How SHOULD History Be Taught?
An interview with David Detmer.
“So the depressing reality is that exposing frauds and slanders isn’t always worthwhile—in a just world, there would be a massive reaction whenever frauds and slanders were exposed, but that’s not the world that we live in.”
“Zinn talks all the time about the fact that people who subscribe to the mainstream values just don’t recognize that those are values, so that anyone who subscribes to non-mainstream values seems to them like a propagandist, even though the non-mainstream person’s work is no more value-laden than the mainstream people’s work.”
“Ultimately, there were dozens and dozens—and maybe 100 or more—distinct things that the critics said that were demonstrably false. To my view, it’s a major academic scandal that’s sort of like Holocaust denial or something in terms of how egregious it really is.”
Detmer wrote an important 2018 book called Zinnophobia: The Battle Over History in Education, Politics, and Scholarship—take a look at this comment from Noam Chomsky regarding Zinnophobia:
In his life and work, Howard Zinn made an immeasurable contribution to a more educated, enlightened, and civilized generation of Americans, more aware of the authentic history of their country and inspired by his example of courage and integrity. While justly honored and admired for his accomplishments, these also aroused bitter resentment and anger in certain circles, and he was subjected to venomous, contemptible attacks. The critiques and vituperation are subjected to rigorous and informed exposure and refutation in this spirited and comprehensive defense of one of the most admirable figures of the modern period. A major contribution to bringing Zinn’s great contributions to even broader public attention, and exposing features of intellectual and political culture that are of no little interest.
Zinnophobia is inherently important, but it’s also extra important right now due to all of the controversy around “critical race theory”—“CRT” is short for “critical race theory”.
And there’s a depressing aspect to Zinnophobia—the book exposes a major academic fraud, and yet the exposure failed to make any kind of impact. This prompts you to wonder whether it’s worth exposing frauds—what’s the point? Chomsky wrote this to me about the book’s impact:
It’s good that Detmer wrote Zinnophobia. For the small number of honest dissidents, at least there’s a source to refer to. The general impact verges on zero, as you can easily determine. E.g., look for reviews.
And Chomsky explained to me that it’s difficult to respond to slanders in an impactful way and that it’s sometimes not worth the trouble:
Actually I have responded to a great many, with about the same impact as Zinnophobia. E.g., in Manufacturing Consent, Ed and I ran through all of the moderately sane examples from the flood of hysteria about our work on Indochina. Did anyone read it? Did you? Did it stem the flood?
So the depressing reality is that exposing frauds and slanders isn’t always worthwhile—in a just world, there would be a massive reaction whenever frauds and slanders were exposed, but that’s not the world that we live in.
I was honored and thrilled to interview Detmer—see below my interview with him that I edited for flow, organized by topic, and added hyperlinks to.
How History Should Be Taught
1) What are the key principles of great teaching?
I’ve taught at the university level since 1981, so I’ve been at it a long time—I don’t know that anyone knows definitively what the most important principles are, but I’ll list a few things for whatever it’s worth.
First, I think that trying to create enthusiasm among students is maybe the most important thing—you want to really get them interested in and excited about the subject matter. If you can do that, they’ll think about it themselves and teach themselves, and that’s really the best way for them to learn. And with pretty much any interesting subject, there’s so much more to learn than you can cover in a given class, so ideally you’ll get the students interested and excited enough that they’ll continue to pursue it on their own after the class is over.
To create this enthusiasm, one of the major assets is that you have to be enthusiastic yourself—if you really love your subject matter, you’ll enjoy being there and talking with students about the issues, and you’ll actually be excited to have conversations with them.
Second, I think there should be an emphasis on critical thinking—learning isn’t about memorizing facts, but instead it’s about (a) evaluating the evidence behind saying that something is a fact and (b) thinking about why or in what way something is important and (c) considering any objections that there might be to something. So there should be as much discussion—and as much debate—in the classroom as possible.
Third, there are just the basic general things about being friendly and being respectful and being fair—you can really poison the class if you don’t do those basic general things.
Tragically, we have managed to simultaneously trivialize and complicate science education. As a result, for far too many, science seems a game of recalling boring, incomprehensible facts—so much so that it may make little difference whether the factoids about science come from the periodic table or from a movie script.
And in addition, pop culture presents a very dumbed-down version of what it means to be intelligent—shows like Jeopardy! and The Big Bang Theory depict intelligence as the ability to rattle off trivia.
One of the main things that you want to get out of studying science is a certain kind of scientific worldview or scientific attitude—that means that you don’t just accept something because somebody claims that it’s true, but instead you want to look at the evidence and weigh the evidence and think about the evidence.
But if science education is reduced to memorizing certain scientific laws and certain equations, then you don’t get that whole ethos of inquiry and critical thinking and so on. So the tragedy that Alberts describes doesn’t only kill enthusiasm—it’s even worse than that.
3) I find it damning that scholars say that they only found joy in their subject at the university level and that their subject had been presented to them in a joyless manner at the K–12 level—I have in mind a mathematician who said this and also a historian who said this.
Exactly—when people ask me why I went into philosophy, I say half-jokingly: “Because it wasn’t taught in K–12.”
4) What are the key principles of great history teaching?
I’m a philosopher, not a historian, so history teaching isn’t my expertise.
But I can immediately extend to history teaching the same point that you made about math teaching and science teaching—I found history incredibly boring during my K–12 education, since it was just a presentation of decontextualized facts. And the K–12 textbooks were keen to not say anything offensive, so it was very dry and very unexciting and it lacked any clear point.
First, I think a really good history class will focus on the forensic or scientific aspect—the past is gone, so to know about it we have to reconstruct it from present evidence. That aspect is quite interesting. And that aspect opens the way for the whole critical-thinking aspect: How do we know that these claims that we make about the past are true, and what’s the evidence?
When I was in K–12, there was nothing about the forensic or scientific or critical-thinking aspects, and instead we were supposed to memorize facts and regurgitate them on the test.
Second, there’s the causal aspect where you look not at what happened, but instead why it happened—now that aspect opens up all kinds of interesting discussion and debate.
Third, there’s the opportunity to focus explicitly on the question of selection: What’s important, what do we want to include, what do we want to skip over, what do we want to emphasize, and what do we want to de-emphasize?
This aspect usually isn’t addressed—you just study the material as it’s been given to you. But a survey of almost any historical subject—say, American history—has millions of things in it that you could consider, so any treatment will be selective. And it’s worth thinking about the basis of the selection, which leads into questions about what’s interesting, what’s relevant, and so on.
Fourth, history is supposed to be interesting because you can learn lessons from history and carry those lessons forward, but—at least at the K–12 level—they really present you with the facts and leave you to figure out the relevant lessons on your own. So I think K–12 history classes could be much more interesting if the discussion of relevant lessons were brought front and center like you sometimes see classes doing at the university level.
