This was originally posted on February 19, 2010 at an earlier iteration of this blog.
I promised several weeks ago to write about Howard Zinn, and why I admired him, though I didn’t necessarily agree with him.
Howard Zinn was a Marxists provocateur that challenged conventional thinking of both the right and left. Was he the hater of American’s some claimed; I don’t think so. I think he just had a different vision of what our nation was and what our nation should be; a vision very different from the mainstream of America and what the founders of our nation believed.
Years ago, when teaching a course in American History, in preparing for a Class on the Rise of Big Business in the 19th Century, I saw his book The People’s History referenced in a footnote. Being curious, I went to the library at James Madison University and checked it out. While much of what he said was an anathema to my thinking, I quickly realized that using some of his information would improve my lecture. The lecture went off without a hitch. The next lecture was on the subject of the Labor and Trade Union movement in the 19thCentury. Here I chose to use as my source a very conservative history written by a Harvard professor, whose name I can’t recall any longer. Again the lecture went off without a hitch. The next day during office hours a student, your typical Frat Boy type, came by the office and asked me a question, that stuck with me to this day, “I can’t tell what you believe as your lectures present such a variety of view points!” I recounted that incident to my friend Steve Newton later in the day and his remark was telling, “game, set, match—you have succeeded” in making your students think.
Critical thinking is something that is often spoken off in the United States military as a trait our officers should possess. One is not born a critical thinker, but becomes one, again my opinion, by being exposed to a variety of viewpoints, having to sort through the available facts and reach a logical and educated conculusion. That is the purpose of education. History professors (and I would assume others liberal arts fields) should not seek to turn out clones of their ideological beliefs but rather critical thinkers. If I have an enduring critique of Howard Zinn and others is they often fail to remember this. This however does not mean that Zinn should not be read. . .he should be for his ideas and analysis causes people to think about the History of the United States.
How often do we read articles by David Horowitz or others who attack the liberal bias in colleges and universities? Yes you can find egregious examples to illustrate your point. Someone like Ward Churchill is a caricature of extreme liberal orthodoxy. But the reality is, and this is human nature, those who complain loudest about so called “political correctness” only wish to replace the perceived bad orthodoxy with their own orthodoxy. David Horowitz and others are not interested in diversity of ideas, rather they to have their views dominate the intellectual life of our colleges and universities. Our colleges and universities should be an arena of intellectual challenge, where students are challenged on how to think and not what to think. What Horowitz and others fail to understand is that while they can hold up examples of liberal bias in colleges and universities the reality is most college professors are hard working, who do not seek to impose an orthodoxy on their students, but rather work diligently to challenge their students in class, in short to teach them how to think not what to think.
Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States serves this purpose well, and as a provocateur he served this role well. He caused those who read his works to think critically about what they read. Was he the Anti-Christ that John Silber believed maybe, or maybe he was just a thorn in Silber side in the battles between the faculty and administration at Boston University. Was he un-America, only if you failed to understand that his lectures and his writing were that of a provocateur. If on the other hand you read and think about what he was saying; and most importantly you accepted his analysis as one man view and along with his interpretation and those of other historians you can then developed your interpretation of the events that shaped our nation.