This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
“If you want to read a real history book,” Matt Damon’s character tells his therapist, played by Robin Williams, in the 1997 film “Good Will Hunting,” “read Howard Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States.’ That book will knock you on your ass.”
It is very unlikely that President Donald Trump knew who Howard Zinn was before he saw the name on his teleprompter. And it is even less likely that he’s read “A People’s History of the United States.” But that didn’t stop him from saying — at the White House Conference on American History on Thursday — that today’s “left-wing rioting and mayhem are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools. It’s gone on far too long. Our children are instructed from propaganda tracts, like those of Howard Zinn, that try to make students ashamed of their own history.”
During his tirade, Trump announced his intention to create a national commission to promote “patriotic education.” The goal is to encourage, perhaps even require, teachers to inculcate students with a version of history that views the U.S. as an exceptionally just and benevolent democracy. (Surely he didn’t mean teaching impressionable youngsters that “The Pledge of Allegiance” was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a socialist, or that “America the Beautiful” was penned the next year by poet Katherine Lee Bates, another socialist as well as a lesbian and ardent anti-imperialist.)
“We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country,” Trump said. “We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.” If “ideological poison” such as Zinn is not removed from schools, Trump warned, “it will destroy our country.”
The conference, which was held at the National Archives and which had the markings of a bright idea by Trump’s propaganda czar Stephen Miller, included panelists who want American history teachers to avoid reference to the nation’s flaws. This was, in fact, how American history was typically taught in the 1950s and early 1960s, when textbooks presented a triumphalist, consensus-oriented, almost conflict-free view of the country’s past. These were the years when Trump was growing up and which he constantly idealizes as a golden age, when America was “great” — before the raucous 1960s arrived, disrupting it with protest movements against racism, militarism, and sexism.
But Trump and his allies are fighting an uphill battle. A Pew Research Center poll in late August found that 71% of Americans — including 87% of Biden supporters and 51% of Trump supporters — agree that “It makes the U.S. stronger when we acknowledge the country’s historical flaws.”
During this new upsurge of mass protest against Trump and police abuse, it makes sense for the president and his followers to try to downplay and discredit previous generations of dissenters. Trump made the connection clear.
“A radical movement is attempting to demolish this treasured and precious inheritance. We can’t let that happen,” Trump warned at the conference. “Left-wing mobs have torn down statues of our founders, desecrated our memorials, and carried out a campaign of violence and anarchy. Far-left demonstrators have chanted the words ‘America was never great.’ The left has launched a vicious and violent assault on law enforcement — the universal symbol of the rule of law in America. These radicals have been aided and abetted by liberal politicians, establishment media, and even large corporations.”
Trump also lambasted the 1619 Project, a series of essays about America’s history of racism, published earlier this year in the New York Times — another one of Trump’s favorite targets.
“This project rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom,” said the president, who earlier in his presidency suggested that abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who died in 1895, was still alive.
Trump’s idea for a government-funded “patriotic” education program is based on “Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story” by Wilfred M. McClay, a University of Oklahoma historian who spoke at the conference. The other panelists heaped praise on the book, echoing the review in the conservative “National Review,” which called it “an extraordinary act of patriotism.” (In “Dissent,” Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin pointed out that the book “ignores most social movements ” and gives the “silent treatment to the long struggle for black freedom.”)
Of course, the real purpose of the conference was to boost Trump’s re-election hopes by attacking scholars who, said speaker Mary Grabar, examine the “false idea” that America can be characterized by “systemic racism, wealth inequality, and police brutality.”
Grabar — who is not an historian, but has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Georgia — is the author of “Debunking Howard Zinn,” published by Regnery, the Fox News of publishers. Grabar worries that the book leads readers to view American society through the lens of economic and racial inequality. Speaking of “A People’s History,” Grabar fretted that, “People reading it cry and get angry, sometimes taking to the streets. The Zinn book was the most popular book for Occupy Wall Street protesters.”
Grabar is currently a resident fellow at The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, a right-wing outfit in upstate New York. In a recent essay, Grabar praised Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) for introducing the Saving American History Act of 2020, which would have banned the use of federal funds to teach the 1619 Project in K-12 schools.
Contrary to Trump’s claim, Howard Zinn was a proud American patriot. Unlike Trump, he was also a military veteran. At 21, during World War II, he joined the Army Air Force and served as a B-17 bombardier, for which he was decorated, attaining the rank of second lieutenant.
Zinn wasn’t ashamed of his country. He was angry at the wealthy and powerful people who, throughout American history, have abused, exploited, and oppressed workers, people of color, native Americans, immigrants, farmers, women, and other marginalized people.
When Zinn began graduate school in 1951, and during his teaching career at Spelman College and Boston University from 1956 to 1988, most American history textbooks in high school and college taught the subject from the perspective of the nation’s elites. Zinn championed the idea that history should also be told from the point of view of ordinary people, including society’s victims and dissenters, and the movements they organized to improve living and working conditions.
He popularized this view with “A People’s History,” first published in 1980, which has sold nearly 2 million copies. In 2007, he published a version of it for younger readers, ”A Young People’s History of the United States,” one of his 20 books.
Zinn’s book was already popular on college campuses, but its cameo appearance in the Academy Award–winning “Good Will Hunting” significantly boosted its sales and Zinn’s name recognition. Few academics have had as wide a following as Zinn, a historian who himself became a historic figure. As a scholar, Zinn changed the way Americans view their history.