Fifth, I think K–12 history classes would be much livelier if textbooks included a diversity of definite perspectives—that’s a lot better than having a monstrous, dull textbook that some committee put together. And diverse, definite perspectives would make for much livelier classes and would sharpen for students the point that there are different ways to look at history and different ideas about what’s important.
5) On your third point, did you mean that students should actually be brought in on the process of selection?
That’s not actually what I had in mind, so I’d have to think about that—you wouldn’t want to go overboard with that, since students might want to learn about the history of video games or something, but that’s an interesting idea.
6) Even if students don’t have actual input, there could at least be a principle where you begin each course with a “behind the scenes” look at how the course was put together.
That’s what I personally had in mind—I think the suggestion about student input has a lot of merit, but I’d have to think it through.
I myself have only taught one history course—after I wrote Zinnophobia, I taught a course called “Fighting Over History” where I pitted Howard Zinn’s 1980 book A People’s History of the United States against Paul Johnson’s conservative book A History of the American People.
And I also included a book called History Lessons that had selections from textbooks all over the world so that students would get a perspective on the differences between American textbooks’ coverage of various events and other countries’ textbooks’ coverage of these same events—I thought it was particularly interesting to see in that book how Canadian textbooks covered things like the Vietnam War, since the Canadian textbooks danced a fine line where they tried to distance Canada from the worst aspects of American history without going too far in criticizing Canada’s ally.
I also included a book called History in the Making that looked across time and compared how textbooks from different times—the 19th century, the 1920s, the 1970s, and so on—covered historical events like Columbus’s expeditions. So you would see how the narrative would change with the changing times. And I think that stuff like that really helps to get a real discussion going about these issues.
7) Should a text like Zinn’s—that presents a bottom-up view of history—be balanced with a mainstream text and also with a right-wing text?
Counterweights are useful—I don’t see anything wrong with that approach. But I don’t know that that would be the only legitimate approach.
And unless you say to the class “Let’s dissect some propaganda in order to understand how propaganda operates”, you should include competing voices on the basis of scholarly criteria, which means that you’d have to find an accurate and really well-argued and really well-reasoned right-wing text.
Paul Johnson’s book seemed to me to be decent scholarship. But I have to report that he didn’t turn out to be as much of a foil to Zinn as I was hoping he’d be—Johnson agreed with Zinn on a lot of points and was actually much harsher on Thomas Jefferson than Zinn was.
And in my view, a standard history would be an adequate counterweight to Zinn—I don’t know if you’d call a standard history right-wing.
8) Who are some great teachers you’ve had, and what made these teachers great?
Erazim Kohák was a very inspiring teacher who had that contagious enthusiasm that I previously described—you could tell that he was just delighted to be talking about philosophy. And he had a very quirky sense of humor, which was also very beneficial.
J. N. Findlay was another great teacher who also had the contagious enthusiasm. And he had a great sense of humor, was very knowledgeable, and was able to present ideas clearly and lead discussions skillfully.
9) Who are some great history teachers you’ve had, and what made these teachers great?
Howard Zinn would be my example of a great history teacher—as an undergrad, I took a couple classes from him at Boston University, and I would say that he was probably the best teacher I ever had. Even people who were quite conservative in their politics thought he was a great teacher, even though they completely disagreed with his worldview.
Every class was a lot of fun—he had a tremendous sense of humor and a very relaxed and unthreatening manner. Every class was packed with interesting ideas, and he always treated everyone with respect and encouraged disagreement and never got defensive.
Zinn ran afoul of a petty and vindictive man named John Silber who was the president of Boston University—Silber didn’t like Zinn’s politics or his activism or his criticisms of Silber’s administration, so Silber punished him in every way possible. Silber denied Zinn teaching assistants, even though teachers who had much smaller teaching loads had teaching assistants. And whenever Zinn’s department recommended Zinn for a salary raise, Silber would veto it—Zinn’s salary was only $41,000 when he retired in 1988, which is very low for a full professor, even though he was an unusually productive faculty member when it came to how much he published and how many students he taught and even though he consistently got outstanding teaching evaluations.
But even though Zinn had no teaching assistants and had 400 students in one of the courses that I took with him, he never cut corners and never resorted to multiple-choice tests—he got us to do elaborate projects and got us to write lengthy papers. And he had hugely expansive office hours so that he could discuss everyone’s paper with them—he’d be in his office pretty much all day, and there’d be a line of students outside his door, and once you got in to see him he’d act like he had all the time in the world to talk to you.
Zinn also had very wide interests—he loved the arts, and you’ll notice that his books bring in philosophy, literature, film, and so on. Alice Walker was a student of Zinn’s, and she loved him as a teacher—she mentioned that they read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy during his course on Russian history, and I don’t think that most teachers would introduce the arts into a course in that way. Zinn wrote about the fact that he learned about the Ludlow Massacre not through his formal studies, but instead through a Woody Guthrie song. And Zinn once found out that four of the students in one of his classes were a string quartet, so he invited them to perform Mozart for the class, and he even tied that into politics and said (I’m paraphrasing): “Politics should be about making life good. And the arts are a big part of that. So it’s politically significant to listen to music.”
Zinn once saw that I had a copy of Plato’s Republic on me, and he struck up a conversation with me about it in which he clearly demonstrated a very deep and detailed knowledge of the text. And one time he saw that I had on me a copy of Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, and he had even read some of that, even though that book wasn’t available in English translation yet at that time.
10) What are the biggest misconceptions about teaching in general and also about history teaching specifically?
For both teaching in general and for history teaching, one big misconception in the present climate is that teaching is just indoctrination and that teachers just pound their own personal worldview into their students’ skulls—that sometimes happens, but I suspect that most teachers avoid that kind of indoctrination on the grounds that it’s unethical and also on the grounds that it’s joyless and boring and unsatisfying.
11) To what extent is it crucial for a teacher to get their students to approach course material with a critical mind and a critical eye?
I would say that that’s the biggest thing—if there’s no critical thinking, people will mindlessly regurgitate whatever they’re fed and they won’t even process or understand it.
I once took an upper-level formal logic class at Northwestern University where a professor didn’t notice a crucial typo on a very basic handout that defined some logic terms and logic concepts—the result was that the advanced undergraduates and the graduates in that class regurgitated a very basic error on the exam, so the professor had an embarrassing discussion with us after that incident.
12) What do people need to understand about objectivity when it comes to teaching history?
That’s a really good question—I talk about this at some length in Zinnophobia where I distinguish three different things: (1) objectivity as accuracy, (2) objectivity as neutrality, and (3) objectivity as centrism. People routinely pillory Zinn for opposing “objectivity”, but he was very clear about the need to be accurate, so I think the types of “objectivity” that he opposed were (2) and (3).
