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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

The wilderness of Zinn

The late historian and ideologue overlooked basics of human nature

Issue: "Ghost streets," Feb. 27, 2010

The last week in January was fatal for writers: Louis Auchincloss, heir and novelist of New York high society; J.D. Salinger, popularizer if not inventor of teen angst, and Howard Zinn, who made "people's history" code words for activistism.

By all accounts, Zinn (born 1922) lived a long, productive, and happy life as a chronicler of national unhappiness. Son of Jewish immigrants, he grew up in Brooklyn during the desperate fervor of the Great Depression. At the age of 17 he was knocked senseless by police at a Times Square political rally, and came to with a knot on his head and a new attitude. As he recalled it for students, in the graphic-novel adaptation of his life: "I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of democracy. I was a radical, believing something was fundamentally wrong with this country."

He served his country honorably in the Air Corps during World War II, married his teenage crush, and took advantage of the G.I. Bill to attend New York University and Columbia, where he completed a doctorate in history. After polishing his radical credentials at Spelman College, an all-black women's school in Atlanta, he landed a position at Boston University, where he taught from 1963 to 1988. He supplemented his teaching duties with anti-war protests, sit-ins, picket lines, and A People's History of the United States, published in 1980.

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Zinn's stated purpose in writing was to recognize "peoples" generally overlooked in standard histories. He began with the peaceful, generous island tribe who in 1492 paddled out in their canoes to greet a curious sailing vessel commanded by Christopher Columbus. The story of America goes downhill from there, with slavery and exploitation an ironic complement to "liberty and justice for all."

A People's History enjoyed respectable sales until the late '90s, when two up-and-coming young filmmakers gave it a boost. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck had grown up in Zinn's Boston neighborhood and admired him enough to include a plug in their Oscar-winning screenplay for Good Will Hunting. Sales began a steep climb, reaching 1 million copies by 2003. A companion book, Voices of a People's History, followed in 2004 (and was the subject of a recent documentary co-produced by Damon and the History Channel).

From the beginning, critics have pointed out the lack of context, sourcing and footnoting, and objectivity in Zinn's work. The author countered that his aim was not objective history, but prescriptive history-not studying the past as a means of understanding the past, but of changing the future.

When changing the future, one can't start too young. The Zinn Education Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to "Teaching A People's History" maintains a website of educational resources for getting Zinn's ideas into elementary and even preschool classrooms. A Young People's History of the United States is already available; next up is the comic-book version. The story always begins with friendly Indians paddling blithely into the clutches of European imperialists.

Idealists and ideologues tend to overlook basic facts of human nature. What's the point in encouraging kindergartners to "re-think Columbus" when they've barely begun to "think" him? Or teaching first-graders the right-wing political motivations behind the pledge of Allegiance before they've even learned the Pledge? The assumption that "the people" will always seek justice and equality if they are not oppressed is hardly proven by romantic accounts of native tribes. If history proves anything, it's that complex societies do not develop any form of equality without moral guides and governing structures in place: like the Bible and the U.S. Constitution. If students learn those structures first, they will recognize deviations when they (inevitably) appear, and democracy will self-correct.

Otherwise, we condemn ourselves to wandering in the wilderness, where "voices" compete for attention and power follows money. The testimony of millions who crossed the oceans and prospered, who succeeded beyond their parents' wildest dreams (like Zinn himself), who found refuge from political and religious persecution, will fall silent.

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to jcheaney@worldmag.com.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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