Howard Zinn and self-defeating pessimism

I am currently reading the ever-popular high school history text-book, "A People's History of the United States". The author, Howard Zinn, looks at American history through the lens of Marxist class-analysis, or class-warfare, as the case may be. So far, the history book has shown me that people have done, in word and deed, horrible things to each other. This is not a new idea to any Christian familiar with the doctrine of original sin, but perhaps it is shocking to secular humanists convinced by Rousseau and blinded by enlightenment confidence.

As interesting and depressing as Zinn's account can be, I cannot help but think something significant is lacking from Zinn's narrative. It is undoubtedly, doubt. Doubt that his narrative might be incomplete. A professor David Bobb of Hillsdale college hits the mark in his review for Claremont:
Zinn answers his own questions, of course, and he presents the Cold War as a struggle between "empires of influence." His interpretation is consistent with his ideology, in which moral and political differences (he berates Democrats almost as much as Republicans) are subsumed in class differences. In his tidy tale of how the rich hate everyone else, Zinn assumes the mantle of chief spokesman for the oppressed. He writes not so much from historical hindsight as from historical omniscience. A good historian will spur questions and prod his readers to investigate his claims. Zinn does neither, but instead makes students fearful, distrusting, and ultimately despondent about the possibility of patriotism. Instead of emboldening them to do noble things out of admiration for the great people and deeds they have studied, his book only serves to embitter them about America.
Has anyone else read this particular history? I think after reading a book like this, it is easy to adopt an attitude where you focus only on evil. A better attitude is one rejoices in what is good and rejects what is bad.


Darwin said...

I read some of it. It came home as a discard from the community college where my dad worked -- I don't know if it was being used over in the history department or if it was just a review copy. We looked at it for use as a high school book (knowing nothing about it) but the idea didn't last beyond a brief skim. I recall it being fairly biased (and having some minor anti-Catholic bits thrown in -- unless I'm recalling the wrong book) but not much more about it beyond that. Very much one of those books which seeks to find an interpretation and then impose it on the facts -- which leaves the student knowing much more about the interpretation than about history.

(On the other side of the spectrum, I found Johnson's _Modern Times_ annoying for somewhat the same reason.)

James H said...

Great post and linked

Zachary said...


I should say I don't know exactly how often this textbook is used. I'm going off largely anecdotal evidence: I've heard friends and teachers talk about it. If anyone knows better than me I'd be interested to hear.

I have made it a bit further in my reading, and I'm surprised at how many of his arguments I've heard from my peers. It helps to explain why , at least in the Northeast, there is a large segment of the population that is demoralized and uninterested. Or, if not that, then avowedly revolutionary.

I think some intellectual pluralism would help.

Ol' Blue said...

When I worked at the reserve desk of the University of New Hampshire Library, I noticed two professors had put the book on reserve for their classes, and the copies I regularly checked out were well-worn. I'm not sure how many profs suggested reading it for their classes, nor have I read it.
Your post reminds me of the literary critic Edmund Wilson's comment on Marx: "There is in Marx an irreducible discrepancy between the good which he proposes for humanity and the ruthlessness and hatred he inculcated as a means of arriving at this--a discrepancy which, in the history of Marxism, has given rise to much moral confusion." Indeed.

Zachary said...

That's an awesome quote.