History Through The Looking Glass

This is why we will always have the textbook battles:

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.

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.

History is narrative, narrative doesn’t exist without perspective, and perspective is subjective.

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8 thoughts on “History Through The Looking Glass

  1. I enjoy this topic so much. My father, a history teacher both by trade and at heart, would rail about this very issue. Among his many degrees was a Masters in curriculum which he pursued for the express purpose of having say in the way the books where written. I remember vividly where he would read from 3 or 4 different companies books on the same topic to highlight the differences in basic facts, let alone the angles and perspectives they were presenting. His theory was that if educators where going to be taught to just strictly teach the book (a sperate but equally passionate debate in our household, as that idea offended his Socratic questioning mentality to his core) they better have an idea of what they want the book to teach. A great teacher can elevate an imperfect text, especially as there is no such thing, but these discussions are important and worthy. Will’s closing line there is excellent and expresses one of the reasons I love history so much.

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  2. I confess that I love A People’s History and have re-read it multiple times. It is a permanence on my nightstand.
    I think it still presents a perspective that is much more revealing and authentic of the actual American experience than the average school book. But the article linked definitely gives pause and provides some food for thought.

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  3. For a variety of reasons, a good book on this is James Loewen’s “Lies My Teacher Told Me.” The title is a bit more provocative than its contents, but it contains an analysis of the main history textbooks in relation to eight or ten main story areas that are important and interesting. So it could be read as a corrective if you took high school history before 1995. But some of it is about how the text book market operates and the biases towards larger, non-controversial books.

    Mainly though he is opposed to the authoritarian voice in textbooks, which I think would apply to Zinn, though he would not have a problem with assigning Zinn, at the same time, as reading an approach from the right. But engaging students with competing interpretations and historiography takes time, so there has to be some dedication to focusing on what is and was important.

    And it surely isn’t the Spanish-American War.

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  4. Like traditional textbooks, A People’s History relies almost entirely on secondary sources, with no archival research to thicken its narrative.

    Not to comment on the rest of the excerpt (I read Will’s excerpt but not the whole thing yet)–and to commit heresy against my profession–I don’t see how one can write a longform textbook with more than a sampling of archival research. Or I guess I could see *how*, I just think it would take quite a long time.

    I also think historians focus a little too much on archives. Don’t get me wrong: I believe archives are extremely important. But they’re only one possible source base (or repository of sources, to be more precise). There’s a strong sense in the historical profession that the only real research is archival research. I can’t prove that that “strong sense” exists. I can’t cite anyone who says that. But it’s the sense I got while studying history in graduate school. That “archives above all” sentiment gives, to my mind, short shrift to other kinds of primary sources, like newspapers, dedicated journals (trade journals, for example), and published government reports.

    While I haven’t read Zinn’s book, I suspect the excerpt’s other criticisms are spot on. History textbooks tend not to footnote or cite what they quote. If you’re lucky, you might see a list of “suggested readings” at the end of the chapter that may or may not be the basis of the text you just read. (As an undergrad, however, I noticed that Poli Sci textbooks tended to cite quite a bit.)

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    • I think the bit about archival research is an anachronism. My wife teaches high school AP history. They are very big on reading some primary text and then chewing on it a while. It is more about the process than the result. Whether or not this is the best way to teach history in high school, it wasn’t how it was done in 1980. A critique of the book as being outdated in this respect, and that we need an updated equivalent is sensible enough. But as an abstract critique that ignores when the book was written, the proper response is a resounding roll of the eyes.

      As for archival research, my area of expertise is early baseball history. When academics dabble in the subject, the results tend to be grim. There are tons of bad baseball books by amateurs, but it takes a professional academic to produce a truly awful book. One frequent sign of a bad academic baseball book is the absence of primary sources. The major exception tends to be recycled doctoral theses, which typically use primary sources within the narrow focus but suck at understanding their context.

      In fairness, there was a brief period in the 1980s into the early 90s where sports history was an actual sub-discipline, and some good work came out of this. Most of what I see being produced nowadays is the work of dilettantes: someone who is a baseball fan, has a Ph.D. and therefore considers himself omnicompetent, and so produces a baseball book for fun without doing the work necessary for it to be a good baseball book.

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      • I read the critique as a little broader, particularly given that the piece references Lincoln, and the issues in that area are known to me. Zinn basically relied and quotes from Richard Hofstadter’s chapter on Lincoln from his 1948 book, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It.

        I don’t think there is anything egregious about relying on older materials, but Hofstadter’s polemic essay relied upon questionable accounts and quotes like this one:

        When Joseph Medill asked Lincoln in 1862 why he had delivered “that radical speech,” [the House Divided speech] Lincoln answered: “Well, after you fellows had got me into that mess and began tempting me with offers of the presidency, I began to think and I made up my mind that the next President of the United States would need to have a stronger anti-slavery platform than mine. So I concluded to say something.” Then Lincoln asked Medill to promise not to to repeat his answer to others.

        Hogwash. This was a period in which both the radical Left and the Old Right combined to deemphasize the role of slavery in the conflict, both portraying Lincoln as not really that interested in anti-slavery, but acting solely on personal ambition and a desire to appease the capitalists. In this context, Zinn should have engaged with the primary sources to blow the dust off this perspective.

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      • I’m not entirely sure I see the anachronism here. The attitude about archives I notice seems to exist very much today.* However, maybe I’m misunderstanding what you meant by that?

        For sports history, I confess I don’t know much about it. I haven’t read much of it and to be honest, I usually don’t read your baseball posts. That’s not because of you or the quality of the posts, but because I’m not a big sports fan and I assume (perhaps wrongly?) that I wouldn’t be interested. That’s a personal preference and nothing more.

        But I also suspect the historiography of sports might perhaps have more quality than you’re suggesting? I know personally two professional historians who have written on sports history and they seem to focus more on the legal/business aspects of it (in their case, baseball). How what they do compares with other works on baseball or with what *could* be done, I don’t know. But it doesn’t strike me as the antiquarian dilettantism you seem to be saying professional historians engage in.

        Again, though, I’m far out of my area of expertise and between the two of us, you’re much more likely than I am to know about the state of the field.

        *And to be clear, I’m pro-archives! I work in one, I enjoy working in one, and my ability to work in one depends on a lot of other people thinking archives are important. That in turn means that I want as many people as possible to visit the archives, especially the one I work at.

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