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Who Do You Want to Change America and the World: Howard Zinn or Jesus?

“Draftee’s Prayer”

Dear Lord, today I go to war:
To fight, to die, Tell me what for?
Dear Lord, I’ll fight,
I do not fear,
Germans or Japs;
My fears are here.
America!

—Excerpt of the 1943 “Draftee’s Prayer,” quoted in A People’s History of the United States

Nearly one million high school students are entering college—even your Christian college—with an outlook of America as expressed in the above prayer—a prayer celebrated by Howard Zinn, self-identified historian, playwright, author, and communist. If any students missed his writings in high school, they will likely be required to read them in college.

Howard Zinn taught history and political science for almost 30 years and wrote over 20 books. His best-selling is “a step toward a coherent new version of American History.”  That’s the promotional blurb by The New York Times Book Review for A People’s History of the United States.

This revised historical account received a prominent plug by Matt Damon, Zinn’s neighbor and disciple while growing up, in the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting, which helped to propel its popularity. The Sopranos and The Simpsons also gave it a shout-out.

Up to his death in 2010 at the age of 89, Zinn had one focused mission for this book and all of his writing:

What most of us must be involved in—whether we teach or write, make films, write films, direct films, play music, act, whatever we do—has to not only make people feel good and inspired and at one with other people around them, but also has to educate a new generation to do this very modest thing: change the world. (Artists in Times of War and Other Essays, 2003, emphasis added)

Jesus changed the world, so it seems that Zinn could be in very good company.

Zinn also centered his writing and teaching around finding solutions to the plight of the poor, the underprivileged, and the marginalized from society.

So did Jesus!

So what’s the problem? Why do secular universities and 44,500 high school teachers of history, political science, literature, and women’s issues require the reading of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and Christian universities do not?

Let’s do a very brief analysis:

Changing the World: Howard Zinn vs. Jesus

Zinn’s solution to the world’s poverty and the violence against America lies in stark contrast to that of Jesus.

Since the age of 13, Zinn absorbed the books on the street passed around by the neighborhood communists. In doing so, he became a self-described radicalized communist, anarchist, and Marxist.  He wrote in chapter 16 of A People’s History that Mao’s Marxist revolution was “the closest thing, in the long history of that ancient country, to a people’s government, independent of outside control.”

With this mindset, Zinn promoted two core goals:

  • Provoke an uprising: Zinn wanted America’s youth to change America into his radicalized communist, anarchist, Marxist solutions on behalf of the poor and marginalized.

Jesus wants to see Americans mobilized for change, too, first in their hearts by becoming His disciples.  Then these disciples with changed hearts would become judges and teachers and leaders, doing as He did for the reasons He did them. That requires in depth knowledge of the Bible—not Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto.  No secular school or book on communism can teach what Jesus wants.

  • Relieve world poverty so others won’t hate us: Zinn shared the view of many that if America never went to war with any nation or placed troops anywhere in the world, but only supplied poor nations with clean water, food and medical aid, then no one would hate us or want to kill us.

Jesus fed masses of people, he offered everyone the source of living water, and he healed incurable diseases in front of their eyes, yet the people still killed him. Why?

The people did not share Jesus’ worldview.

Worldview is the foundation upon which world-changing ideas turn into world-changing actions. In the Christian university, we expect students to be exposed to a variety of worldviews, even Marxism, socialism, communism, and terrorism—and we expect them to think critically, scholarly, and biblically about them.

We know that students won’t be exposed to the worldview of Jesus in secular universities, but how well do secular professors requiring A People’s History as a historical textbook teach critical thinking or even basic scholarship standards when it comes to evaluating Zinn’s ideas? And how well does Zinn himself apply these standards?

Academic Standards: Zinn vs. Scholarship

One recognized goal of a college education is to learn how to evaluate and express ideas in a scholarly way. How well does Zinn meet this expectation in his own evaluation of history and expression of his ideas?

  • If Zinn’s historical account of American history were graded using a standard Freshman English rubric, it would likely fail the basic requirements of scholarship. Zinn’s quotations, facts, and ideas gleaned from others are often referenced by name and title of source, but without dates, publishers or page numbers, leaving the burden on the reader to hunt for the credibility and existence of each quote, fact, or idea, many of which are in secondary sources. Zinn defended this approach to his scholarship by stating in the book’s “Afterword“:

To indicate every source of information in the text would have meant a book impossibly cluttered with footnotes.

