Why Teach People’s History

The Zinn Education Project approach to history starts with the premise that the lives of ordinary people matter — that history ought to focus on those who too often receive only token attention (workers, women, people of color), and also on how people’s actions, individually and collectively, shaped our society.

This approach stands in direct contrast to the traditional textbook history. As anyone who has ever cracked a history textbook can affirm, they’re boring. Passionless, story-poor, the books feign Objectivity. There is a lot of “us,” and “we,” and “our,” as if the texts are trying to dissolve race, class, and gender realities into the melting pot of “the nation.”  As Howard Zinn writes, “Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex.”

Societies are dynamic, conflict-ridden, with power played out in every aspect of life. Historians cannot remain outside or “above” these struggles. None of us can. Our lives, our occupations, our consumer choices — and, yes, how we tell history — all take sides, and help move the world in one direction or another.

“Anyone reading history should understand from the start that there is no such thing as impartial history,” Howard Zinn writes in a book of essays, Declarations of Independence. “All written history is partial in two senses. It is partial in that it is only a tiny part of what really happened. That is a limitation that can never be overcome. And it is partial in that it inevitably takes sides, by what it includes or omits, what it emphasizes or deemphasizes. It may do this openly or deceptively, consciously or subconsciously.”

The textbooks most of us have read as students or have been assigned to teach throughout our careers do not acknowledge their biases. Yet nearly all concentrate on those at the top — the presidents and diplomats, the generals and industrialists. It’s a winner’s history, and implicitly tells students: Pay attention to the victors and disregard the rest.

A people’s history flips the script. When we look at history from the standpoint of the workers and not just the owners, the soldiers and not just the generals, the invaded and not just the invaders, we can begin to see society more fully, more accurately. The more clearly we see the past, the more clearly we’ll see the present — and be equipped to improve it.

Utilizing a People’s Pedagogy

A people’s history requires a people’s pedagogy to match. The teaching activities included at the Zinn Education Project website are not a chapter-by-chapter guide to Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Instead, they feature teaching strategies that illustrate how people’s history can be brought to life in the classroom.

A fundamental problem with traditional history and with traditional history teaching is that it can appear that each event leads inexorably to the next: this happened then this happened then this happened, like dominoes lined up and falling. Social changes can seem almost inevitable. Laid out in neatly sequenced chapters, textbooks present social reality as if it were unfolding rather than being created by people.

By contrast, a people’s pedagogy attempts to present history as a series of choices and turning points — junctures at which ordinary people interpreted social conditions and took actions that made a difference. For teachers, this means not just telling students history, but showing them through experiential activities such as role plays. Role plays ask students to attempt to imagine themselves in the circumstances of other individuals throughout history and to consider the choices that actual groups faced.

For example, because of the enormity of slavery, it may appear to students that its abolition was foreordained. But this misses the significance of the social movement that sought to end slavery, its difficult choices, and the breadth of resistance, beginning especially with the enslaved themselves, that ultimately brought slavery down. In If There Is No Struggle…’: Teaching a People’s History of the Abolition Movement, students are asked to portray members of the American Anti-Slavery Society, a key abolitionist organization. Role plays like this one are components of a pedagogy that does not merely tell students that people make history, but seeks to let them live that insight in the classroom.

Another piece of a “people’s pedagogy” is that it should engage students in explicitly critiquing traditional approaches to history — including their own textbooks. For example The U.S.-Mexico War Tea Party, invites students to assume the personas of 21 individuals, all of whom had some connection to the U.S. war with Mexico (1846-1848): not just Senators and Congressmen, but abolitionists, soldiers, anti-war activists, Mexican civilians and soldiers, Indians caught in the middle of two opposing sides. Portraying these various individuals, students meet one another to find those who support the war, oppose the war, stand to lose or gain from the war, and who have opinions on why the war was fought.

The activity, which takes about a class period, exposes students to a much more diverse range of perspectives on the war than they’d find in any textbook. But rather than take the teachers’ word for it, students are encouraged to compare Zinn’s chapter to their own textbook and an excerpt from Glencoe’s American Odyssey is provided for critique as well. Whereas in the tea party, students encountered over 20 different perspectives on the war-Mexican, U.S., men, women, pro-war, anti-war, pro-slavery, abolitionist, wealthy, poor, white, black, Native American, soldier, civilian — American Odyssey includes three perspectives: white Southerners, Northerners, and Mexico (as in: “Mexico was outraged …”).

An activity like this allows students to see how much richer and more accurate a “people’s history” is than the traditional approach. A people’s history (and a people’s pedagogy) doesn’t silence the perspectives of the elites, it simply includes more voices in the conversation. And a people’s pedagogy offers students a different, more participatory, relationship to text. The traditional curriculum treats students as word consumers: read this and answer the questions at the end of the chapter. A more critical approach encourages students to “talk back” to text, to read for the silences and the neglected perspectives, to ask why certain choices were made, and to imagine what a more adequate treatment would be. In this respect, reading is a metaphor: when we ask students to evaluate text material for biases, implicitly we’re inviting them to evaluate the larger society for biases. A people’s pedagogy seeks to nurture active citizens, rather than consumers.

A people’s pedagogy, like a people’s history, should not be one long story of brutality and exploitation. Several activities on this website alert students to deep currents of justice and equality in U.S. history, and in diverse ways encourage students to try on the personas of people who worked to make this a more democratic society. A people’s history and pedagogy ought to allow students to recognize that “we” were not necessarily the ones stealing land, dropping bombs, or breaking strikes. “We” were ending slavery, fighting for women’s rights, organizing unions, and marching against wars.

Matching a people’s history with a people’s pedagogy is about seeing our work with students not only in terms of teaching academic skills, but also in terms of building a just society. A people’s history and pedagogy can instruct, inspire and caution as we try to make the world a better place.

A shorter version of this essay appears on the About page.