Regarding (2), people think that taking sides on controversial questions somehow conflicts with (1). But that’s an intellectual confusion—you can take sides on issues like the Vietnam War and still uphold (1) and still uphold classical scholarly norms like making sure not to omit relevant facts that are harmful to your position. And (2) is also an ethical disaster—what’s knowledge for if it can’t help us navigate pressing issues, and how can we navigate pressing issues if we’re deprived of the necessary intellectual resources?
And (3) simply conflicts with (1), since you need to follow the evidence where it leads, not consult a spectrum of opinion and then situate yourself in the middle of that spectrum.
I think that all sorts of mischief arises due to confusions and conflations regarding these three different concepts of “objectivity”. And as I document in Zinnophobia, Zinn’s critics say over and over: “This horrible guy isn’t even trying to be objective!” But these critics don’t have the decency to tell you that Zinn explicitly affirms the necessity for any scholar to be faithful to the facts; to not omit facts that harm their view; and so on. And it’s absolutely scandalous that these critics don’t tell you that, since it makes it seem like Zinn opposes (1).
13) Regarding your third definition of “objectivity”, consider the example of the Holocaust—if someone says that it never happened and someone else says that six million Jews were murdered, you don’t say that the “objective” view is that three million Jews were murdered on the grounds that that figure falls in the middle of the two opposing views.
14) But regarding your second definition of “objectivity”, should a high school textbook strike a furious tone or a bland tone about the Holocaust?
The value is accuracy. I’d say that euphemism conflicts with (1) and that (1) demands that you don’t ever engage in euphemism—in my view, it’s inaccurate to describe the Holocaust in bland, non-evaluative terms. And it wasn’t accurate to call Bush’s torture campaign “enhanced interrogation”. But I realize that that gets into the contentious issue of whether value judgments can be objective, so there’s another layer to this.
To strike a bland tone regarding the Holocaust is actually a point of view. And when Zinn says that “objectivity” is impossible, he means that (2) is impossible, since not taking a position is itself a position.
I think that people slide back and forth between (2) and (3). You’re allowed to take sides if there’s a consensus within mainstream American political opinion that something is awful, and I document in Zinnophobia some amazing examples where major historians rail on and on against anyone who would introduce value judgments into history and then—so help me!—later in the same speech or essay they say that it’s our duty to warn against Communism and to persuade people through our historical work that the American experiment is the right system. So it’s clear that they don’t even perceive certain value judgments as value judgments—the consensus view in their community is invisible in the way that water presumably is to a fish, so they just swim around in those kinds of value judgments and don’t recognize them as such.
Zinn talks all the time about the fact that people who subscribe to the mainstream values just don’t recognize that those are values, so that anyone who subscribes to non-mainstream values seems to them like a propagandist, even though the non-mainstream person’s work is no more value-laden than the mainstream people’s work.
I think that everybody introduces values—I think that it’s best to be explicit about your values, be honest about them, and be prepared to defend them. And you should also be open to hearing other people’s value judgments—it's important for everyone to hear a diversity of perspectives.
15) To what extent do teachers actually indoctrinate their students and actually make their students swallow course material whole? How often do good teachers slip up and do this? And how many bad teachers are there out there who consistently do this?
I don’t know. And I don’t know how anyone could know—I guess that you’d have to do a really good study to find out.
In general, I tend to favor things being open to discussion and debate and so on, but there’s room in teaching for presenting certain things as given—you can’t debate certain bedrock facts or else you can’t proceed with anything.
And there’s a legitimate distinction between popular controversy and professional controversy—there’s no good reason to pretend that there’s a legitimate scientific controversy over evolution or global warming.
16) I think that the key thing is that a K–12 science class doesn’t present something like evolution as absolute truth, but instead presents something like evolution as the picture that the best current science has given to us—a K–12 biology class is about what biology says, not about absolute truth.
Yeah, that’s right. Langdon Gilkey was a very devout Christian who testified at the 1982 Arkansas trial—during that testimony, he made a nice analogy where he said that biology class shouldn’t mention God’s hand in the same way that a history class shouldn’t bring up God’s hand when covering historical events like World War I.
17) People sometimes tell me that their K–12 had wild right-wing indoctrination in it. But the main theme that I get from people is that there was a bias in their K–12 not toward indoctrination but instead toward no teaching at all—one person I know said that she used to just watch Shark Tank in one of her classes.
Yeah—that’s a major problem.
18) Regarding indoctrination, could you ask people “Think back on your own K–12—how much were teachers trying to stuff their ideologies down your throat?” and get their responses?
But to return to the point that we discussed before, mainstream views are seen as factual and aren’t perceived as value-laden. So any time you try to introduce a little bit of nuance and try to include a non-mainstream perspective, some people will freak out and say: “You’re a propagandist! You’re shoving your views down my throat!” And I think this bias—where mainstream views are invisible and non-mainstream views stick out—will make this kind of thing really tricky to measure.
19) To what extent has the value of promoting critical thinking—and the value of getting kids to approach everything with a critical mind and a critical eye—been woven into curriculums in a way that guards against bad apples who might want to try to indoctrinate students? If a teacher’s whole job description is to get kids to think for themselves, wouldn’t that deter the 1-in-100 teacher who’s an ideologue who’s trying to push stuff on people? If that were the whole job description, students and parents would have a really good basis for complaint against any ideologues.
I’d expect that to have some effect, but I wouldn’t expect it to be a perfect prophylactic.
1) Who was Howard Zinn, what was admirable about him, what was not admirable about him, and to what extent does it make sense to call him “anti-American”?
He was a historian, a prolific author, and a playwright. And he was also a very talented and interesting speaker—lots of people wanted him to give talks everywhere, especially after A People’s History took off and he became famous.
I’ve already talked about his teaching career, but he was also an activist—he went to jail eight or nine times for civil disobedience.
People might not know that he did a lot of work as an expert witness when people were on trial for acts of civil disobedience—that was actually a big part of his career. And he was remarkably successful at that—there were several trials where the facts clearly showed that the defendants had broken the law, but Zinn would come in and make an argument about civil disobedience and the jury would acquit all of the defendants.
In terms of his personality, he had a great low-key manner and a great sense of humor.
I don’t have a lot to say about what wasn’t admirable about him, but he did make some mistakes, which I document in Zinnophobia. And you can maybe criticize him on issues of selection and say that he went too far in opposing standard history texts’ selection—A People’s History has like one sentence on the JFK assassination, and there’s nothing in the book about the moon landings, and there are a few other things like that. It’s not true that he never talked about America’s accomplishments, but there are some instances where he omits some impressive accomplishments, so there are grounds for criticism.
I didn’t know him that well, so I can’t comment on his personal life, though he was a human being so I’m sure that he had flaws like anyone else.