There are acceptable ways to deal with voluminous footnoting, such as endnoting, smaller typesetting, larger pages, etc. Study Bibles do it and so do scholarly historical texts. Yet, Zinn, a self-proclaimed historian, did not.

  • How did Zinn choose which evidence to include in his revised History of the United States? Historians, by trade, are held to generally accepted guidelines of historical evaluation for the purpose of providing objective facts and ideas. As quoted in Wikipedia’s article, “Historical method,” these guidelines include asking these critical questions:

1. When was the source, written or unwritten, produced (date)?

2. Where was it produced (localization)?

3. By whom was it produced (authorship)?

4. From what pre-existing material was it produced (analysis)?

5. In what original form was it produced (integrity)?

6. What is the evidential value of its contents (credibility)?

Zinn did consider some of these guidelines to varying degrees. He was very honest about how he chose his historical evidence and how he came to his historical conclusions: Zinn actually claimed to believe that the essence of objectivity is to “avoid a point of view.” Was he, by this definition, objective? From his 1995 edition of A People’s History, Zinn explains,

I wanted my writing of history and my teaching of history to be a part of social struggle. I wanted to be a part of history and not just a recorder and teacher of history. So that kind of attitude towards history, history itself as a political act, has always informed my writing and my teaching. (emphasis added)

Staying true to his historical methodology of political activism, Zinn avoids any fact that could lead a reader to believe that America has been a force for good in the world. On the contrary, he considers America to be a terrorist nation and the founding fathers to have created “the most effective system of national control devised in modern times …” (A People’s History, chapter 16).

  • Stanford education professor Sam Wineburg in his online article “Undue Certainty” points to a typical claim by Zinn that black Americans had “widespread indifference, even hostility” toward World War II. Zinn’s sole evidence for the claim are these three anecdotes: a quote from a black journalist; a quote from a black college student; and the “Draftee’s Prayer” quoted at the top of this article, as published in The African American, Jan 16, 1943. (see A People’s History, 418–19)

While America and her leaders need self-examination and critical inquiry, which standards of historical evaluation and criticism are teachers using when they discuss the book with students, and according to whose political objectives? Or are they absorbing Zinn’s massively depressive view of America’s role in history whole, without such critical inquiry?

The Impact and Counter Attack

Published by Harper Collins, the latest sales records of A People’s History of the United States have topped two million copies since the first edition in 1980. After Hollywood gave Zinn an international platform, the parental modeling of Howard Zinn in his writings and teachings has nurtured a new generation of teachers who are likewise nurturing our K-12 public school students. The Zinn Education Project website proudly states,

We reached 44,500 K-12 teachers who are using free Zinn Education Project lessons. That’s almost a million students receiving a more honest and complex understanding of U.S. history.

What are the students in your care learning about academic integrity, scholarship, or critical thinking?

Whose worldview about America and the solutions to its problems do you want them evaluating these ideas by—Zinn or Jesus?

The obvious answer to these critical questions are major reasons why we need more students to attend Christian universities.

Perhaps some have already entered your care, stuck in a Marxist mentality toward America, condemning her evils by hand-picked tragic anecdotes. You can help them get a more complete picture of America’s history by looking at the individual experiences of those who don’t fit the political objective of A People’s History.

Perhaps they could also look at the big picture of America’s impact on the world, and look at where shame should rightfully be placed for the many evils America has encountered. As one example, these counter-revisionist views are explored by Dinesh D’Souza in his recent book and documentary, America.

In his documentary, Dinesh reminds viewers of an exhortation by a world-changing American:

Let us resolve to fight for America as if the outcome of the struggle depended on us alone.

If Howard Zinn were alive, he’d give a hearty Amen to this objective. His concern for the poor and marginalized is to be commended, especially when this group of society has been utterly victimized without hope of a better future. But, he would wholeheartedly reject how Ronald Reagan or Jesus would wage the fight for our shared goals for humanity and for our country.

Worldview is everything.

Which worldview do you want your students to hold as they wage their individual fight?

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