teaching critical thinking and a people’s history of the united states

To be clear, I haven’t read A People’s History of the United States. I tried once, years ago, and got bored before finishing it. Treachrey, massacre, treachery, massacre. Yeah, that’s American history.

Sam wineburg is a conservative at Stanford’s education department and (“by courtesy”) its history department. He just published a book on history teaching with the University of Chicago Press. There’s a section trying to criticize Zinn’s book, which he adapted as a Slate article to promote it.

The next day, Slate had an interview with him, in which he’s eminently reasonable and right about a lot of things. Let’s talk about that first.

He has an excellent point: the problem with kids and adults these days is that they’re faced with the internet but don’t know how to approach sources of information like a historian (or an academic generally). In high school debate, I was taught explicitly about how to find different kinds of arguments in different publications (example: do you look for “school vouchers good” evidence in liberal or conservative magazines?). I also had an English teacher use James Fallows’ Breaking the News: How the Media Undermines American Democracy as a textbook. He was at the community college (I took high school and community college classes concurrently, which was free in Washington State). There was a high school English teacher who showed us creepy subliminal messaging in Disney cartoons.

You can learn so much just by reading. If you read a mix of older and newer stuff, you develop an intuition for how language conventions changed with time. You can just tell if something was written 100 years ago, or 200 years ago. People aren’t reading enough to develop that sort of intuition.

Rebecca Onion: How does the kind of education we need in order to be smart about the internet differ from the critical thinking module I took in eighth grade, back in 1991?

Sam Wineburg: It irks me to no end [when people say,] “Well, [the education we need] is just critical thinking. We don’t need ‘21st-century skills.’ ” And my response is that if we could get a necromancer to bring Socrates back to life, and sit him in front of a computer, he wouldn’t know about keywords and he wouldn’t know about search engine optimization, and he wouldn’t know how to put words in quotation marks in Google, so that Google searches for them contiguously. And I’ve watched really intelligent people, Ph.D. historians with incredible pedigrees, spin themselves in circles because they lack some basic skills in search.

Think of it as a Venn diagram. So hopefully in 1991, you were taught to not decouple information from its source, and to think of the motivation and intention behind a particular document, that it wasn’t self-evident information presenting itself de novo, but it came with a purpose and it was written down or said to achieve a particular aim. And that had to be taken into account when evaluating that information. And that’s what I learned when I took AP history and had to wrestle with a DBQ [document-based question] for the first time. A good history teacher takes away your innocence about information.

But you didn’t learn about SEO, which is not a skill, it’s an awareness and an orientation—[the idea] that Google is not a being of celestial intelligence that cannot be gamed. You find naïveté about Google in a lot of different venues. Most recently a researcher at Data & Society [Francesca Tripodi] did a report about evangelicals that found that they think Google is a neutral source. They think Wikipedia is biased against conservatives, but Google is just straight information. Without realizing that, you know, Google is in a never-ending cat-and-mouse game with the people who try to game it. So that’s a piece of knowledge that’s important for people using the internet to fact-check or to think about the quality of information.

The problem he’s describing isn’t limited to Google. It’s about the entire media. People treat the media as something that comes into being on its own, like rocks and trees. There’s very little awareness of the media as a business with interests, and only cartoonish ideas about media bias.

I thought this example was awesome:

It’s interesting that in some ways historians come off as great heroes in your book, and in other places they don’t quite have, as you’re describing, a suspicious enough attitude toward the web. But there are other aspects of historians’ thinking that can really help us out in an information-rich environment like the internet.

Absolutely. I’m literally speaking out of both sides of my mouth. … I think the chapter that’s one of my favorites, the work stuck with me with vividness, is watching a group of scientists trying to read Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation and inferring that Washington was, like, this super-religious pious guy, because of essentially a bunch of deist language that they were interpreting through the lenses of their contemporary understanding of vocabulary. And it was the historians who understood that these were code words that, if they didn’t mark someone as a deist, they certainly marked someone as going to great pains to avoid explicit mention of Jesus Christ, the savior, the trinity.

There’s a kind of suspicion that historians take in interpreting someone else’s language using linguistic codes of the present. Which I think is a humility that is applicable not just in thinking about the past, but also in talking to people across the divides that separate us in contemporary society.

He ends the interview by insisting on a distinction between facts, beyond dispute, and explanations of those facts, which are disputable.

That’s basically his problem with A People’s History: it presents the facts in a certain uncomfortable moral light, inconvenient to him politically. It’s funny to watch him to try to hate on it, while acknowledging the wisdom of using it as a textbook:

History, for Zinn, is looked at from “the bottom up”: a view “of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army.” Decades before we thought in such terms, Zinn provided a history for the 99 percent. Many teachers view A People’s History as an anti-textbook, a corrective to the narratives of progress dispensed by the state. This is undoubtedly true on a topical level. When learning about the Spanish-American War, students don’t read about Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill. Instead, they follow the plight of foot soldiers sweltering in the Cuban tropics, clutching their stomachs, not from Spanish bullets but from food poisoning caused by rancid meat sold to the army by Armour & Company. Such stories acquaint students with a history too often hidden and too quickly brushed aside by traditional textbooks.

Students don’t reach college history classes as blank slates. They’ve absorbed the prevailing white supremacist mythology from the air around them. The factual history of the US is stomach-churning from any honest, consistent moral perspective. Are we leaving out some other legitimate perspective, in which smallpox blankets were the right thing to do?

