Howard Zinn in the Classroom?

Kevin is having good times hammering Richard Williams, “Looks like Williams has uncovered more evidence in support of the popularity and pervasiveness of A People’s History in college classrooms. What evidence? It turns out his publisher says so on its website as well as a writer for the Socialist Work.”

Seeing that Williams is not doing a very good job defending his argument (that Zinn’s book is used in colleges and universities), I decided to give it a try. The only clear way in my mind to do this was to google Zinn’s book along with the word “Syllabus.” I stopped looking at google’s results after 8 pages, but I scanned forward to page 27 of the search results and still found plenty of colleges and universities using Zinn’s book in some form. Some are old syllabus and some are for ethnic classes and such, but frankly, I was surprised. Zinn’s book has no business being used in a serious way at any level (I was also surprised by the number of AP History classes in High schools that use it) unless it is used to show how history should not be written. I have no idea how the book is used by these scholars. But here is just a SAMPLE of the results from google that might count in the hundreds if closely looked at:

Purdue University

University of Minnesota

Washington State University

Columbia University

U of Texas El Paso


University of Pennsylvania


University of Pittsburgh

Western Michigan


[for laughs] Chinese University of Hong King

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15 Responses to Howard Zinn in the Classroom?

  1. Kevin says:

    Thanks for following up with your search. Why do you argue that Z’s book has no place in the classroom at any level? Since when did our classrooms become places where we stifle freedom of thought and disengage from controversial ideas? Sure, Zinn is controversial and this particular book has many problems, but that does not necessarily constitute a sufficient reason not to teach it. As I stated in my post, I use it along with plenty of other supplemental readings in my APUS History course to illustrate perspective and to discuss objectivity and subjectivity.

    What exactly do you want to conclude now with the search? I did a similar search as I was thinking about R.W.’s post and came across pretty much the same sites, but as you stated, these span a number of years and wide range of disciplines. I don’t get a sense from this sample that it is being used much at all. Can we conclude anything about the extent to which it’s being used in schools? I don’t know, but I am skeptical. Thanks again Chris. Hope the school year is going well.

  2. Chris says:

    Kevin, suggesting that Zinn’s book has no place in an academic classroom is not “stifling” “freedom of thought “.

    Do we not have a responsibility as educators to use historically accurate texts? Many of his ideas are wrong and founded in little or no historical proof. So I could tell my students historical half-truths and inaccuracies, and pass it off as opinion? I don’t think so. And if we do use something like Zinn’s book, it should be used responsibly. His book was not written as history, he says so himself, it was written as a political statement. Zinn is entitled to his opinion, it does not mean it belongs in a history classroom! But that is where we have disagreed in the past, over political expression in the classroom so I sense we will never agree on this point.

    Now, back to the argument about Zinn’s book and scholars. I conclude the argument that it is NOT widely used by “Scholars” is clearly, at least, debatable. I don’t know about your “senses” but mine are tingling.

    Also, you did the same search but dismissed it? I find there is plenty there not to dismiss. Your decision not to mention your results is interesting in itself.

    Yes, my year is going well and I hope yours is as well!


  3. Chris:

    Thanks for coming to my “rescue!” I’m ALWAYS outnumbered when getting into these little rows with Mr. Levin! But that’s ok, I like being the underdog. I take your criticism of “not doing a very good job defending his argument” to heart, but, actually I’m way ahead of Mr. Levin and Mr. Noe, regarding backing up my assertions. I’d contacted the publisher about where and who is using Zinn’s book before either of them brought it up. I’ve not heard back from them yet.

    Also, I did a similar search to yours and came up with the same type of results, but I’m waiting to hear from the publisher. There’s another reason I didn’t post my search results. I don’t respond to every criticism and objection Kevin and his followers make due to the fact that when I’ve done so in the past, they tend to ignore and change the subject/criticism to something else, obfuscating the original point.

    Kevin suggests that I see “the study of history as an extension of politics pure and simple.” Ridiculous. That is what Zinn believes and readily admits as I pointed out in the original post:

    “I wanted my writing of history and my teaching of history to be a part of social struggle. I wanted to be a part of history and not just a recorder and teacher of history. So that kind of attitude towards history, history itself as a political act, has always informed my writing and my teaching.” ~ Howard Zinn

    Every one of us, myself and Kevin included, interpret from a certain perspective, but I honestly try to follow the truth where ever it may lead when it comes to reading and studying American history. A casual stroll through Kevin’s blog will reveal that many of his posts and views are obviously tainted by his political views.

