Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Robert Cohen and Sonia E. Murrow's "Rethinking America's Past"

Robert Cohen is a professor of history and social studies at New York University and is the author of Howard Zinn's Southern Diary: Sit-ins, Civil Rights, and Black Women's Student Activism. He lives in New York City.

Sonia Murrow is an associate professor of the social foundations of education and adolescence education in the School of Education at Brooklyn College. Her research interests include the history, policy, and practice of urban education and the teaching of history to adolescents. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Cohen and Murrow applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Rethinking America's Past: Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States in the Classroom and Beyond, and reported the following:
Our page 99 introduces readers to letters high school juniors wrote to Howard Zinn (between the 1980s and the early 21st century), attesting that whether or not they agreed with the iconoclastic chapters they read from his A People's History of the United States and compared with their conventional textbooks they learned from such comparative history. Today, in a time of political tribalism when politicians want to ban curriculum they disagree with, like that of the 1619 Project or Critical Race Theory, this classroom evidence on Zinn shows that debate and discussion, not censorship, work best to promote historical teaching and learning in schools.

On this same page we discuss how in these letter students who disagree with Zinn's critical take on American capitalism, war-making etc. try to offer historical interpretations to refute his. And students who tend to agree with Zinn use the evidence his People's History offers to challenge their textbook's less critical view of such key historical figures and Christopher Columbus and Andrew Jackson. In both cases students were learning how to think independently about the past, offering their own views of history grounded in evidence and reason. This was facilitated by the excellent work of their teacher, who employed debate-oriented pedagogy quite effectively. The student letters this page helps introduce offer convincing evidence that politicians such as Donald Trump, who accuse teachers of indoctrinating students with Zinn's left wing "propaganda" do not know what they are talking about and grossly underestimate the intelligence of teachers and their eagerness to promote debate, pluralism, and critical thinking.

Since our book also covers how Zinn impacted America beyond the classroom, page 99 does not, however introduce our whole study. But it does represent an important part of our argument that the history of Zinn's best seller shows that when such evidenced-based dissident views of America's past are read and discussed they foster engagement with history and challenge us to examine nationalist assumptions that while popular are also often misleading.

In saying the book goes beyond the classroom we are referring to the fact that majority of the 3.3+ million copies of Zinn's People's History have been sold to adults at bookstores rather than to schools. So we looked at the many adult letters to Zinn and found that, much like students, they found Zinn's lively, critical, pacifist-inflected history, with its emphasis on the positive role of civil rights, antiwar, labor, and feminist movements, a sharp contrast to the boring, factoid-centered, natonalistic history texts they had slogged through in their school years. In this sense their letters offer a window onto the failure of school history, and yet more evidence that dissident and engaging historical accounts such as Zinn's are needed if this tradition of stultifying textbooks and disengaged history students is to be overcome via debate-oriented pedagogy.

Also beyond the classroom is the way Zinn's People's History provoked a re-thinking of American history via theater, film, and television, as when in the award winnng TV series The Sopranos viewers found fictional mob boss Tony Soprano angrily debating his son, as Tony insisted that Columbus was a hero, after his son had read and supported Zinn's critical account of the Italian explorer as cruel conqueror and greedy slaver. Zinn's impact on popular culture and his own theatrical events featuring radical dissenters from the American past, culminating in the film The People Speak, which reached nine million viewers on the History channel, are explored in our book's final chapter. Thus whether or not one agrees with Zinn's reading of the American past, his accessible approach to historical writing and his effective use of entertainment venues to promote critical social thought and historical understanding offer a useful model for achieving a far higher level of historical literacy and citizen engagement in our society.
Learn more about Rethinking America's Past at the University of Georgia Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue