Back to School and Howard Zinn in the Classroom

Turning American youth against their country.

[Order Mary Grabar's new book, Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation against America: HERE.]

California has scrapped its proposed Ethnic Studies curriculum. The Orange County Register took from the 300 pages of sample guidelines, quotations about “’guiding values and principles’” that would “’cultivate empathy’” and encourage students to “share stories of ‘struggle and resistance’ and ‘critique empire and its relationship to white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism, and other forms of power and oppression at the intersections of our society.’” The editorial board “blasted” the curriculum as “’leftist propaganda’” that included capitalism in “the roll call of oppression.”

According to the Washington Times, the Jewish Legislative Caucus and 83 Jewish and pro-Israel organizations objected to the fact that the curriculum’s minority groups included “Arab Americans, but not Jewish Americans, and identified multiple examples of bigotry, but not anti-Semitism.” The curriculum also promoted the “anti-Israel, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, . . . BDS supporters such as Women’s March co-leader Linda Sarsour,” and included anti-Semitic rap lyrics,.

Kudos to the Orange County Register, the 84 pro-Israel groups lobbying against the curriculum, and to the citizens voicing their complaints in the feedback form.

But citizens should not let down their guard.

California State Board of Education president Linda Darling-Hammond, education director of Barack Obama’s presidential transition team and close professional associate of Weatherman co-founder Bill Ayers, was the designer of one of the two tests of the disastrous Common Core standards. Under Obama’s administration the Advanced Placement U.S. history (APUSH standards) were rewritten so far to the left that Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States has proven to be good preparatory material for acing the tests and is being used in classrooms. After outcry, superficial changes only were made to Common Core and Advanced Placement. You can bet the same will happen when Ethnic Studies is reintroduced. Expect Common Core style “discussions” (“talking circles”) and activities (“privilege walks”) centered on the grievances of designated groups.

Ethnic studies itself is a program that divides Americans into groups, divesting them of their common identity as Americans. Four traditionally designated victim groups—African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos—represent American oppression and injustice—as I learned when I was asked to teach the multicultural freshman composition class that would fulfill undergraduates’ “multicultural” requirement at the University of Georgia in the 1990s. Of late Muslims, LGBTQ members, and prisoners have been added to the “racialized peoples in the United States.”

In the toxic brew of America-hatred and grievance-mongering fits the work of the late Howard Zinn, who of late seems to be everywhere. His record-breaking bestseller, A People’s History of the United States, was in the proposed guidelines for an Ethnic Studies course on prisoners. And as revealed in the 205 pages of appendices containing model sample programs already in place in schools, several California schools have been using Zinn in their classrooms.

Students at Alliance Margaret M. Bloomfield High School in Huntington Park in a Chicano/a (sic) studies course have been reading from A People’s History, along with Rethinking Columbus which is based on the opening chapter of Zinn’s book (a fictionalized and plagiarized account of the “Arawak” Indians) and is published by one of the two collaborators (Rethinking Schools) of the nonprofit Zinn Education Project. (The other is Teaching for Change.)

At San Juan High School in Citrus Heights, the college-preparatory elective, “Ethnic Studies,” offers in Unit 1, “Educational Journey-The Formation of Ethnic Identity,” the reading list containing Street Life: Poverty, Gangs, and a PhD by Victor Rios and the first three chapters of A People’s History—the rare pages of prose of any significant length amidst an offering of poetry and pop songs, including “local artists, such as Jose Montoya from the Royal Chicano Air Force” and “youth from the Sacramento Area Youth Speaks.” For Unit 5, “Cooperative Learning Strategies and Justifying: Common Goals,” students “discuss the way anti-war protests unite communities across ethnic boundaries” and read Zinn’s Chapter 18 “The Impossible Victory: Vietnam” (a chapter in which Zinn presents a writer who, in actuality, had accused the Viet Cong of “genocide” as praising the Viet Cong!)

