1500s and 1600s is not particularly relevant to the ensuing development constitutional democracy in what increasingly became a de facto welfare state. These are not things I would list as primarily American values. I also disagree that embracing a set of values necessarily means they must be considered superior. They might just be culturally and geographically appropriate.

Knowing who Madison is and what he thought comes first.

I don't think they're mutually exclusive, and in fact, I think the extension of European empires into the Americas comes first - pedagogically as well as chronologically. Looking at Madison without a context is useless and empty. Our resources are not as limited as you imagine; what teachers do with their time is a question of will, training, knowledge, and standards.
posted by Miko at 11:40 AM on August 22, 2008


History, quite literally, means 'retelling,'

'Inquiry', actually.
posted by IndigoJones at 12:53 PM on August 22, 2008


"[Middle English histoire, from Old French, from Latin historia, from Greek histori, from historein, to inquire, from histr, learned man; see weid- in Indo-European roots.]"

Whoops....my mistake. I appreciate the correction.

So history doesn't literally mean retelling. I will now say: In practice, written history is retelling.
posted by Miko at 1:39 PM on August 22, 2008


The larger point is that I don't believe citizens invest themselves, especially not their lives, without a strong belief in the value of their way of life. And that does imply superiority.

The current American way of life includes a lot of discrimination against gay people. Many Americans find that aborrhent. Couldn't these people think that the values of their society are inferior to those of other societies where gay people have more rights? And still fight for the rights of gay people in the US and be productively involved in American society?

(Note: I am not American)
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 1:46 PM on August 22, 2008


Miko,

When I said "comes first" it was in ranking, not historical order or position in the schedule. Teachers' resources may well be different from what I imagine, but their results are public knowledge.

The current American way of life includes a lot of discrimination against gay people. Many Americans find that aborrhent. Couldn't these people think that the values of their society are inferior to those of other societies where gay people have more rights? And still fight for the rights of gay people in the US and be productively involved in American society?

This is not an attempt to comprehensively define American values for all time. Terms that are helpful for talking about cultural core values and how they are sustained, might not be relevant for judging individuals. More to the point, the values I'm pointing to are at a higher level of abstraction. These are beliefs concerning freedom, property, self-improvement, government authority, etc. The set of values doesn't extend to every last preference, it isn't just public opinion or common prejudice.
posted by BigSky at 8:26 PM on August 22, 2008


Isn't sexual freedom fairly abstract or, well, fundamental? Right now, there are laws in the United States that restrict the freedom of gay people, and have very real impacts on the economic well-being of some of them.

But I come back to my basic problem with (what I perceive as being) your position: how do you define the values of a culture, or a country?

Because for the countries I know, it seems impossible to me. Because the history of all the countries I know is an insane mess, full of contradictions and crazyness (I guess that's why I brought up Italy and Germany -- theirs is a fucking mess of a history). I don't know much about the United States, but I know at least one American disagrees with your take on American values.

(And I think of Ontarians defining part of Canadian identity as "protestant", all the while our constitution (textually) guarantees the right to a Catholic education for those who wish)
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:00 PM on August 22, 2008


When I said "comes first" it was in ranking, not historical order or position in the schedule. Teachers' resources may well be different from what I imagine, but their results are public knowledge.


I still disagree. A figure like Madison is far less important than competing empires redrawing maps of the world.
posted by Miko at 3:06 PM on August 23, 2008


A figure like Madison is far less important than competing empires redrawing maps of the world.

Small misunderstanding here. When I said, "Knowing who Madison is and what he thought comes first.", I meant over, "[addressing] the uncomfortable facts of history". Columbus was referenced only to give some perspective to students' ignorance.

how do you define the values of a culture, or a country?

They aren't defined by one person. I gave a partial list of what I consider them to be, and no doubt, many will find fault with it. In this context, they're defined by the author, by the school district who buys the books, by the teacher using them, and by the PTA that questions or supports their use. My contention is that we should consider what the history says and teaches regarding national identity.

Here's a fairly recent editorial on the Bradley Project's poll re: national identity, which includes a few thoughts on the teaching of history. And here is an essay by John McWhorter, one of the essays on the Bradley Project website. An excerpt:

"There was, to be sure, an element of parochialism in this apple-pie patriotism, and too often it shaded into an unreflective George M. Cohan–style jingoism. A century from now, though, what will appear equally unreflective is the opposite sentiment now held up as a sign of enlightenment: active contempt for the American experiment.

Nowhere is this contempt more explicit than among our intelligentsia. The humanities and social sciences enshrine the examination of power relations (or, more specifically, injustice) obsessively. The endless explorations of the subordination of the subaltern, and the possibilities of contesting and transgression, are a stark abbreviation of human curiosity. Legions of scholars nevertheless devote careers to this narrow conception of scholarship, out of a fundamental commitment to revealing our Powers That Be as frauds. There is little room for love of country in this view of the world.

...

Therapeutic alienation is not, however, confined to the ivory tower. Beyond the campus, explicit, acrid contempt for the Establishment is a fringe taste — but the therapeutic alienation at the roots of this contempt is now widespread, and has equally dire consequences for proud American identity. Existential alienation and oppositional sentiment for their own sake have a way of discouraging people from saluting a flag."
posted by BigSky at 3:08 PM on August 24, 2008


Ah yes, the spectre of the out-of-touch liberal academic. The report you link will indeed interest a few; but forgive me if I let pass another "study" designed and paid for by a far-right conservative think tank with an aggressive cultural agenda, trumpeting the message that we've wandered far off the true American path. The sky has yet to fall.

My contention is that we should consider what the history says and teaches regarding national identity.

Mine too; hence, the post.

I suspect that any further conversation between us is going to break down on the hard-right point of view you take, BigSky. American history is just not so neatly teleological; and I flatly reject the idea that pride, citizenship and patriotism are inculcated only by a teaching of history which can admit no national wrongs or follies. I just can't get too excited about your fears; citizenship is suffering for a lot of reasons, poor history teaching among them. But political bias in history teaching isn't the problem - low standards contribute, but so does a culture that promotes continuous consumerism over learning about, true understanding of, and respect for events in its past.
posted by Miko at 7:25 PM on August 24, 2008


They aren't defined by one person. I gave a partial list of what I consider them to be, and no doubt, many will find fault with it. In this context, they're defined by the author, by the school district who buys the books, by the teacher using them, and by the PTA that questions or supports their use.

But wouldn't that lead to Balknization? I'm not sure people in a majority-Catholic area would agree that "the Prostetant Ethic" is an American value, for instance. But in other parts of the country, that might be a very important part of these values. The history curriculum would probably be fairly different in San Fransisco and rural Georgia.

As for your links, their premises do not lead me to their conclusions. McWorthey posits the existence of groups of people with certain attitudes, but we have to take his word on it. My readings (limited as they are: mostly MeFi and sites liked from it) do not lead me to believe that the "Legions of scholars" he talks about are real.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:13 PM on August 24, 2008


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