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Zinn’sidea about history depiction

Zinnbelieved that history should be portrayed from the perspective of thepeople involved in making it. Since events and history are always inmotion, maintaining the traditional approach of history telling bymaking effort to be objective is limiting as it does not portray theactual movement or changes in circumstances taking place. He saw lifeas a moving train and believed that neutrality cannot be maintainedwhen addressing historical facts relating to people from diversebackgrounds and classes of life. When introducing his magnum opus,Zinn writes:

“Iprefer to try to tell the history of discovery of American from theviewpoint of the Arawaks, of the constitution from the standpoint ofthe slaves, of Andrew Johnson as seen by the Cherokees, of the CivilWar as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by thedeserting soldiers of Scotts army…..And so on, to the limitedextent that any one person, however he or she strains, can “see”history from the standpoint of others.” (Lucker 9).

Inthis phrase, Zinn implies that the subject to the particularsituation stands the best chance of accounting for the event than anyother party. His approach takes a different direction in contrast towhat most historians believe. He adopts the style of analyzinghistory objectively from a subjective stand point. Lucker (11) statesthat what makes Zinn’s history more popular is the fact that he wasa participant in many of the struggles about which he narrated.However, being involved in making history suggests possibility ofexistence of bias by writing accurately parts that depicts respectivesubject matter of the author.

Factorsthat Shaped Zinn’s Idea about History

Severaloccurrences shaped Zinn’s idea about history. Firstly, he wasinvolved in a community protest early in life where the policebattled with the demonstrators. During this event, his perspective ofthe nature state’s power as well as the notion of police“neutrality” was forever altered (Lucker 2). Secondly, he joinedthe army and took part in bombing Royan, a small town in France withabout 3,000 inhabitants. Most of the residents died or incurredserious injuries, a situation that prompted his desire to visit thetown several times later after the war. The inhuman action weighedheavily in his conscious, triggering the anti-war conviction for therest of his life (3).

Thirdly,he was involved in civil rights advocacy in Spellman College andacted as advisor to the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee(SNCC). During his stay at the college and role as an advisor toSNCC, he wrote the book TheNew Abolitionistswhich served as a motivation to the student organization by sheddinglight on the essence of their struggle from a historical perspective(Lucker 6). Fourthly, he joined Boston after being fired at Spelman,where he became part of movement advocating against war in Vietnam.He published articles, spoke during demonstrations, and wrote aninfluential book titled TheLogic of Withdrawal,all aimed at advocating against the war. Finally, he went to NorthVietnam to aid war hostages.

Accordingto Lucky (8), these events shaped Zinn’s life and developed in himan interest of understanding many historical events happening duringthe 20thCentury. His approach, also referred to as “bottom-up”, gaveshape to what is now called “People’s History” method. He aimedat giving voices to the outcries of masses following the manyinstances that the ruling class violated the rights of the people. Anideal example is the war veteran’s demonstration for the bonuspromised by the government which saw armed police open fire todemonstrators.

Zinn’sOptimism about Human Rights Progress

Zinnwrote many popular quotes that show his conviction that developmentin human rights will be a perpetuated even during the worst ofcircumstances. Some of the quotes extracted from his book, TheOptimism of Uncertainty, arerecorded by Jaitra. For instance, he says:

“Iam totally confident not that the world will get better, but that weshould not give up the game before all the cards have been played”(Jaitra, 12).

Zinnbelieved that there are many ways and approaches that may be appliedto fight and advocate for human rights. However, he advocated fornon-violent means. He used his own experiences in life to teach andat the same time impart values to his students. In another quote

“Lookingat this catalogue of huge surprises, it’s clear that the strugglefor justice should never be abandoned because of the apparentoverwhelming power of those who have the guns and the money and whoseem invincible in their determination to hold on to it” (Jaitra,24).

Zinnhad participated in a demonstration where he clearly understood thepower held by the government machinery. After demonstration of thewar veterans for their rights after war, the enactment of GI Billmeant that a repeat of the injustice that people were subjected towould not occur (Lucker 4).

Argumentfor and against

Zinn’sgoal was to ensure that the working class, who participated invarious aspects of life, and through whose experiences, actions andpredicaments led to the making of the history, took a central role inwhat was written. The perspective he took was helpful to the youthsand readers of his work as it brings out the notion that even theleast members of the society are represented, as opposed to theapproaches used by other historians who wrote about the leadershipclass. Lucker (19) states that Zinn, by using his “bottom-up”approach become a critical pedagogy for the youths as he taught byhis own example. His strategy gained popularity as it shed light tountold part of American history.

However,there are some elements that are questionable about his work, whichif not put into consideration, may be misleading. For instance, inthe quote above, he says his goal is to make those who study his worksee history from the perspective of others. This is erroneous inargument as history is not one-sided. According to Luckier (21),history needs to demonstrate interconnection of ideas development intotality. As much as masses side must be depicted, leadership rolemust also appear. The people’s history fails in its approach bydemonstrating actions of great leaders, such as Columbus, makingevents happen while neglecting roles played by minor leaders andindividuals (Zinn 10). This does not present an accurate picturesince both the villain and the victor must exist in order for abattle to ensue. As a result, my opinion is that his perspective ofpassing personal experiences in class is not optimum instructionalstrategy for class teaching.


Jaitra,.&quotThe Optimism of Uncertainty | A Sensitivity to Things&quot.Sensitivityto Things,2016. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.


Lucker,Josh. &quotIn Memory Of Howard Zinn: His Life And Ideas&quot. InDefence of Marxism, 2010. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.


Zinn,Howard. APeople’s History of the United States, 1492-Present,Pdf. 2016.

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