Agit Prof: David Greenberg Examines the Distortions of Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present made the Boston University professor a rock star among political liberals, Hollywood actors, and long-suffering AP U.S. history students searching for an “alternate view” of American history. It’s not every historian who gets Matt Damon to produce a History Channel special based solely on his book. Rutgers professor David Greenberg is among many critics of Zinn now emerging after his death who are pointing out one nagging fact: Zinn never let the facts get in the way of his historical interpretations. Granted, this news is no news. He may have been a celebrity among zealots with radical causes, but Zinn faced criticism for years from colleagues who shared his political beliefs but abhorred his habit of reducing “historical analysis to political opinion.”

However, in the guise of a book review Greenberg produces one of the most damning portraits of Zinn I have ever read. So much for speaking no ill of the dead, although the essay is hardly just an exercise in kicking the corpse of a famous scholar. I have criticized Zinn’s flagrantly simplistic and ideological interpretations of the American Revolution because of his almost naive desire to avoid examining influential men and women (the “elites”) without conceding they are part of the story no matter what you think of their behavior, as well as his desire to selectively write a narrative that furthers a political cause rather than illuminates the past. History should not be an exercise where scholars “have only to pick out such letters as we want, arrange them as we like, and say nothing about those which do not suit our purpose.” Perhaps the tide is turning and Howard Zinn is losing his luster as a folk hero of the institutionalized left — or at least, his status American historian to the stars. Note that the essay is in The New Republic, which is hardly a bastion of right-wing thought.

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3 Comments

Filed under Commentary, Scholarship and Historians

3 responses to “Agit Prof: David Greenberg Examines the Distortions of Howard Zinn

  1. Great post! You’ve got me curious – never once, in high school, or college, did any of my teachers mention Howard Zinn. I’m always excited to learn anything I can about history, so I’ve got Zinn’s name on a list for my next trip to my library. I’m ready for a slightly skewed view of our nation’s history. Zinn’s opinion of Washington, Hamilton and Madison is certainly odd, to say the least.

  2. As always, I enjoyed your reply. Zinn is the historian that conservative intellectuals love to hate, a man who made his mark mostly through activism against Boston University’s leadership before the publication of “A People’s History.” Of course, I am simply repeating what was already mentioned in Greenberg’s essay. My objections, however, are not an attempt at low-intensity right-wing warfare but the serious concerns of a historian and teacher sometimes rocked back on my heels by his historical conclusions and political diatribes — most times, you could not tell the difference. Many of my students come from homes where “A People’s History” is already on the bookshelf. When History Channel picked up the Matt Damon/Howard Zinn project I was surprised because the program just doesn’t fit the cable channel’s demographic. (My goodness, that’s the channel that is busting ratings records currently with “The Bible.”) He still exerts enormous influence, but the criticism of his work is becoming more outspoken and more obvious in the academy. Anyway, don’t let my objections cloud your reading pleasure. I simply conclude by saying Howard Zinn was a man who made history fit his political convictions, not the evidence.

    • Your objections won’t cloud a thing. 🙂 Getting another viewpoint, such as Zinn’s may be, is a way of expanding my viewpoint on history, regardless of whether or not I agree with it. Your ideas on “illuminating the past” are well taken. It’s not how we feel about the historical figures in our nation’s past that really matter. It’s their contributions to the story and their drive and direction that are truly illuminating. Keep sharing your ideas – I’m enjoying them very much.

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