People tend to conflate America with the rich and the powerful, but the whole point of A People’s History is that the major social progress in the US has happened due to agitation from below—there’s lots of admiration in that book for many, many Americans, but there’s not so much admiration for the people on top who are normally celebrated in history books. So when people say that Zinn is “anti-American”, I think they really mean that he’s very critical of America’s leaders.
If you view history based on moral principles, you’ll be highly critical of American leaders whenever American leaders violate those moral principles. But if you view history as a fight between Good Guys and Bad Guys and regard American leaders as the Good Guys, you’ll view criticisms of American leaders as “anti-American”.
In my opinion, it’s illogical to criticize someone for being “anti-American”—there’s nothing wrong with criticizing American society or American culture or American leadership, and nothing is automatically good just because it’s American or automatically bad just because it’s not American.
2) Why is Zinn’s 1980 book A People’s History of the United States an important text for teaching American history, what percentage of American high school students engage with that text in history class, and what percentage of American high school students should engage with that text in history class?
I’d say that the book is historically important—as far as I know, it was the first really successful book to present the full sweep of American history from a bottom-up perspective. It’s not a particularly original work of scholarship, as Zinn would be the first to say, but it brings together other scholars’ work and organizes that work in a certain way to include things that hadn’t been included in other surveys and to emphasize things that hadn’t been emphasized in other surveys. And that was very much needed as a counterweight against the standard histories—Zinn was clear that he didn’t want his book to be the definitive work on American history and that he just wanted his book to serve as a counterweight against the mainstream texts.
I can’t say how many high school students read the book today.
Other historical materials also give a bottom-up perspective, so it’s not like Zinn’s book is the only option. And his book has inevitably become more and more outdated over the years, although he corrected several errors and did several updates.
3) What are the main ideas in your 2018 book Zinnophobia? Noam Chomsky praised your 2018 book: “A major contribution to bringing Zinn’s great contributions to even broader public attention, and exposing features of intellectual and political culture that are of no little interest.”
It’s a big 584-page book, but it only has three chapters.
The first chapter is about the Mitch Daniels controversy—I dissect Daniels’s argument for why A People’s History should be banned. So that might be interesting to people who pay attention to the issue of censorship. And the whole censorship issue has a new contemporary relevance because of the CRT stuff.
The second chapter is largely about issues of bias and objectivity in history—we’ve already discussed that a bit.
And the third chapter discusses Zinn’s critics—it’s 373 pages long because I wanted to be exhaustive so that I couldn’t be accused of omitting anything or cherry-picking anything.
Let me say a bit about how that third chapter came about. When Mitch Daniels was the governor of Indiana, he sent out some emails about how terrible Zinn’s book was and how the book shouldn’t be used for credit anywhere in Indiana. Zinn had just died, and Daniels repeated—in the original email that he sent out—a right-wing obituary’s false claim that Zinn’s book was the “textbook of choice” in colleges and high schools around the country.
We know anecdotally—from asking students—that Zinn’s book gets some use, but it definitely hasn’t ever been Indiana’s “textbook of choice”. And I’ve never heard of a case where it was used as the sole textbook—it’s always used in conjunction with other more orthodox materials.
I think it’s fair to say that Daniels was a bit embarrassed when the emails were released, since there was a lot of negative press around those emails and a lot of journalists used the word “censorship”. So Daniels tried to downplay what he’d done. And in trying to justify what he’d done, he repeatedly said: “You don’t have to take my word for how terrible Howard Zinn is—here are some quotes from leading historians and scholars who say how terrible Zinn is, and I’ve got an even longer list of quotes that you can get on request.”
So I sent Daniels an email and his secretary responded and eventually I got the longer list. And I investigated all of the criticisms that people had put forward regarding Zinn’s work. My expectation going into the investigation was that the people attacking Zinn would have at least a few solid criticisms—I expected to be able to defend the value of Zinn’s work, but I also expected to find during the investigation some mistakes on his part and some problems with his work.
But over and over I found that the critics made appalling and shocking errors where they would say things that were demonstrably false—things that you could easily check. And I feel like that’s the main discovery in my book, namely that there’s this whole tradition of bashing Zinn using claims that are absolutely false and easily debunked.
The third chapter addresses every critic on Daniels’s list; every scholar I could find who defended Daniels for wanting to censor Zinn; and a handful of other people who were serious scholars and who had harshly denounced Zinn.
Ultimately, there were dozens and dozens—and maybe 100 or more—distinct things that the critics said that were demonstrably false. To my view, it’s a major academic scandal that’s sort of like Holocaust denial or something in terms of how egregious it really is.
4) How many solid criticisms of Zinn did you find during your investigation?
One of Zinn’s critics accurately pointed out that he was wrong about the death toll of the bombing of Dresden—he said that it was over 100,000 people, whereas it was more like 20,000 or 25,000 people. So Zinn was way off on that.
And there were two unclear cases—one to do with George Washington’s wealth and one to do with unemployment under Ronald Reagan—where it was ambiguous as to whether he’d made an error.
And that’s it for serious criticisms. And then there were more than 30 distinct cases where the critics’ accusations of factual error were demonstrably wrong and easy to debunk.
5) How prestigious were the people making these false claims regarding Zinn?
6) You mentioned in an interview an instance where someone claimed that Zinn’s book omitted the fact that Lincoln freed the slaves.
That was Sean Wilentz at Princeton—when Zinn died, Wilentz remarked that Zinn “had a very simplified view that everyone who was president was always a stinker and every left-winger was always great. That can’t be true.…Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. You wouldn’t know that from Howard Zinn.”
But on the very first page of Zinn’s chapter on the Civil War, it says: “It was Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves.” That’s on page 171 of A People’s History, and he says it twice on that page.
I like to make three points about wild mistakes like this one from Zinn’s critics. First, it’s difficult to understand how the mistake was made. Second, if Zinn himself had ever made a mistake of this magnitude, there would have been an absolute uproar. Third, if a freshman student in a class at my university submitted a paper with a mistake of this magnitude, it would be difficult to justify giving the paper a passing grade.
Consider Wilentz’s mistake regarding Lincoln—it’s hard to think of a plausible explanation for how that mistake could even have happened. You’d think that anyone with the most minimal sense of human decency and the most minimal scholarly skills would fact-check the one example that they’re invoking in order to claim that someone who just died was biased.
Notice how easy it was for me to debunk this—the book is available online, so you just have to download it and search for the word “Lincoln” and it pops right up. And the book has a pretty good index, so it’s not hard to look things up in the book’s print version. So this is mind-boggling incompetence on the part of a very prestigious scholar.
And can you imagine the uproar that would’ve been generated if Zinn himself had ever made a mistake of this sort? Imagine that Zinn had tried to take someone down with a public accusation that the person had never said X when in fact it was an easily checked matter of record that the person had in fact said X in a book that had sold millions of copies—nobody ever accused Zinn of anything like that.
So why haven’t any of Wilentz’s colleagues in the history profession called Wilentz out for this, even as these colleagues claim to have taken offense at smaller transgressions that Zinn was accused of? It’s shocking.
