Is Howard Zinn’s “People's History” really bereft of nuance?

Historians in the News
tags: Howard Zinn, Peoples History

Related Links

●  Howard Zinn’s Anti-Textbook By Sam Wineburg

●   What Sam Wineburg Gets Wrong About Teaching Howard Zinn’s A People’s History by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca

One of Howard Zinn’s harshest, and most influential, critics is Sam Wineburg, the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford University, and Director of the Stanford History Education Group.

In the Winter 2012-2013 issue of American Educator, Professor Wineburg published an eight-page essay entitled “Undue Certainty: Where Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Falls Short.” My new book, Zinnophobia: The Battle over History in Education, Politics, and Scholarship (Zero Books, 2018), contains a lengthy, point-by-point rebuttal to the criticisms he advances in that essay. But now it has come to my attention that Wineburg includes a shortened and revised version of his anti-Zinn article (available at slate.com) in his new book, Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone). In response, I offer a brief account, largely adapted from my book, of a few of his many errors.

One of Wineburg’s main criticisms of Zinn’s history is that it is dogmatic. This is the point of the title (“Undue Certainty”) of his original article, and of the sub-title of the newer version, published at Slate, which claims that Zinn’s text is “closed-minded.” We are told that Zinn “speaks with thunderous certainty,” and that his narrative is “strident, immodest, and unyielding.”

What evidence does Wineburg produce in support of these charges? For Wineburg certainly claims to be motivated by a great concern for evidentiary quality:

I am less concerned here with what Zinn says than his warrant for saying it, less interested in the words that meet the eye than with the book’s interpretive circuitry that doesn’t. Largely invisible to the casual reader are the moves and strategies Zinn uses to tie evidence to conclusion, to convince readers that his interpretations are right.


So we can expect from Wineburg a high level of scrupulousness in his own conduct of providing evidence in support of his claims.

How, then, does Wineburg demonstrate that Zinn’s text is “closed-minded,” and exhibits “undue certainty”? He argues that, whereas “historians frequently use qualifying language to signal the soft underbelly of historical certainty,” Zinn does not do so: “a search in A People’s History for qualifiers mostly comes up empty”; Zinn’s approach “detests equivocation and extinguishes perhaps, maybe, might, and the most execrable of them all, on the other hand.” ...

Read entire article at Howard Zinn Website