Letter to the American Federation of Teachers

AmericanEducatoronZinnIn December of 2012, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) published “Undue Certainty: Where Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Falls Short” by Sam Wineburg. The article was full of distortions of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and went so far as to say that Zinn’s scholarship “invites a slide into intellectual fascism.” Not one teacher nor student was quoted in Wineburg’s article. When critical letters to the editor and articles were submitted, the AFT refused to publish them. The only place AFT members were allowed to respond was on Facebook. There, outraged members left dozens of comments questioning the accuracy and purpose of Wineburg’s article and adding their own counter narrative about the value and impact of A People’s History in their classrooms.

In January of 2014, on the fourth anniversary of Zinn’s death, some educators campaigned to have their union finally allow a response to the Wineburg attack. AFT member Lois Weiner wrote, “I hope you agree with me that AFT should welcome a diversity of perspectives on pedagogical issues, including how best to teach history.” The educator activism had an impact. Although the AFT continued to refuse to publish a full article, they offered to include a few letters to the editor in the spring 2014 edition of the American Educator, including one from the Zinn Education Project. We were allowed 150 words. Here it is:

In its Winter 2012–13 issue, American Educator published Sam Wineburg’s article “Undue Certainty: Where Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Falls Short,” and until now has not printed a formal response. We at the Zinn Education Project (www.zinnedproject.org) encourage you to read two articles American Educator chose not to publish: (1) “When Assessing Zinn, Listen to the Voices of Teachers and Students” (www.hnn.us/article/149974) by Robert Cohen, with insights from teachers and students, voices absent from Wineburg’s article, and (2) “Bashing Howard Zinn: A Critical Look at One of the Critics” (www.bit.ly/1dYJp2W) by Alison Kysia, a careful comparison of Wineburg’s representation of A People’s History to the original text, revealing many distortions. Also, please see comments by AFT members on the AFT’s Facebook page in response to the initial posting of Wineburg’s article.

Deborah Menkart and Bill Bigelow
Codirectors, Zinn Education Project
Washington, DC

We accepted the AFT’s belated offer to contribute a letter to the American Educator in response to Sam Wineburg’s article. However, we remain dismayed that the AFT published such a distortion in the first place, and then refused to publish a full critique, even though these were submitted. We expect more from our teachers’ unions. At a moment when the corporate education agenda threatens the very existence of public education, the American Federation of Teachers should be doing everything it can to promote history teaching that features the accomplishments of social movements and calls into question systems of exploitation. These twin objectives were at the core of Howard Zinn’s scholarship. The American Federation of Teachers owes it to its members to embrace, not discredit, this approach to the past.