7) I suspect that these scholars didn’t read Zinn’s book and that these scholars just swallowed whole whatever gossip and hearsay they’d heard about what was in the book—you see that with Chomsky where anti-Chomsky people don’t have a clue what’s in his books.
Yeah, my guess is that Wilentz just had a general impression that Zinn was really one-sided and that Wilentz was so arrogant that he didn’t even bother to check. So I guess I should say that I can imagine how this error might’ve happened but that I can’t imagine how any decent and serious person trying to be fair and reasonable could’ve made this error.
There was another shocking one where Sam Wineburg at Stanford wrote in a journal article that Zinn was overly dogmatic and insufficiently open to the possibility that Zinn’s interpretation of history wasn’t correct. And Wineburg wrote that historians have an appropriate modesty that they express with frequent use of qualifiers like “perhaps”, “maybe”, “might”, “on other hand”, and “seems”. And then Wineburg wrote that “a search in A People’s History for qualifiers mostly comes up empty” and that Zinn’s book “extinguishes” the word “perhaps”.
This jumped out at me—proper scholarly method requires you to explain how your search worked and what your search found, so you don’t just vaguely say that a search came up “mostly empty”.
So I found a copy of Zinn’s book online and I did a search. And I found that the word “perhaps” appeared 101 times in his book—this is one of the words that Wineburg said that Zinn’s book “extinguishes”. So Zinnophobia documents—with page numbers—every instance in Zinn’s book where the word that Zinn “extinguishes” appears. And I even went into meticulous detail and looked at every instance to make sure that I didn’t count instances in the book where “perhaps” was part of a quote. And then I did a search and found that there were 130 instances where he used “seem” or “seems” or “seemed”. So he uses qualifying language all over the place.
And it gets worse—at one point, Wineburg attacks a particular passage and actually edits out of the passage the phrase “seemed to be”, which to me is just plain research fraud.
And then at another point Wineburg talks about one of Zinn’s claims and says that Zinn “hangs his claim on three pieces of evidence” and cites the page in Zinn’s book. But then when I went to that page, I found that there were five anecdotes—not three—and there’s absolutely no explanation as to why two of the anecdotes were missing.
So in this eight-page journal article, Wineburg has 30 demonstrably false statements about Zinn. And the article is about the fact that Zinn is sloppy and that Zinn isn’t a good scholar and that we shouldn’t trust Zinn! So it’s just incredible.
8) Have any of these scholars responded to what you uncovered?
I’m rather frustrated with the history community’s lack of response—I’m making these explosive claims about an academic scandal, and yet nobody seems to want to fight back against what I’ve written or try to debunk what I’ve written.
I’m not trying to ruin anybody’s career here, but there should be standards about these kinds of things and there should be accountability when scholars go out and make bogus claims.
9) Supposed that these scholars apologized and said: “I didn’t read Zinn’s book and I was just operating based on gossip and hearsay.” Would you accept their apology?
But unfortunately, Howard Zinn is no longer alive to receive an apology.
10) What are some more egregious instances where scholars made false accusations against Zinn?
The editors of the National Review said in their 29 July 2013 issue that the “thought of Joan Baez receives more prominent attention than does that of Alexander Hamilton” in Zinn’s book. But I did a search and I found that Alexander Hamilton is mentioned 15 times in Zinn’s book and that the book only mentions Joan Baez once when the book says that “Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, singing not only protest songs, but songs reflecting the new abandon, the new culture, became popular idols”. So clearly the editors of the National Review don’t expect their audience to actually check a claim like that.
And in a 2003 article called “Master of Deceit”, Daniel J. Flynn uses a doctored quote to accuse Zinn of dishonesty regarding the level of crime in the United States—Flynn actually alters a quotation from Zinn without using any ellipsis to indicate that the quote has been changed.
To give another example, Oscar Handlin at Harvard—who won a Pulitzer Prize—says in his American Scholar review of Zinn’s book that Zinn “lavishes indiscriminate condemnation upon all the works of man—that is, upon civilization, a word he usually encloses in quotation marks”. First off, it’s pretty absurd to say that he “lavishes indiscriminate condemnation upon all the works of man” when he constantly talks about poems and plays and novels and songs and pieces of music that he admires—to Handlin, “civilization” apparently just means governments and doesn’t include the arts. But I checked the checkable factual claim that he “usually encloses” the word in quotation marks—I found that he does that two out of 20 times in the book, which is 10% of the time and isn’t “usually”.
To give one more example, David Greenberg wrote in a 2013 New Republic piece that Zinn “relentlessly criticized American policy and seems to have stayed silent about the Soviet Union”—that sentence immediately jumped out at me because I thought: “Why resort to ‘seems’? Why not look and see if he was silent about the Soviet Union?” So in Zinnophobia I quote Zinn saying that the Soviet Union “has been brutal in its treatment of its own citizens, murdering peasants in large numbers during the process of collectivization; imprisoning, torturing, and executing those it considered dissidents”.
And I document in my book that Zinn used all of the following words in connection with the Soviet Union: “ruthless”, “oppressive”, “brutal”, “murderous”, “a dictatorship”, “a police state”, and “an example of fascism”. And I also document in my book that he criticized the Soviet Union for “its aggression, its atrocities, and its monstrous tyranny”.
And as I point out in my book, all of these quotes from Zinn about the Soviet Union are from his major works; are easy to find; and are often in the obvious places that you’d look if you wanted to find his views on the Soviet Union.
11) Is it fair to say that there must have been an intent to deceive audiences in the cases where quotes were manipulated or doctored?
Absolutely—in the cases where there’s manipulation or doctoring, you can’t merely say that the person didn’t read the book and was operating based on gossip and hearsay.
12) What are your thoughts on an intellectual culture in which gossip and hearsay are able to bias academics against things that academics haven’t even read for themselves?
I don’t know to what extent that happens.
To the extent that it does happen, it’s deplorable—you’d think it would be obvious that you shouldn’t criticize a book that you haven’t read.
13) Doesn’t Zinnophobia document many instances where the most charitable interpretation is that that’s exactly what happened?
I just don’t know how to explain the errors I found.
The possibilities are endless—are they lying, or confusing Zinn with someone else, or…?
14) When exactly did Zinn become a bogeyman for the right wing?
That’s a really good question.
As of 2015 when I last checked, A People’s History had sold over 2.6 million copies, so that fantastic success—absolutely unheard-of for a history book—must’ve attracted right-wing attention.
15) Why do intellectuals suck up to power? Why don’t intellectuals just get tenure and then go into full dissident mode?
That’s also a really good question—I don’t know for sure the answer, but I do have a couple thoughts.
