History Lessons

It’s been nearly 30 years since historian Howard Zinn fired a shot across the bow of Columbus’ ship with A People’s History of the United States (Harper & Row, 1980), a landmark book that viewed U.S. history through the eyes of ordinary Americans and punched holes in some of the nation’s most enduring myths: that Columbus was a gallant adventurer, for instance, that class and race divisions have largely been swept away, and that most of the country’s wars have served the ‘national interest.’ The book turned ‘revisionist historian’ into a rote epithet among many conservatives, and turned Zinn into an oft-struck lightning rod in the culture wars.

Zinn has endured the long storm with grace and perseverance, and now that A People’s History has sold over a million copies and been incorporated into more and more classroom curricula, he’s no longer easily dismissed as an agitator from the fringe. He still speaks tirelessly, works for social change as an unapologetic activist, and writes in a straightforward style that retains its ability to provoke thought and challenge assumptions (‘Can We Handle the Truth?’ p. 51). Even history teachers who disagree with Zinn on some matters have found a reliable recipe for vigorous classroom debate: Read a conventional history book. Read Zinn. Discuss. Fireworks are sure to follow.

It’s not just the United States, of course, that’s wrestling with how its national story is told and taught. In Australia, a disagreement over interpretations of the country’s European colonization has morphed into a long-running public battle known as the history wars. Turkey has yet to collectively comprehend its involvement in the genocide of Armenian Christians, while Germany, which has in many ways forthrightly confronted the horrors of the Holocaust, is encountering resistance to Holocaust studies from young members of its Arab and Muslim minorities (‘Forgetting Hitler,’ p. 54). Clearly, even a nation that has gone out of its way to face the past must struggle to keep its ‘revised’ storyline credible and to ensure that it is widely shared.

While many of us are reflexively bored when we hear the word history and downright repulsed by the idea of a history book, we flock to period movies and biopics about historical figures, watch the History Channel, and consume shelf-loads of historical fiction and biography. We get interested, it seems, when we explore the human lives behind the cavalcade of events. Astute educators like English professor Patrick Hicks (‘In the Trenches,’ p. 58) take advantage of this phenomenon to draw connections between literature and history, World War I and the Iraq War, today’s college students and yesteryear’s foot soldiers. We can only hope that more nonhistorians like him continue to mine the power of art to bring the past alive.

In the meantime, the field of history is branching out in exciting new directions. The Internet has opened up a rich forum for all manner of historical material and debate, from massive photo and document archives such as those at the Library of Congress (www.loc.gov) to captivating blogs such as Cliopatria (hnn.us/blogs/2.html) and Steamboats Are Ruining Everything (www.steamthing.com). Institutions like the Holocaust Museum are bringing history alive in powerful ways that don’t sacrifice accuracy for impact. And the historical sciences-geology, biology, paleoanthropology-are continually adding new information to the ancient story of humans on earth, thanks in part to new technology and methods.

Harvard history professor Daniel Lord Smail argues in his forthcoming book On Deep History and the Brain (University of California Press, 2007) that history should trace its subjects–humans–right back to their beginnings in the Stone Age, rather than focusing, as most historians do, on the period since the rise of civilization and dismissing what preceded it as ‘prehistory.’ This ‘deep history,’ he says, would be ‘a seamless narrative that acknowledges the full chronology of the human past.’

It ought to be one hell of a story, and a blockbuster of a movie.

Want more? Read the rest of Utne Reader‘s September / October package on history:

  • Can We Handle the Truth?
    America’s selective memory and massacres long since forgotten
    by Howard Zinn, from the book A Power Governments Cannot Suppress
  • Forgetting Hitler
    A growing number of young German Muslims lash out against Holocaust studies
    by Stacy Perman, from Guilt & Pleasure
  • In the Trenches
    A powerful war poem teaches history–and humility
    by Patrick Hicks, from Florida Review
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