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Debate and Controversy Make History Education Better

The spurious justifications conservative politicians have offered in 28 states for banning Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project, and candid discussion of the history and the persistence of racism in America leave us with a strong case of déjà vu. Why? Because, in researching America’s reception to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980), we found the same arguments used by anti-radical activists as they sought for years to ban from public schools and universities Zinn’s best-selling iconoclastic introduction to the American past. Both in the 1980s with Zinn (through his death in 2010) and today with Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project, the book-banners claim that exposing students to critical history will teach them to hate America and that such exposure is divisive and so disrupts the educational process.

Our research reveals the groundlessness of these justifications for banning dissenting approaches to the American past. There is a mountain of evidence in Zinn’s papers, housed at New York University’s Tamiment Library, that both students and teachers found that exposure to critical history enhances the historical teaching and learning process. Zinn’s People’s History was for many high school students the first historical account they had ever read that foregrounded the role of racism, imperialism, militarism, sexism, and class conflict in the American past. Zinn’s book offered for many a stunning contrast to their blandly upbeat and conventional US history textbooks and was also distinctive in the extensive treatment it accorded to dissident movements, valorizing the role that abolitionists, feminists, labor organizers, anti-war activists, and other social critics played in the struggle to make America a more democratic and humane society.

Students found it stimulating to compare Zinn’s unconventional view of American history with that of their stodgy textbooks and to ponder whether the evidence Zinn offered was sufficient to refute the nationalistic, American exceptionalist assumptions upon which they had been raised. Many of the letters high school students wrote to Zinn expressed admiration for his work and credited him for teaching them to look at American history in a new way, and to realize for the first time that history was not a trivia game where one memorized and regurgitated names and dates, but instead involved deep thought in which evidence and reason needed to be used to assess conflicting interpretations of the past.

Divisive? It is certainly true that some of the more conservative students did not agree with Zinn’s leftist perspective on the American past. But one can tell from the letters they wrote to Zinn that these conservative youths were learning a great deal by debating Zinn’s views, for example, insisting that industrialists such as Carnegie were economic innovators and not merely the callous oppressors of labor that Zinn depicted. Such disagreements are a central part of historical discourse. Barring them from classrooms on the grounds that they are “divisive” is a prescription for intellectual impoverishment and boring classrooms that disconnect students from the very arguments that make history intellectually engaging.

It’s true that Zinn, much like the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory, did stress the depth and persistence of racism in American history. Slavery, “Indian Removal,” and Jim Crowism receive quite extensive and brutally frank treatment in his People’s History. Indeed, among the book’s most memorable passages is the one where Zinn asserts, “There is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important, for so long a time, as the United States. And the problem of ‘the color line,’ as W.E.B. Du Bois put it, is still with us. So it is more than a purely historical question to ask: How does it start?—and an even more urgent question: How might it end?” Given Zinn’s talent as a writer and historian, one could safely say that his account of American racism bred disdain for bigotry, and pushed students to ponder how this scourge from the American past could be purged to make way for a more democratic future.

There is no evidence, however, that Zinn’s critical take on American racism led students to hate America. In fact, when in 1986 Reed Irvine, leader of the right-wing group Accuracy in Academia, accused Zinn’s People’s History of fomenting hatred of America and said it ought to be banned, both students and teachers wrote Irvine letters (which they cc’d to Zinn) refuting this charge. From a Memphis high school class, for example, came students’ letters praising the way Zinn’s book had enriched their historical learning by offering such a thought-provoking contrast to their conventional US history textbook.

Typical of these Memphis students was Michelle J., who characterized Irvine’s charge as “ridiculous: I loved America before I read Zinn’s book and I still love it afterwards.” Traditional textbooks, according to a classmate, Holly H., bred a shallow form of patriotism, by stressing how “great America has always been. Why put our heads in the sand and pretend these things never happened?… I have already read most of A People’s History of the United States, and I don’t hate America. I just understand the history of our country much better now.”

If we care about effective historical teaching and learning, it is time that we made educational policy based on evidence rather than prejudice and listened to students like these who want to learn history in all its complexity rather than having politicians ban critical history and force students historically to put their “heads in the sand.”