Rethinking Howard Zinn
Colleagues critique popular teacher as historian
Friends and colleagues of the late Howard Zinn, perhaps BU’s best known political scientist, gathered at the Castle last week to examine the legacy of the historian whose 1980 book, A People’s History of the United States, sold more than two million copies and was the inspiration for the 2009 movie The People Speak.
The seminar, sponsored by the International History Institute and titled Reconsidering Howard Zinn as a Historian, featured short talks by three former colleagues and friends. Zinn, who died in January 2010 at the age of 87, taught in the College of Arts & Sciences political science department for 24 years. And while all three expressed obvious affection and respect for Zinn and admiration for his exceptional quest for the truth, there were several points of disagreement with the great man’s widely shared opinions.
William Keylor, a CAS professor of international relations and history, argued that Zinn unfairly held the United States to a higher moral standard than he did other countries, and later applied similar extraordinarily high standards of behavior to Israel. He also challenged Zinn’s assertion that if “we removed the evil people on Wall Street and big corporations on Madison Avenue, and let the people speak for themselves, then the history of this country would be a lot better than it turned out to be.” Keylor warned that “the people” too often turned to demagogues, citing as an example Joseph McCarthy, the notorious 1950s communist-hunting U.S. senator.
“You can’t just rely on the people,” Keylor told the audience. “You have to rely on the rule of law, separation of powers, an independent legal profession, and so forth, rather than sweeping that away for what the people want.”
David Mayers, a CAS professor of history and an IHI fellow, said Zinn was “magnificent” as both an analyst and an activist on the subject of African American rights. But Mayers said he found Zinn’s all-or-nothing attitude on health care reform too rigid.
“I thought even modest reforms, like those recently enacted by Congress, would be better than nothing,” he said. “If Americans would accept only perfection, it wouldn’t happen. Zinn wouldn’t compromise, and while I admired him, I couldn’t go along with him.”
As he spoke, Mayers pointed to the large photo in the front of the room showing Zinn with fellow political scientists Frances Fox Piven and Murray Levin, both close friends. He recalled that he first met Zinn in a pub, and Zinn offered excellent advice on a book Mayers was working on.
“His literary style was direct, to the point, and elegant without being self-consciously so,” he said. “He taught his colleagues to write with lucidity and accessibility and to use a sturdy anecdote to illustrate the point.”
He also disagreed with some of Zinn’s convictions about the war in Southeast Asia, he said, arguing that Zinn’s justifiable horror over U.S. conduct in the war—using napalm and free fire zones—led him at times to exaggerate the virtues of the other side.
“Zinn had no patience for historians who reduced humans and their moral concerns to mathematical numbers,” Mayers said. “For him, democratic theory was held in flesh-and-blood human beings.”
The final speaker, Arnold Offner, a former CAS professor of history, started with a bang, asserting that Zinn was a much more important historian than the world gave him credit for.
“Unlike most academics, Zinn didn’t regard the time away from the library and away from the footnotes as time lost and gone, time he could have spent writing another article,” Offner said. “Howard returned from every one of his political engagements more enthused and more optimistic about helping students and friends understand the link between the past and present.”
Offner praised Zinn’s historical trailblazing and pointed out, for example, that he was the first historian to write about the Ludlow Massacre—a violent 1914 bloodbath between the Rockefeller family’s fuel company and striking coal miners and their families.
“There is a point in our history that we all want to forget,” he said. “But he wanted to bring out something that many people would rather ignore.”
In a moving moment of looking forward rather than backward, Keylor said that there would never be another historian quite like Zinn, a person with “the same passion, and the same commitment to activism that there was back during the 1960s and 1970s, the heyday of the civil rights and antiwar movement.
“Today,” he said, “you don’t see the kind of very polemical history that is based on one’s man’s goal of making change, not just objectively reporting history, but rather affecting and influencing history.”
Amy Laskowski can be reached at email@example.com.
Art Jahnke contributed to this article.30 Comments