At Salinas Union High School, students have been reading Chapter 2 of A People’s History, along with excerpts from Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands, bell hooks’ “Decolonization,” Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, poetry by Audre Lorde, along with a “selection of current events related to race, class, gender inequities,” multiple multimedia resources, and a guest speaker from a “community organization connected to racial and class equity.” In learning about “Native/Indigenous People,” students read Zinn’s chapter 1, and in learning about “Structural Controls, Institutions, and Resistance,” they read “from Chapters 16, 17, 21, 24,” as well as selections by Antonio Gramsci, Takaki, Jonathan Kozol, and Angela Davis. Indeed, most of Zinn’s book is read with chapters assigned for immigration, labor movements (with a multimedia lesson from ZEP on the Ludlow Massacre), public health, Women’s Rights/Feminism, and “Resistance and Popular Culture.”

At the San Diego Unified School District, during “Unit 4 – Against Our Identities: Resistance, Survival, and/or Accommodation,” students use “Zinn’s A Peoples’ (sic) History of the United States and Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do.” “Unit 6 – Social Movements and Historical Figures” employs “the textbook (Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States) and other primary and secondary sources.”

At Castro Valley High School, in order to gain insights on “Two Views of Native Americans,” students “read and compare excerpts about Native American civilization from Charles and Mary Beard’s New Basic History of the United States (1944) and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980),” then analyze “the factors that might have resulted in the quite different perspectives on pre-colonial Native Americans that are presented in the two texts, including an analysis of the sources (or lack thereof) referenced by the authors, the context in which the authors were writing and the political and economic ideologies held by the authors.” It is explained that the Beards were writing as “Progressive Historians before the Civil Rights Movement in a period of intense nationalism,” which “emphasized the ’civilizing’ element of European colonization for a group of Native Americans,” while Zinn, “of the New Left,” writing “in the post-Civil Rights period and, as a socialist, wanted to emphasize the harmonious and egalitarian nature of Native American life.” In actuality, the “harmonious and egalitarian nature of Native American life” is one of Zinn’s fabrications. Students, however, are tasked with identifying the “more reliable” of the [two left-wing] sources.

In the “Foreign Policy Analysis” unit of the junior-level Honors U.S. history course at that school, students “read and respond to guiding questions from Howard Zinn’s graphic novel A People’s History of American Empire” in order to be exposed “to the complexity of American foreign policy decisions about the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War as well as provide detailed content on the specific experiences of African Americans during those wars.” Students are asked “to formulate an analysis of Zinn’s biases and the manner in which he crafts his narrative to present a storyline that supports his personal worldview” and then compare his work with the writings of “prominent American isolationists,” “imperial subjects,” and “American expansionists.” While this course at least allows that there is “bias,” students are hardly given enough information to understand that Zinn is not only expressing a different political perspective—as he claimed—but is misrepresenting facts.

The rationale for including Zinn in advanced courses is that such students are sophisticated enough to grasp what is presented as Zinn’s innovative and unorthodox interpretation of history.

The fact is that Zinn’s history is hardly unique or insightful. Rather, as I demonstrate in Debunking Howard Zinn, he plagiarizes from far-left colleagues (some of whom are not even historians), misrepresents what authors say, provides vague untraceable references, uses propagandistic emotional appeals, and leaves out critical material. For these reasons it as wrong to use Zinn for instruction in a classroom as it would be to use history by a Holocaust denier or someone who presented slavery as benevolent.

To see just how false Zinn’s history is, let’s take a look at the proposed Ethnic Studies lesson, “Resistance Against Mass Incarceration: The Attica Uprising,” intended to introduce “students to the Attica Prison uprising, one of the most well-known and significant uprisings of the Prisoners’ Rights Movement.” Students were to learn such “Key Terms and Ethnic Studies Concepts” asPrison Industrial Complex, Mass Incarceration, Oppression, Resistance, Systems of Power/Oppression, and Humanize” and “to identify how systems of oppression have led to the conditions prisoners face.” They would be asked to “empathize with Attica prisoners by examining the importance of the demands prisoners made [emphasis added].”

The focus was on the revolutionary martyr, George Jackson, whom teachers were instructed to describe to students in five minutes as someone who “spent ten years behind prison walls: from 1961 to 1971,” during which time, he became “a revolutionary warrior for Black liberation and prison reform.” On “Sept. 2—At 1:15 on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 21, George Jackson, 29 years old, was killed by prison guards. His death sparked a nationwide movement. Jackson’s life matters now more than ever, particularly within the context of institutionalized racism and the resistance against mass incarceration.” This is the Howard Zinn version. The guidelines stated, “As Howard Zinn explains in A People’s History of the United States, the most direct effect of the death of George Jackson was the rebellion at Attica prison—a rebellion that came from long, deep issues within the prison system and the country at large.”

