A few months ago, Larry Ferlazzo asked me to respond to a question he got for his weekly teacher advice column at Education Week. Although I have tried to say no to most non-Harvest education commitments this year, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to answer the question, “What history myths are being perpetuated by textbooks that you attempt to break down/challenge in your classroom? How do you do that?”
I wrote my response a few months ago, which is now up on Education Week:
When I became a teacher a decade ago, I entered the classroom equipped with James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me in one hand and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in the other. I was convinced that the largest problem with history education was the absence of certain stories or perspectives from our textbooks. I saw myself as a myth-buster, ready to challenge students’ preconceived notions of Columbus as hero or John Brown as insane terrorist.
The longer I teach though, the more I realize these are not the most destructive myths that textbooks perpetuate. Rather, the most destructive myth is that “history is simple.” In an effort to be comprehensible, textbooks too often take complex causations and individuals and turn then into neatly identifiable causes and caricatures.
Little did I know when writing the piece that it would come out on the heels of a much-discussed piece by Stanford History Education professor Sam Wineburg in the AFT magazine read by most as a takedown of Zinn. Wineburg’s article should be mandatory reading for history teachers, despite its problems. To summarize, Wineburg critiques People’s History on two main accounts. First, it cherry picks primary source evidence to support the views Zinn holds. Second, like textbooks, it “relies almost entirely on secondary sources, with no archival research to thicken its narrative… [and] is naked of footnotes, thwarting inquisitive readers who seek to retrace the author’s interpretative steps.” Both these claims are correct and speak to the larger problem of simplifying history I wrote about.
However, despite Zinn’s historiographical limitations, I do not share Wineburg’s conclusions. Zinn is extremely useful exactly because it a secondary source with clear limitations. By telling history with a clear and biased perspective (unlike textbooks which try to hide their perspective), it provides teachers with a tremendous tool to teach students how all secondary sources are not unbiased factual accounts, but rather interpretations created by human beings that need to be read critically. When used with textbooks, other secondary sources, and primary sources, A People’s History helps students to do the historical thinking Wineburg so values. It does all that as well as providing a necessary dissenting voice to engage many students who don’t view history as theirs, as NYU professor Robert Cohen showed in his response to Wineburg.
Side note: Charles Blow’s column in yesterday’s New York Times makes the same points about Rosa Parks that I did in the Education Week piece.