First, I’ve noticed that some of the people who suck up to power within the university structure aspire to become administrators and often do become administrators—administrators make a lot more money than professors do. So people who want money and want the higher title will suck up, since you won’t get any rewards if you’re critical of the administration and you fight them on policy.
Second, even if you don’t have your eyes on becoming an administrator, you can be punished if you don’t suck up—I don’t think that that’s a good excuse, since tenured professors have way more job security than almost any other kind of worker in the world, but recall the ways that Silber was able to make Zinn’s life more difficult. One of my colleagues was assigned two courses one semester, and one course was at 8:00AM and the other course was at 8:00PM, so that kind of nonsense makes your life more difficult.
Chomsky has addressed this topic, and I think that his ideas are pretty interesting—he says that disobedient people get filtered out from kindergarten forward and that it’s only by accident that a rebellious person will make it through the filters.
16) I have a piece on Chomsky’s explanation—my piece gives the following quote from Chomsky on this:
I mean, I’ve felt it all my life: it’s extremely easy to be sucked into the dominant culture, it can be very appealing. There are a lot of rewards. And what’s more, the people you meet don’t look like bad people—you don’t want to sit there and insult them. Maybe they’re perfectly nice people. So you try to be friends, maybe you even are friends. Well, you begin to conform, you begin to adapt, you begin to smooth off the harsher edges—and pretty soon it’s just happened, it kind of seeps in. And education at a place like Harvard is largely geared to that, to a remarkable extent in fact.
Zinn commented that he thought that the harsh criticisms against him were less due to political conservatism and more due to professional conservatism—as he put it, doing things differently from other historians “causes stares and suspicions”.
17) Chomsky has commented that there’s a resistance to change in the humanities and that there’s a lot more challenge and critical thinking at a science-based university like MIT than there is at a humanities-based university like Harvard.
Chomsky has also commented that scientists and philosophers and engineers and mathematicians will evaluate his arguments without worrying about his credentials, but that journalists and political scientists will say: “What do you know about our field? You don’t have any credentials in our field!”
18) But interestingly enough, Zinn actually was a credentialed historian.
And yet there are people who don’t even know that!
For example, Harvard’s Jill Lepore said in a 2018 interview that the problem with Zinn was that he was a political scientist. But he had a PhD in history and all of his writings—with maybe one exception that you could call political science—were history!
The Current Concerns
His most recent book, Chomsky for Activists, traces the aforementioned undeniable truth, that the arc of American politics has moved in his direction, thanks in large part to activism. Chomsky wrote The Political Economy of Human Rights and Manufacturing Consent around the same time that Howard Zinn was writing The People’s History of the United States. At the time, all three books (and especially Zinn’s) were almost universally denounced as scandalous anti-American provocations.
Today there’s a debate over whether the Zinn/Chomsky view of American history has become too hegemonic in academia. I’m not sure The 1619 Project isn’t a clever subversion of Chomskyan politics rather than an affirmation of it, but the influence of his mode of thinking in modern American culture is still clear from any angle.
I respect Matt Taibbi, but I think it’s absurd to even suggest that it’s become hegemonic.
It’s true that there’s much more of this kind of criticism in academia than you find in the mainstream media. And it’s also true that there’s a lot more consciousness now around the two most egregious aspects of American history, namely slavery and what was done to Native Americans.
But in general, I don’t see the “Zinn/Chomsky” worldview being at all dominant—I think it’s very much a minority worldview. The WaPo piece that Taibbi links to says this: “For decades I have heard people fret that history teachers are down on America, but evidence for that is hard to find.”
2) What do you think about the below quote from “The 1776 Report”?
By turning to bitterness and judgment, distorted histories of those like Howard Zinn or the journalists behind the “1619 Project” have prevented their students from learning to think inductively with a rich repository of cultural, historical, and literary referents. Such works do not respect their students’ independence as young thinkers trying to grapple with social complexity while forming their empirical judgments about it. They disdain today’s students, just as they doubt the humanity, goodness, or benevolence in America’s greatest historical figures. They see only weaknesses and failures, teaching students truth is an illusion, that hypocrisy is everywhere, and that power is all that matters.
This is just nonsense on stilts—how does presenting a given point of view to students prevent students from consulting other points of view and exploring other perspectives? So that complaint implies an understanding of education in which education is just ramming one’s view down students’ throats as The Truth.
And do people really think that Howard Zinn and the 1619 Project teach students that “power is all that matters”? Isn’t the whole point of Zinn’s book that there are moral considerations that matter and that power isn’t all that matters? So that’s pretty ridiculous.
3) What do you think about Donald Trump’s below remarks that he made on 17 September 2020?
The radicals burning American flags want to burn down the principles enshrined in our founding documents, including the bedrock principle of equal justice under law. In order to radically transform America, they must first cause Americans to lose confidence in who we are, where we came from, and what we believe. As I said at Mount Rushmore—which they would love to rip down and it rip it down fast, and that’s never going to happen—two months ago, the left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.
As many of you testified today, the left-wing rioting and mayhem are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools. It’s gone on far too long. Our children are instructed from propaganda tracts, like those of Howard Zinn, that try to make students ashamed of their own history.
The left has warped, distorted, and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies. There is no better example than the New York Times’ totally discredited 1619 Project. This project rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.
Nothing could be further from the truth. America’s founding set in motion the unstoppable chain of events that abolished slavery, secured civil rights, defeated communism and fascism, and built the most fair, equal, and prosperous nation in human history. (Applause.)
The narratives about America being pushed by the far-left and being chanted in the streets bear a striking resemblance to the anti-American propaganda of our adversaries—because both groups want to see America weakened, derided, and totally diminished.
Students in our universities are inundated with critical race theory. This is a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation, that even young children are complicit in oppression, and that our entire society must be radically transformed. Critical race theory is being forced into our children’s schools, it’s being imposed into workplace trainings, and it’s being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors, and families.
A perfect example of critical race theory was recently published by the Smithsonian Institution. This document alleged that concepts such as hard work, rational thinking, the nuclear family, and belief in God were not values that unite all Americans, but were instead aspects of “whiteness.” This is offensive and outrageous to Americans of every ethnicity, and it is especially harmful to children of minority backgrounds who should be uplifted, not disparaged.
Teaching this horrible doctrine to our children is a form of child abuse in the truest sense of those words. For many years now, the radicals have mistaken Americans’ silence for weakness. But they’re wrong.
There is no more powerful force than a parent’s love for their children. And patriotic moms and dads are going to demand that their children are no longer fed hateful lies about this country. American parents are not going to accept indoctrination in our schools, cancel culture at our work, or the repression of traditional faith, culture, and values in the public square. Not anymore. (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much.
We embrace the vision of Martin Luther King, where children are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
The left is attempting to destroy that beautiful vision and divide Americans by race in the service of political power. By viewing every issue through the lens of race, they want to impose a new segregation, and we must not allow that to happen.