In “People’s History,” Zinn incorporated the growing body of scholarship of historians who examined the daily lives and attitudes of women, workers, farmers, native Americans, and immigrants, as well as the activism of dissenters like Thomas Paine, Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Tubman, Eugene Debs, Mary “Mother” Jones, William Lloyd Garrison, and others who had been left out of or downplayed in standard history texts. Thanks in part to Zinn, these topics and people are no longer ignored by most American history books, although the teaching of U.S. history is not as central to typical public school curricula as it once was, pushed aside by the growing conservative emphasis on basic skills and rote learning.
The son of Jewish immigrants, Zinn grew up in “all the best slums in Brooklyn” before being employed as a pipe fitter at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he met his wife. After World War II, Zinn lived in public housing and continued working as a manual laborer for several years, eventually taking advantage of the GI Bill to enter college as a 27-year-old freshman.
Working nights in a warehouse loading trucks, Zinn studied at New York University for his undergraduate degree, then earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in history from Columbia University. Zinn’s master’s thesis was on the 1914 coal strikes in Colorado, and his dissertation was about the progressive politician Fiorello La Guardia. His 1959 book “LaGuardia in Congress” was nominated for the American Historical Association’s prestigious Albert J. Beveridge Prize.
As a part of his early research, Zinn returned to Europe to study places he had bombed during the war. Although he felt that fighting fascism was the morally right thing to do, he discovered that more civilians had been killed in bombing raids over France than had been previously documented, partly due to the U.S. military’s flawed selection of targets. This led Zinn to be skeptical of the American military’s justifications and competence in waging future wars, including Vietnam.
In 1956 Zinn was hired by Spelman College, a historically black college for women in Atlanta, to chair the history department. There he became involved in the civil rights movement, serving as an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and participating in protests (occasionally with his students). He wrote articles about the movement for The Nation and other magazines and then wrote two books — “The Southern Mystique” (1964) and “SNCC: The New Abolitionists” (1964) — drawing on his firsthand engagement and eyewitness accounts, creating history in the present tense. With historian August Meier, he lobbied to end the Southern Historical Association’s practice of holding meetings at segregated hotels.
Among his students at Spellman was Alice Walker, who would become a famous novelist. She called Zinn “the best teacher I ever had.” Zinn also taught Marian Wright Edelman, the civil rights activist, lawyer, and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, and Bernice Johnson Reagon, a scholar and activist who founded the musical group Sweet Honey in the Rock.
Zinn later wrote about his approach to teaching during those turbulent times: “I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.”
Zinn’s encouragement of civil disobedience by students and his criticism of local and national political leaders created tensions with Spelman’s administrators, and Zinn was fired in 1963 despite having tenure. “I was fired for insubordination,” he recalled, “which happened to be true.” (In 2005 Zinn was the commencement speaker at Spelman when the school recognized his life’s work with an honorary doctorate.)
In 1964 Zinn was hired by the political science department at Boston University. He was a popular teacher known for his humor and personal warmth as well as for his unwavering support for student and faculty activism. He frequently spoke at teach-ins and rallies about the war in Vietnam. In 1968, he traveled with Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan to Hanoi to return American prisoners released by the North Vietnamese. He also authored two influential books about the war — “The Logic of Withdrawal” (1967) and “Disobedience and Democracy” (1968).
Zinn frequently clashed with John Silber, Boston University’s autocratic president. Zinn twice led unsuccessful attempts by the faculty to remove the president, and he twice survived attempts by Silber to have him fired. Zinn was a cochair of the strike committee when Boston University professors walked out. After the strike was settled, he and four colleagues were charged with having violated their contract when they refused to cross a picket line of striking secretaries. The charges against “the BU Five” were soon dropped.
Zinn popularized and demystified topics that most academics reserve for other specialists and that many students find dull and lifeless.
Zinn retired from the university in 1988, dismissing a lecture hall of several hundred students thirty minutes early so they could join him at a protest. Over the next 22 years — Zinn died in 2010 — he continued to write books, and several plays, about politics and history, and was a popular speaker at campuses, conferences, and rallies.
The combination of Zinn’s scholarship and activism made him a controversial figure in both academic and political circles. He not only challenged mainstream historians to give a voice to disenfranchised and powerless groups, but he also frightened conservative politicians and school board members who worried that he was indoctrinating students and the broader public with unconventional and critical ideas.
For example, the Associated Press obtained emails from Indiana’s Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels to state educational officials in 2011 urging them to prohibit public universities and high schools from using “A People’s History” in courses. After reading obituaries about Zinn, Daniels wrote that “This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away. The obits and commentaries mentioned his book ’A People’s History of the United States’ is the ‘textbook of choice in high schools and colleges around the country.’ It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”
(Soon after the AP exposed Daniel’s anti-Zinn witch hunt, demand for “A People’s History” dramatically increased in Indiana libraries and bookstores).
Trump was right about Zinn’s influence. “People’s History” is still used widely in high school and college courses. And while even some radical historians have criticized aspects of Zinn’s book — including his reluctance to view many liberal reforms as stepping stones to further progress but rather as half measures that knock the wind out of the sails of radial movements — he’s had a lasting influence in the way scholars conduct research and teach about the nation’s history.
Trump, of course, has good reason to worry about how scholars write about American history, because historians will be soon be evaluating his presidency. Trump will be lucky to avoid a rare consensus among historians, ranking him as America’s worst president.
Peter Dreier is professor of Politics and the founding chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His books include Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, and the forthcoming Baseball Rebels: The Reformers and Radicals Who Shook Up the Game and Changed America.