But in other ways—ways that strike at the very heart of what it means to learn history as a discipline—A People’s History is closer to students’ state-approved texts than its advocates are wont to admit. Like traditional textbooks, A People’s History relies almost entirely on secondary sources, with no archival research to thicken its narrative. Like traditional textbooks, the book is naked of footnotes, thwarting inquisitive readers who seek to retrace the author’s interpretative steps. And, like students’ textbooks, when A People’s History draws on primary sources, these documents serve to prop up the main text but never provide an alternative view or open a new field of vision.

Howard Zinn has the same right as any author to choose one interpretation over another, to select which topics to include or ignore. I find myself agreeing with A People’s History in some places (such as the Indian Removal Act, and the duplicity and racism of the Wilson administration) and shaking my head in disbelief at others (e.g., Zinn’s conflation of the party of Lincoln with the Democratic Party of Jefferson Davis). Yet where my proclivities align with or depart from Zinn’s is beside the point.

I am less concerned with what Zinn says than his warrant for saying it, less interested in the words that meet the eye than with the book’s interpretive circuitry, which doesn’t. Largely invisible to the casual reader are the moves and strategies that Zinn uses to bind evidence to conclusion, to convince readers that his interpretations are right.

I’m not sure that A People’s History was supposed to be a textbook, but he already acknowledged the practical reasons for using it as one. It provides a corrective to what students have already been told to think, presenting them with damning facts about capitalism.

This is something I keep repeating: the way to write propaganda is not to argue for your positions, but to treat them as taken-for-granted assumptions. Here, the difference between the racist party and the other racist party is supposed to be meaningful and obvious. Alright, so what’s the difference? He doesn’t say.

But this is not a story about Howard Zinn, the man. It’s about Howard Zinn, the curriculum. Zinn lived an admirable life, but who he was is not the issue when a teacher bases a lesson on the atomic bomb on secondary works written more than 40 years ago; or teaches about the Cold War without taking into account evidence that has come to light since the opening of Soviet archives; or conflates a Nazi bombing campaign with that of the Allies, ignoring Hitler’s barbarous assault on Poland; or places Jim Crow and the Holocaust on the same footing, without explaining that as color barriers were being dismantled in the United States, bricks were being laid for the crematoria at Auschwitz.

It is here that Zinn’s undeniable charisma turns dangerous, especially when we become attached to his passionate concern for the underdog. The danger mounts when we are talking about how we educate the young, those who do not yet get the interpretive game, who are just learning that claims must be judged not for their alignment with current issues of social justice but for the data they present and their ability to account for the unruly fibers of evidence that jut out from any interpretative frame. It is here that Zinn’s power of persuasion extinguishes students’ ability to think and speaks directly to their hearts.

What important revelations were there in the Soviet archives, which suggest a rethinking of A People’s History? If it’s not obvious to me, it’s not obvious to the average reader. We’re just supposed to assume there’s a there there.

William Spanos has written eloquently about his experience as an American POW who went through the Dresden bombing. He could see the point of the comparison, so it’s not absurd on its face. Again, the point is that students have already heard that Americans are the heroes of WWII, and the point is to correct the mythology.

There are certainly instructive comparisons to be made between Nazism and American white supremacy. What he’s actually insisting on is the myth of racial progress, because that suits him as a conservative.

To be sure, A People’s History brings together material from movements that rocked the discipline during the 1960s and 1970s: working-class history, feminist history, black history, and various ethnic histories. Together, these perspectives blew apart the consensus school of the 1950s by showing the squishiness of interpretations that arose from varied “positionalities” toward historical events. However, while A People’s History draws liberally from such work, the book resolutely strikes a traditional pose toward historical knowledge. It substitutes one monolithic reading of the past for another, albeit one that claims to be morally superior and promises to better position students to take action in the present.

That was a Stanford-level weasel move, for sure!

He’s very cleverly conflated these “identity histories”, which are really histories where previously-dehumanized groups count as people too, with postmodernism. That lets him associate leftist history with “squishiness,” which is another way of calling blacks and women soft-headed. We’ve never heard that one before.

He dodges the issue: isn’t the perspective in A People’s History morally superior and better suited to raising revolutionary consciousness?

Americans like their narratives clean. It took Zinn’s brilliance to draw a direct line from the rapier that Columbus used to hack off the hands of the Arawaks, to the rifles of Andrew Jackson that gave the Creek Nation no quarter, to the 9,700-pound bomb that Paul Tibbets dropped over Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. For many, seeing these disparate events as part of a single unbroken narrative had a transformative effect.

In his 2004 Dissent review, Michael Kazin suggested that the major reason behind Zinn’s success was the timeliness of his narrative: “Zinn fills a need shaped by our recent past. The years since 1980 have not been good ones for the American left … A People’s History offers a certain consolation.” Kazin often hits the mark, but on this score he’s way off. Zinn remains popular not because he’s timely but precisely because he’s not. A People’s History speaks directly to our inner Holden Caulfield. Our heroes are shameless frauds, our parents and teachers conniving liars, our textbooks propagandistic slop. Long before we could Google accounts of a politician’s latest indiscretion, Zinn offered a national “Gotcha.” They’re all phonies is a message that never goes out of style.

There obviously is continuity between those events. They’re obviously part of a common project, carried out for common principles: the domination of white people. If you deny white supremacy, American history fragments into a million inexplicable, disconnected events.

Whether they’re all phonies isn’t a question of style or fashion, but a question of fact. Yes, in fact, they are. It doesn’t make someone adolescent to notice.

He’s very careful to avoid stating his own, questionable political beliefs. We’re just supposed to understand that there’s something wrong with leftist ones.

He ends with a call to open-mindedness and understanding complexity. But he doesn’t explain what complexities call leftist conclusions into question.