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As this book explains at the beginning, most history books, especially textbooks, look at history from the point of view of power – kings and presidents, scientists and writers and other noteworthy names. Therefore, much of this history is about the struggle over power – wars, coups, electioneering and other means of transferring power, whether peacefully or violently. Most of these books make claims to “objectivity” without acknowledging that in fact, they are all, of necessity, biased. Writing history is a matter of what gets written and what gets left out. Who gets to tell the story and who is silenced.
Howard Zinn’s THE PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, on the other hand, has no pretensions about “objectivity. Zinn states up front that he is writing the history we don’t learn in school or read in the newspapers. He is telling the history of the people who have been affected by power and the struggle for power. In the Friedman/Thatcher/Reagan vision of “trickle-down economics”, Zinn is concerned about those getting trickled on and, more importantly, what those people have done and are doing about it. The original, adult version of this book is over seven hundred pages long. Zinn, along with co-writer Rebecca Stefoff, wanted to bring a more accessible version of the book to younger audiences, hence, THE YOUNG PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, which is roughly two-thirds as long with significantly less writing per page.
The young people’s version pretty much follows the adult version of the book, starting with debunking the myth of Columbus and continuing until about the date of publication, including information on the September 11 attacks, the war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq. The book ends with the Democratic resurgence at the midterm elections during Bush 43’s second term. Although Zinn makes it repeatedly clear that he doesn’t have significantly more love for the Democrats than the Republicans, he did seem to view this as a positive sign that Americans had had enough of abuses of executive power, foreign wars and empire building and federal overreach at home. Sadly, he lived just long enough to probably realize his hopes may have been overly optimistic.
Of necessity, the young people’s version is significantly less detailed and more simplistic than the adult version, which can be a bit of a drawback as it exacerbates accusations of bias and inaccuracy. As noted, Zinn never pretends to be un-biased, but the simplification in this book does away with a degree of nuance that seems to lead to a number of statements that have been simplified to the point of generalization, and generalizations almost always carry a degree of inaccuracy.
As simplified as this book is, I don’t recommend it for high school students (most of whom can handle the adult version). This book would be good for late elementary and middle school kids with adult guidance. I would like to see this book used in conjunction with a supposedly “objective” text book and maybe even an explicitly right-wing focused book. It would be a slow process, but a worthwhile exercise to have students comb through equivalent chapters and look for information among the texts that is outright contradictory versus information that is simply a matter of perspective.
For instance, the view of Columbus as a “great” explorer who “discovered” America isn’t necessarily incompatible with the view of him as a conqueror and slave master of the Indians – it’s just a matter of whether you look at it from a European or an Indian point of view. Students should pay attention in each text to see whose voices are included and whose are not.
But other sections, such as the Civil War, may present contradictory information among the texts. For instance, was the Civil War fought over slavery or not? Who was the aggressor? In these cases, students should be helped to find primary sources which may support one position or another. In this way, students will begin to understand how we know what we know about history and to understand the limits of objective “truth” in history, which really makes up a large chunk of what studying history is really all about, rather than simply memorizing names and dates.
One of the biggest drawbacks to both this version and the adult version of this book is the lack of footnotes, endnotes, bibliography or other references. Some sources are mentioned in the text itself and there are many quotes from ordinary people’s letters to the editor or elected officials or interviews with the media. But without adequate information to trace those sources for one’s self, the book suffers a small loss of credibility, even for those who support Zinn’s message and perspective. Students especially need to understand where historical information comes from and that, while it may represent an interpretation, the information underlying that interpretation comes from actual historical events as documented in many different sources.
Everyone, from the most flaming radicals to the staunchest conservatives, should read Zinn’s work simply for the neglected viewpoints he offers. If his information is wrong, then it should be easy enough to dispute it, debate it and determine the truth of the matter. But no one, child or adult, is going to be “indoctrinated” simply by hearing an alternate viewpoint or different interpretation. And, while Zinn’s viewpoint is definitely quite harsh on the power structure that has frequently led America in a bad direction, the book is not itself anti-American. In fact, the book is quite optimistic in the idea that ordinary people, standing up for what they believe in, have the power to change history and thereby correct the mistakes of our imperialistic, racist, classist past to create a more equitable and just future as enshrined in our founding documents.