The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Teaching about past sins won’t scar students. They’ll enjoy debating them.

Even conservative students learned from studying and debating Howard Zinn’s critical U.S. history

(Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
7 min

Republicans continue their state-level assault on teachers’ independence and their ability to cover topics related to racism and sexuality in the classroom. This month, Florida’s Republican-dominated state legislature passed a bill, dubbed the Stop Woke Act, aimed at banning critical race theory or any critical discussion of racism, past or present, in schools. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has championed the measure, which is similar to legislation passed in other states, including Arkansas, Idaho and Tennessee, among others. The bill explicitly outlaws all teaching about race that might lead students to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race …” Put more simply, the bill’s premise seems to be that teaching about the long history of racism in the United States can do psychological damage to White students.

Yet this idea stands counter to basic teenage attitudes and behavior. Teens love to argue and are rarely shy about challenging — and even defying — adult authority when they disagree with it.

Students confronted with critical views of American history with which they disagree won’t melt or suffer from “psychological distress.” Rather, they’ll raise objections and challenge those views. We know this is true because it has happened for decades. Some of America’s most imaginative, effective, even beloved teachers have long incorporated this teenage inclination to argue into their classroom practices, making their history classes centers of intellectual engagement via thought-provoking debate. Laws like the Stop Woke Act, however, risk erasing these valuable lessons from America’s classrooms.

One such teacher, Bill Patterson, who taught history in suburban, conservative and mostly White Oregon high schools from the 1980s through the turn of the 21st century, generated a revealing paper trail of his debate-oriented classroom practice. Patterson incorporated into his American history classes Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” (1980). The best-selling introductory history’s leftist perspective on the American past aroused the ire of right wing ideologues from the Reaganites of the 1980s all the way through to President Donald Trump.

One of the keys to the popularity of Zinn’s “People’s History” — especially its appeal to inventive teachers — was the landscape of educational failure that predominated in history classrooms before its publication. U.S. history textbooks assigned in the 1960s and ’70s were dull, overweight tomes that few students would read voluntarily. The texts largely ignored the new ways of looking at history inspired by the protest movements of the 1960s. Most high school textbooks, unlike Zinn’s “People’s History,” had not in any meaningful way incorporated into their narratives the new social history — with its emphasis on the experience of workers, women, Native Americans, African Americans and their struggles to overcome inequality and discrimination. Nor did they tackle the New Left critique of U.S. imperialism that had generated such interest in history at the college level.

These tedious textbooks helped to make history the least popular subject among high school students according to national surveys. Teachers wrote to Zinn complaining that their mandated curricular materials were “one-sided,” “boring and trite,” and a collection of “flat blurbs” that “distorted history.” In place of bland textbook neutrality, Zinn openly identified with those at the “bottom” of American society, offering scathing criticism of elites who abused economic and political power and valorizing movements that promoted egalitarian social change and opposed war.

Patterson, like other reform-oriented high school teachers around the nation, paired selected chapters from Zinn’s “People’s History” with state-mandated textbooks and as a culminating activity had students write letters to Zinn discussing their reaction to his book and the classroom debates they sparked. Patterson was far from the only teacher to encourage students to write to Zinn. His archive at New York University contains hundreds of similar letters from students across the United States.

From scathing criticism to glowing admiration, students didn’t pull punches about Zinn’s work. Nationalistic students chided him for his “negative” view of America’s past, claiming it was “insulting to this great country of ours.” Yet Zinn’s young critics clearly learned much history as they studied up to write letters challenging the historian’s arguments and evidence. Meanwhile, students who admired Zinn’s iconoclasm praised his book for leading them to reflect critically on the “sugar coated” way their prior classes and textbooks had presented an America that could do no wrong.

Far from being psychologically scarred by Zinn’s leftist perspective, conservative students in Patterson’s classes relished the opportunity to challenge Zinn’s views, not only in their classroom debates but also in their letters to the author. Some of their letters to Zinn argued that he had been too critical of Christopher Columbus on account of his mistreatment and enslavement of Hispaniola’s Indigenous people, and had let this obscure Columbus’s bravery as an explorer. Similar objections characterized students’ attempts to defend President Andrew Jackson against Zinn’s negative judgments, which the historian based on the tragedy of the Trail of Tears and “Indian removal.”

Zinn’s pacifist-inflected account of the Mexican War as an imperialist war of aggression — and especially his assertions about rapes committed by U.S. soldiers in Mexico — drew vigorous dissent from nationalistic students who offered relativistic arguments claiming that since all wars were brutal and generated misconduct, the American military should not be set apart for such criticism.

More convincing were students’ criticisms of Zinn’s scathing depiction of Gilded Age industrialists as greedy and exploitative robber barons, since students recognized that Zinn’s socialist bias had left him unwilling to highlight the positive side of these corporate titans — their role as economic innovators who deserved some credit for America’s emergence as the world’s premier industrial power.

The letters written by Patterson’s students, whether they loathed or loved Zinn’s leftist perspective, attest that they often enjoyed and always learned from the debates it seeded.

For his part, Zinn welcomed such dissent. In fact, in a letter Zinn wrote to a class of California high school students in 1994, he explained that he wrote history “to get young people to think, to be independent, to understand that anything you read in a history book (including mine!) is just part of the story, and it is your responsibility to look for those parts that are left out.” Zinn’s observation displayed a recognition that along with teaching historical content, the goal of history education is to help students learn to interrogate the past and the writings of historians.

Yet, the Stop Woke Act threatens to curtail just this sort of educationally valuable engagement. This legislation would invite teachers to shy away from Zinn’s searing discussion of the long history of American racism, for example. They would have to fear his bold declaration that “there is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important, for so long a time, as the United States,” would make White students impermissibly uncomfortable.

But like it or hate it, students have long learned from Zinn’s deeply critical perspective on American history. Legislation like the Stop Woke Act that would keep such engagement from happening will undermine history education. Debate and argument about our past can spark a love of history, and a realization that history truly is one intense debate informed by evidence and reason. In this, the centennial year of Zinn’s birth, rather than recalling him as a leftist who aroused the ire of the right, these letters remind us to recall that he welcomed dissent and debate in our classrooms rather than banishing it.