by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Wilfred McClay writes for the Martin Center about Howard Zinn’s negative influence on Americans’ understanding of history.
Historians tend to be skeptical about the influence of books and ideas upon important historical developments, preferring to draw upon material or broadly social and cultural causes as the best explanations of large-scale change. But it would be a grave mistake to neglect the singular influence that a single 1980 book, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, has had over Americans’ broad conceptions about the shape and meaning of their own history.
Less for its originality or plausibility than through its rhetorical simplicity and its undeniable narrative drive, Zinn’s People’s History has helped cause two generations of young Americans to believe that their nation is among the most culpable and unjust entities in human history.
Zinn was not an original scholar and, in fact, not even a historian by training. No one would accuse him of being a careful thinker, possessing anything like intellectual depth or scholarly authority. A political science professor at Boston University, he had the disposition of a radical activist, and indeed was the quintessential tenured radical, whom even the famously tough-minded BU president John Silber could not budge.
The handful of professional historians who have deigned to comment on his work over the years have been dismissive of it as simplistic and one-sided, despite the fact that many of them shared Zinn’s general political outlook, if not his activist leanings. …
… He was a master mediator of radical ideas, offering up a tendentious, simplistic, and relentlessly negative view of the American past, something he has been remarkably effective in conveying and reinforcing. In the 40 years of the book’s life, it has sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 million copies, most of which have ended up in the hands of students in American high schools and colleges, where Zinn’s book has achieved a ubiquitous and highly respected presence.