Howard Zinn on the Limitations of American History Books

Question: How are traditional American history books limited?

 

Howard Zinn: The basic problem of traditional history books is that they’re nationalistic and they’re elitist. By nationalistic, I mean they look upon the world centered around us and they look upon American policy as benign.

A more realistic and more truthful history would take a look at American foreign policy over the last several hundred years, really. It will take a look at American foreign policy and see it for what it has been--expansionist, violent and militaristic. In other words, it would be a history that would be honest in the way that we expect individuals to be honest about themselves and their past and to rectify their mistakes.

To do this is not to be unpatriotic or un-American, unless you think that being American means approving everything your government does or being patriotic means supporting everything your government does.

No, being honest about our past, being honest about what we have done in the world, a history that looks at what we have done from the standpoint of Black people, Native Americans, poor people, women, people who have generally been omitted from traditional history. When you look at our history from the point of view of the people at the bottom, rather than people at the top, everything looks different. Policies look different. You have different criteria for measuring what the country does.

 

Question: Do strong nations like the U.S. have an incentive to write accurate historical accounts?

Howard Zinn:  The leaders of the nation don’t have such an incentive. The textbook publishers don’t have such an incentive. 

The only people who have such an incentive are the teachers and students and people who are not benefiting from the present system.  If there’s going to be a change in teaching history, it will have to come from below.  Whatever change has taken place so far, and there has been some change in the teaching of history, whatever changes does take place will take place because teachers and students begin acting in a different way, reading different materials, moving away from the traditional textbooks, rejecting the No Child Left Behind demands of standardized tests and dates and the old view of looking at history through generals and presidents.  It will have to come from below.

 

Recorded On: July 5, 2008

 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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