Reading A People’s History opened my eyes to new ways of teaching writing. On a number of occasions, I taught a course in “Local History,” which asked students to research and write about people, places, and events in their communities. This experience underlined how “history” is a human product, with all its attendant biases and challenges, in terms of “objectivity” or “truth.”
I also used, in classroom instruction, pages from various history textbooks, covering the same events, but showing distinct differences in perspective.
The lesson that stands out is a series of three versions of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, an event that happened to a large extent in Pennsylvania, where our college is located. One text (the most frequently used) gave a bland statement of mere facts and suffered from what we now call “both-siderism.” Another supported the railroad companies’ view of the strike and emphasized how destructive to commerce the strike was. A third (Zinn’s) supported the workers’ perspective and pointed out the nearly slave wages and working conditions of that time.
This lesson did lots to open up students’ eyes to history as a human document, made by us. It inspired students to write more truly and with more interest in their chosen topics. I believe Zinn’s work helped me see how we can make the past, personal and social, more alive and honest.
I tried to bring such ideas to my final position at the college, when I directed faculty development, encouraging my colleagues to create learning experiences that students could attach to, feel real ownership of. Thus, actually doing better work, and learning more. If I hadn’t taught English, I would have taught History. And, I would have used Howard Zinn’s text as the absolute antidote to “status quo” teaching.