U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Howard Zinn, 1922-2010

I’ve just read the sad news that Howard Zinn has passed away.

Zinn’s career stands as a monument to the proposition that scholarship, teaching, and activism can be successfully melded. As someone who values all three, but manages the relationship between them rather differently, I cannot honestly say that Zinn and his scholarly work have been a model for me. But I greatly admire his career nonetheless.

I never studied with Zinn. But I had the opportunity to meet him briefly, when he was the keynote speaker at the conference on Empire, Resistance, and the War in Iraq that was sponsored by Historians Against the War (on whose steering committee I then sat) in Austin, Texas in February 2006. Zinn gave a rousing and deeply historically informed talk. And he had all the warmth and genuine concern for history, his country, and his fellow citizens that I’d always associated with him.

Truly a life well lived.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Here is where I make a confession: I have not read A People’s History of the United States. …Sigh …It feels good to get that off my chest—although I’m unsure whether the omission deserves a mea culpa? Your opinions of my, um, status are welcome.

    Given my lack of first-hand experience with his work, my sense of the importance of Zinn’s life comes more through reputation and popular culture. He struck me as an effective public intellectual—no small thing for someone who has written history. But I also gathered that Zinn’s status as a historian, per se, was also an issue. John Fea relayed a quote from Schlesinger where the latter raised that very point. – TL

  2. I use Zinn’s book and Paul Johnson a History of the American People in teaching my US survey. It provokes some good discussion. I agree about Zinn questionable status as a historian, but it is often precisely those qualities that made him a good public intellectual and useful for teaching purposes.

  3. I can’t believe 24 hours have passed and no one has either chided or praised me for my confession. 🙂

    Matt: What about Zinn excites your students? His passion, his politics, or the history? – TL

  4. I think for many of them it’s a side of history that they have never seen nor been introduced to. For us historians I think it’s easy to forget that most people’s encounters with history are limited to textbooks and documentaries. To read someone not only passionate and biased, but passionate about and biased in favor of the “losers” makes them rethink their assumptions. I don’t think simply introducing students to Zinn would work, his voice and opinions might be overpowering, but teaching for a semester alongside Johnson forces students to rethink their assumptions about what history is and how it is presented.

  5. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to teach a US History survey. What an interesting idea, Matt! I looked at college textbooks at the AHA (I didn’t use them in undergrad or as a TA in grad school) and they seemed … fine… but something was missing. Maybe it is that passion, or that element of presenting “the story” or “the facts” to college students. Especially with US History at the college level, I think we really need to make the course distinct from what they got in high school.

  6. To be fair, I stole the idea from an article in Perspectives a few years back. But most of teaching is stealing good ideas from someone else.

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