    Again, thank you for the assistance. There is no doubt that Zinn’s book and outlook is influential in many schools and universities, regardless of what anecdotal evidence to the contrary presented on Kevin’s blog.

  4. Stephen Graham says:


    Before you cite any of those syllabi, you should actually look at the history courses and how the book is used in them. In particular, how many courses is the book paired with a work by Paul Johnson? What use are those books put to in those courses?

  5. Peter says:

    The presence of Zinn’s texts on syllabi does not prove that his book is being used as truth. Have you not heard of a “strawman” or “teaching tool?” Yes, Zinn is a secondary source, but his work can provide the basis for discussion and debate. Why is it unacceptable to include Zinn as a way to show that there are groups who have been marginalized or ignored in the historical profession, or as a prod to stimulate critical engagement with history? You may be right about Zinn’s inclusion in a number of syllabi, but do your results demonstrate that the inclusion of his work equates to an endorsement of his ideological position? I also would ask you to elaborate on what you mean that only “historically accurate” texts should be used in the classroom? Isn’t the point of the educator to encourage a critical and thoughtful engagement with the subject matter and to inculcate a desire to search out the truth? Does this mean that a primary document that discusses history should be banned because it is not “historically accurate?”

    I also took a look at Mr. William’s blog, and found “that many of his posts and views are obviously tainted by his political views.” If Mr. Levin is dishonest and interested only in his political agenda, then Mr. Williams also stands guilty of the same. This post by Mr. Williams seems to indicate that he himself views “teaching… a part of social struggle:”
    Of course, I get the distinct sense that Mr. Williams will allege that this is just changing “the subject/criticism to something else, obfuscating the original point.”

  6. Kevin says:

    Richard, — You are accusing me of using anecdotal evidence? Please. All I ask is that when making sweeping generalizations there is some attempt at providing evidence beyond a basic internet search. To say that most of my posts are simply a political expression is ridiculous. Much of what I write is based on legitimate works of scholarship and I do my best to critique those works in various contexts.

    Chris, — As I stated in my comment there is nothing mysterious about why I decided not to post the results of my search. In fact, it was for the very same reasons you alluded to in the post. Of course a search for Howard Zinn’s book in the classroom will bring up a list of courses, but what are we to make of it? How many classes have been taught on the high school and college level that span the time of the list and what overall percentage does it constitute? It seems to me that without anything approaching a scientific investigation the conclusions are pretty much worthless. How many history, gender studies, political science, anthropology classes were included?

    I guess we will disagree over the appropriateness of using the book in class. I just hope, in contrast to Richard, that you will not infer from my using it that my intention is to brainwash my students or pass it off as something that it is not. My syllabus has also included books and articles by Paul Johnson and other conservatives. Are these dangerous texts? I’ve had parents who have also complained about my use of Eric Foner’s new survey as dangerous. Perhaps it is.

  7. Ken Noe says:


    Many thanks for doing the grunt work on this issue. I sat down this morning and read through 19 of the syllabi you provided (I confess that I skipped the one from Hong Kong) and here’s what I found:

    6 history professors and 1 high school teacher use at is the main required text (including one from that bastion of liberalism, BYU).
    3 use one chapter in connection with other readings. One wonders how.
    1 uses 2 chapters. Again, I’d like to know how.
    3 use it in conjunction with Paul Johnson’s text, a book usually deemed as conservative as Zinn is leftist.
    1 included it among a page-long list of books one could read.

    Now of course, your 19 syllabi admittedly only form a sample of what you found on Google (8 of at least 27 pages), so my numbers are only a sample as well. Instead of 6 profs using it as THE text, you might end up with three of four times that number.

    Then again, how many syllabi make it online. (Here’s mine by the way, no Zinn: The final numbers no doubt are higher still.

    But I don’t think even those stats suggest that the book is widely used or influential in academic circles (Currently, according to the best numbers I could find, there are 18,263 people teaching history at the university level*). A relative handful thus seem to use it (as many as 300 would be 1.6 percent, too many in my opinion, but still a small percentage), others pull out a chapter for one reason or another, and some use it as Kevin does, balanced by Johnson. I just don’t see that supporting the notion of “widespread” liberal/marxist bias in academe.

    Of course we need still more evidence. I applaud Mr. Williams for e-mailing the publisher, and I’ll be curious to read the results. It might also be fun to do a comparable search on other standard history texts in comparison. Heck, there’s probably an OAH Newsletter article in this for someone interested in stats and teaching.