Critical race theory, the 1619 Project, and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together. It will destroy our country.
That is why I recently banned trainings in this prejudiced ideology from the federal government and banned it in the strongest manner possible. (Applause.)
The only path to national unity is through our shared identity as Americans. That is why it is so urgent that we finally restore patriotic education to our schools.
Under our leadership, the National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded a grant to support the development of a pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history. (Applause.)
We are joined by some of the respected scholars involved in this project, including Professor Wilfred McClay. Wilfred, please. Thank you very much. Welcome. (Applause.) Thank you. Dr. Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars. Dr. Peter. (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you. And Ted Rebarber. Thank you, Ted. (Applause.) Thank you very much, Ted.
Today, I am also pleased to announce that I will soon sign an Executive Order establishing a national commission to promote patriotic education. It will be called the “1776 Commission.” (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you. It will encourage our educators to teach our children about the miracle of American history and make plans to honor the 250th anniversary of our founding. Think of that—250 years.
Recently, I also signed an executive order to establish the National Garden of American Heroes, a vast outdoor park that will feature the statues of the greatest Americans who have ever lived.
Today, I am announcing a new name for inclusion.
One of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence was a patriot from Delaware. In July of 1776, the Continental Congress was deadlocked during the debate over independence. The delegation from Delaware was divided. Caesar Rodney was called upon to break the tie.
Even though he was suffering from very advanced cancer—he was deathly ill—Rodney rode 80 miles through the night, through a severe thunderstorm, from Dover to Philadelphia to cast his vote for independence.
For nearly a century, a statue of one of Delaware’s most beloved citizens stood in Rodney Square, right in the heart of Wilmington.
But this past June, Caesar Rodney’s statue was ordered removed by the mayor and local politicians as part of a radical purge of America’s founding generation.
Today, because of an order I signed, if you demolish a statue without permission, you immediately get 10 years in prison. (Applause.) And there have been no statues demolished for the last four months, incredibly, since the time I signed that act.
Joe Biden said nothing as to his home state’s history and the fact that it was dismantled and dismembered. And a Founding Father’s statue was removed.
Today, America will give this Founding Father, this very brave man, who was so horribly treated, the place of honor he deserves. I am announcing that a statue of Caesar Rodney will be added to the National Garden of American Heroes. (Applause.)
From Washington to Lincoln, from Jefferson to King, America has been home to some of the most incredible people who have ever lived. With the help of everyone here today, the legacy of 1776 will never be erased. Our heroes will never be forgotten. Our youth will be taught to love America with all of their heart and all of their soul.
We will save this cherished inheritance for our children, for their children, and for every generation to come. This is a very important day.
Thank you all once again for being here. Now I will sign the Constitution Day Proclamation. God Bless You. And God Bless America. Thank you very much. (Applause.) Thank you.
(The proclamation is signed.) (Applause.)
It’s a common accusation that Zinn’s book tries to “make students ashamed of their own history”, but that accusation only makes sense if you identify with the Founding Fathers and people like that—if you identify more with the slaves or with the Native Americans or with working people, that accusation makes no sense.
And some teachers who teach Zinn have written essays that point out that his work tends to really inspire minorities and really inspire working people—these Americans feel more important and more significant in the light of his bottom-up perspective, so what’s wrong with making these Americans feel more important and more significant?
On a few occasions, Zinn himself defended his book on the grounds that it doesn’t merely tear down the Founding Fathers and tear down American leaders. His book is full of American heroes—there are all kinds of inspiring stories in his book about brave Americans who did courageous things and struggled to make the world a better place, and the book also includes various great achievements from Americans from all walks of life.
In one of his autobiographical writings, Zinn talks about a speech that he gave somewhere about Christopher Columbus—he says that a man came to talk to him after the speech and said: “I’m Italian, and you’re tearing down my hero, so who am I going to have for a hero if you tear down Columbus?” And Zinn answered: “How about Toscanini? How about Joe DiMaggio?” And Zinn went through a whole list of great Italians who had done wonderful things.
And it’s true that Zinn points out all of Columbus’s atrocities in the first chapter of A People’s History, but in that chapter he also discusses a Spanish priest named Bartolomé de las Casas who recorded what Columbus did and protested against what Columbus did, so Zinn provides a new hero to replace Columbus with—what’s wrong with replacing the traditional hero with a more moral hero?
4) Why are people opposed to replacing traditional heroes with moral heroes?
One of Zinn’s major themes is that there’s a great effort to get people to identify the country with the interests of the rich and powerful—when you have heroes like Columbus, that helps to justify the rich and powerful continuing to exploit everyone else.
I think that that’s a pretty plausible analysis.
5) All of this reminds me of Chomsky’s point that totalitarian dictatorships try to associate state power with the country, so that if you’re against state power then you’re somehow against the country.
6) What’s your take on Trump’s following comment? “The only path to national unity is through our shared identity as Americans. That is why it is so urgent that we finally restore patriotic education to our schools.”
Why not aim for something larger? If you want to unite people, why not unite everybody around certain moral principles like the right to self-determination?
Trump wants to unite everybody around the interests of the rich and powerful in America, but that’s a very narrow thing to want to unite Americans around.
7) And what about this comment from Trump? “With the help of everyone here today, the legacy of 1776 will never be erased. Our heroes will never be forgotten. Our youth will be taught to love America with all of their heart and all of their soul.”
Well, that definitely sounds like North Korea.
8) We want students to discover the truth in history class—how much should we worry about the “chilling effect” that occurs where teachers will choose to stay well clear of a politically charged topic in order to avoid the risk of hassle and controversy and trouble?
That’s a big problem.
With the whole CRT thing you have a situation where a lot of teachers will just want to steer completely clear of anything to do with race, since anything to do with race might make some white kids feel guilty and therefore cause trouble. And the Republican efforts to ban CRT basically define CRT as anything race-related that makes someone feel bad.
9) What do you think about the below things that suburban women in Virginia said in an 8 November focus group that was conducted after the Democrats’ extremely bad performance in the 2021 Virginia elections?
27% of them said that CRT is being taught in Virginia schools, 48% of them were unsure whether CRT is being taught in Virginia schools, and 62% of them viewed CRT unfavorably
one woman said that some of CRT’s worst ideas are slipping into schools even if CRT isn’t included in school curriculums
77% of them—including every Black woman—said that their opinion of America was that America is a good country
one Black woman said: “Our kids should be taught about slavery and all of that awfulness but America is also a good country and that’s what I want my kids to learn.”
one woman said this about CRT: “It teaches our kids America is defined by the worst parts of its past.”
Most people don’t have any idea what CRT is, let alone whether it’s being taught in the schools. So I applaud the 48% who said that they were unsure—that’s an honest answer on their part.
And to the 27% who say that it is being taught in the schools, I’d respectfully suggest that they’re just repeating what they’ve been told about how CRT is being shoved down our kids’ throats.