    One last point: just for the record I’m not Kevin’s “follower,” just his friend, and someone who also grows weary of being stereotyped.

    Best, Ken


  8. Chris says:

    Stephen, as I said, I do not know how the book is used in these classes, I simply did a quick search and found these results. If it is used along side someone such as Paul Johnson, then I can see how it would be a useful device. Thanks for your post!\

  9. Chris says:

    Peter, yes I have heard of “Teaching tools”, and I do encourage critical thinking. AS I SAID, I do NOT know how the book is being used.

    Listen, over at Kevin’s blog everyone was having a good time laughing at Mr. Williams, stating that Zinn’s book is NOT used by scholars. I simply did a search and found it WIDELY listed on many syllabi thus suggesting it might indeed be used.

    THUS in review, I do not know how it is used, why it is used, and or for what purposes. I simply pointed out it is used and I’m sure in most cases these are good scholars with no political agenda and are using the book for, as everyone says, “critical thinking” and for controversial ideas to stimulate discussion. I’m sure there is nothing else going on…… it seems all of you are far more intelligent than I and would know better.

    Thanks for the posts.

  10. Chris says:

    Ken well done and thank you for presenting some critical thinking and for doing the hard work. Based on what you have found and your argument, I agree at this point. As I said, I thought the first results I found suggested there could be some significant usage of his book.

    In response to others, I will say that perhaps my wording that Zinn’s book has no place in schools was probably not the best choice. I simply do not trust how it would be used, but everyone is convinced it is to stimulate discussion, so be it.

  11. Kevin:

    “You are accusing me of using anecdotal evidence?” Yes, because you did.

    “To say that most of my posts are simply a political expression is ridiculous.” Never said that. More obfuscation.


    Regarding my post to which you referred, what would you call the teaching of Darwinist theory, moral relativism, and social views often objected to by parents? Yes, that is obfuscation since we were specifically discussing the use of Zinn’s book.

    I admitted in my original post here that everyone approaches history from a particular perspective, however slight that may be. I, too, could pull post examples from Kevin’s site, but anyone familiar with it already knows his perspective.


    Thanks for staying on topic. Zinn’s books is widely used and influential.

    Best to all.


  12. Ken Noe says:

    Chris: Thanks but don’t take me as the last word yet. I’d still like to see what the publisher says, if anything. We need comparisons to other texts. Plus, my very quick-and-dirty stats–they’d appall both posters and baseball sabermetricians with the inexactitude and small sample sizes–include one very big unknown variable, the percentage of syllabi that actually ends up on the web. I guessed at around 10 percent based on memories of information on my own department old website; sadly our new website doesn’t permit me to double check easily or be more exact. It could well be lower, which would push the percentage of Zinn users higher. Too, some probably do use the book as the last word, sadly. I’d only add that in the past I’ve often used books that contain interpretations different than mine, so that students can see two sides to issues, so again we cant tell for sure. In the end, I’m only reasonably comfortable for now to conclude that the percentage of Zinn loyalists is comparatively small in the universe of academic historians and does not provide evidence that a majority of academics are Commies.–Ken

  13. Corey Meyer says:

    Boy…does anyone hear that sucking sound…it is the life and fun going right out of loving, reading and teaching history.

    But I do have to side with the Levin crew on this one. I know, it is what you would expect. But as a teacher, we need to provide different viewpoints to our kids. They need to be able to think critically and draw conclusions about what they read.

    Chris, could I get the names of the books you would call…Historically Accurate? I am reminded of a talk William C. Davis gave on C-Span (I think) about his book “Look Away”. He said that history should not be in the social studies department, but in the English department. His reason was that history is not what really happened, but what people wrote about what happened. Finding a historically accurate text on American history might just be near impossible. Best of luck though!

  14. Jim Rossi says:

    I am bitterly opposed to Marxism and have major problems with Zinn’s work as a scholar. That being said, I do think the “People’s View” perspective has some merit, I do think students should be exposed to as many different perspectives as possible, and I DO think that what is ‘historically accurate’ is often black & white, but often much less so. 

    Zinn is clearly influential; if we disagree with much – like myself – or even all he claims, all the more reason to include it in a critical class. Look, you can’t hide stuff from students; It’s on the internet waiting to be found. Better – for their intellectual development AND respect for their elders – to discuss it openly.

  15. Jim Rossi says:

    PS I should have mentioned that I am a writer – google me if you like – and a graduate student in History at UNLV.

    Best to all,

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