10) What about the idea that one woman put forward that some of CRT’s worst ideas are slipping into schools even if CRT isn’t included in school curriculums?
I wonder what she thinks those ideas actually are—from what I’ve read, the concern is that white kids are being made to feel guilty about their race and that white kids are being made to feel responsible for all of the sins of the white slave owners of the past, so maybe that’s what she’s concerned about.
And if that’s what she’s concerned about then her concern isn’t with CRT—CRT doesn’t claim anything like that.
11) One of the women said this: “Our kids should be taught about slavery and all of that awfulness but America is also a good country and that’s what I want my kids to learn.” But Zinn isn’t saying that America isn’t a good country—he’s just taking a bottom-up view. So why do people associate the country with the top-down view?
That’s an excellent point.
And to add to that, Zinn isn’t somehow “anti-American” just because he wrote a book that focused on American history—if he’d written A People’s History of China, that book would’ve had a similar analysis and would’ve been about Chinese elites doing terrible things to the Chinese population. And I document in my book that he wasn’t at all silent about the horrors of other countries like the Soviet Union.
12) And what about the idea that one woman put forward that CRT “teaches our kids America is defined by the worst parts of its past”?
Some people want to include atrocities and injustices as part of the story, but I don’t know of anyone who wants these things to define America.
It’s true that the genocide against the Native Americans and slavery were really big parts of America’s construction, but even those major pieces of American history don’t define America.
13) If the woman I just quoted read Zinn’s 1980 book, would she come away thinking that the book “teaches our kids America is defined by the worst parts of its past”?
People differ. I teach an interdisciplinary course—it combines art, music, literature, and philosophy—and one time I was talking about a Black artist named Jacob Lawrence and a student raised their hand and said: “Well, does he only paint Black people?” And it was a pretty conventional curriculum, and I’d shown a whole bunch of white artists, and this was the first Black artist I’d featured. And it wasn’t even true that he only painted Black people—I’d shown several Lawrence paintings that had white people in them too.
So this goes back to the issue of the fish not noticing the water it swims in—it’s normal to see white people, so you don’t even notice it, and then you see an artist who paints a lot of Black people and you think: “What’s the deal with this guy? Does he only paint Black people?”
So it’s not just a matter of people forming opinions based on gossip and hearsay—people might actually find certain material scandalous and offensive if they read it. And I can’t predict how this woman would react if she read Zinn’s book—this woman might read the negative stuff about Columbus and find that to be scandalous and offensive, even though the book has lots of positive stuff about bottom-up American heroes.
But like I said before, many people find the book’s bottom-up emphasis to be inspirational. And that’s because the book spotlights bottom-up American heroes. But that’s also because people from certain groups read the book and think: “Here’s someone who actually cares about people like me—here’s someone who actually sees our lives as being of value.”
14) There’s no objective way to determine how much time you should spend on America’s great sins. But isn’t there a good moral argument for spotlighting America’s great sins as much as possible? I’m sure that if China or Russia or Iran suddenly became intensely focused on their own sins, we’d say: “Wow, this is great! These guys are looking in the mirror! This is healthy and moral and good for the world!” So why shouldn’t we do that, given that we would find it admirable for China and Russia and Iran to do that?
Exactly—I’ve never been to Germany, but I’ve read that Germany is pretty good on this and that there’s a lot of focus in Germany on educating Germans about the Holocaust.
15) Do you think that the women I quoted got their ideas from Fox News? It would be great if these focus groups asked people: “Where are you getting your information from?”
They didn’t necessarily get their ideas from Fox News—Glenn Youngkin’s gubernatorial campaign brought up over and over how teachers were poisoning kids’ minds with CRT.
As for Fox News, it’s frightening how much misinformation and misrepresentation you see on there today. And it’s frightening how much they’re able to manufacture issues and then cover issues that they themselves have manufactured—it’s a terrifying feedback loop.
16) Will the GOP make CRT their main thing regarding the 2022 midterms?
I expect that they’ll run with it—it seemed to be an effective component of their Virginia strategy.
17) Isn’t patriotism all about criticism, since criticism improves the country? If your spouse smokes cigarettes, you’ll criticize them if you care about them and you’ll refrain from criticism if you hate them.
Exactly—it’s not really helpful to your country if you just cheerlead and just say: “We’re the best!”
18) To what extent do the women from the focus group have a fundamental confusion about the way that education works? They seem to think that education is just indoctrination.
This confusion comes up over and over again—for example, in one of the leaked emails Mitch Daniels wrote this to his subordinates: “Can someone assure me that it [=Zinn’s book] is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?” Notice that he assumes that Zinn’s book would be “force-fed” to students.
Many Indiana teachers responded and said: “Yes, I teach Zinn, but I teach it alongside other texts, some of which are critical of Zinn. And nobody is force-fed anything.”
So there’s definitely a confusion where people conceptualize education as indoctrination.
And there’s definitely a confusion where people don’t realize that it’s more important how you teach a text than which text you happen to be teaching—a professor might assign Hitler’s Mein Kampf in order to get their students to read it critically, but that wouldn’t mean that the professor was a neo-Nazi.
That’s a really good point—there’s a famous quote from George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
It’s definitely important to get students to try to draw from past events instructive lessons for the present, and Chomsky’s point there is exactly right.
20) So there’s a moral reason to focus on bad stuff in history class, just like in your personal life you should focus on bad stuff that you’ve done, correct?
Exactly—in my book’s second chapter I discuss four arguments in support of the selection of topics that Zinn makes in A People’s History, and one of those arguments is the moral argument that it’s important for people to be aware of bad stuff, and that argument also applies to our personal lives.
21) What do you think about these 20 May 2021 comments from Bari Weiss regarding CRT? (I’m just referring to the text, not to the audio.)
It’s interesting that Daniels compares banning CRT to banning phrenology—as I document in Zinnophobia, he also compared teaching Zinn to teaching phrenology.
But phrenology has been discredited and no reputable scientists defend it today, whereas Zinn and CRT are merely controversial and plenty of scholars will defend Zinn and CRT.
Notice that we don’t need governors or legislators to ban the teaching of phrenology, since the scientific community has already exposed phrenology as nonsense.
Historically, the results have been disastrous whenever non-expert politicians have tried to ban the teaching of certain subjects or theories—just look at the history of efforts to suppress the teaching of evolutionary theory.
And then there’s the point that CRT isn’t actually taught at the K–12 level—in fact, it’s rarely taught at the undergraduate level—and that the recent laws banning CRT actually seem to outlaw any race-related discussion that might make someone feel bad. So these bans’ vagueness will have a chilling effect that will wipe out many educationally worthwhile discussions about race.
There’s undoubtedly bad teaching on race and on other subjects, but the cure is a million times worse than the disease when you let politicians step in and impose their personal standards on educational decisions.