Zinn’s relevant chapter 19 begins with the “imprisonment” of women in their own homes (as Betty Friedan claimed), and then segues to the point: “The prisons in the United States had long been an extreme reflection of the American system: the stark life differences between rich and poor, the racism, the use of victims against one another, the lack of resources of the underclass to speak out, the endless ‘reforms’ that changed little.” 

In this chapter, Zinn recycles material from his earlier book, Justice in Everyday Life, much of it based on the interviews his students at Boston University conducted with prisoners.

In A People’s History, Zinn notes with approval the fact that by the late sixties and early seventies prisoners referred to themselves as “’revolutionaries’” who also opposed the Vietnam War:

The events of those years underlined what prisoners already sensed--that whatever crimes they had committed, the greatest crimes were being committed by the authorities who maintained the prisons, by the government of the United States. The law was being broken daily by the President, sending bombers to kill, sending men to be killed. . . .’ State and local officials were violating the civil rights of black people, which was against the law, and were not being prosecuted for it.

On a bright note, prisoners were receiving “Literature about the black movement” and becoming “exhilarat[ed]” by the violent “example set in the streets by blacks, by anti-war demonstrators. . . .” One of these is George Jackson, who was shot as he was trying to escape San Quentin prison in 1971. The “assassination” led to other prison “rebellions,” most famously Attica in September 1971, which led to more.

Relying on Comrade George by Eric Mann, former member of the 1960s groups CORE and SDS, Zinn claims that “the state’s story . . . was full of holes. Prisoners in jails and state prisons all over the country knew, even before the final autopsy, even before later disclosures suggested a government plot to kill Jackson, that he had been murdered for daring to be a revolutionary in prison.” Three lengthy excerpts from Jackson’s book Soledad Brother convey his awareness that he was “’born to a premature death, a menial, subsistence-wage earner, odd-job man, the cleaner, the caught . . . the colonial victim.’” Jackson, Zinn states, was “on an indeterminate sentence for a $70 robbery, having already served ten years for it.”

A few things are missing from Zinn’s account, such as the fact that the robbery in 1961 had been an armed robbery, and that the group Jackson formed in prison was the Marxist-Maoist Black Guerilla Family--and that he had killed prison guard John Mills in 1970 by beating him and then throwing him from a third-tier railing to a concrete floor.[i]

As Malcolm Braly, a former prisoner at San Quentin, wrote in the New York Times in 1971, Jackson’s indefinite term of imprisonment, one year to life, offered an opportunity to get an early release for good behavior. But instead of aiming for parole Jackson put “bloody and forgettable period to the unequal contest,” becoming a criminal martyr.[ii]  Similarly, David Horowitz came to see that people like Black Panther Huey Newton (another hero figure in the California standards and to Zinn) “wanted to be a criminal.” His brother, raised in the same household, had become a college professor. And, “George Jackson had been a criminal since the age of twelve, but Jackson’s father had been a hard-working postman all his life.”[iii]             

Jackson’s criminality reverberated widely. Horowitz recounts in The Black Book of the American Left the suicide in 1980 of Jackson’s defense attorney Fay Stender after a member of Jackson’s prison gang had shot and paralyzed her the year before. Horowitz and Peter Collier described “the army of thugs that had been trained in the Santa Cruz Mountains to free Jackson from his San Quentin cell.” In those “killing fields,” “the [Black] Panthers had buried the corpses of [those] who had violated their Party codes.” The Left made Jackson “a romantic legend.” But “the love letters Jackson had written in the book Soledad Brother, which Fay Stender had edited,” obscured “the murderer who had boasted of killing a dozen men in prison and whose revolutionary plan was to poison the water system of Chicago where he had grown up.”[iv]

As is usual, the case is the opposite of what Zinn presents. But the martyrdom of Jackson and other prisoners of color serve to advance Zinn’s goal: the “abolition of prison.”

Students, especially the brightest, are already getting the jaundiced and falsified view of American history in their Advanced Placement courses, now that the College Board has altered the guidelines to align with the Zinn version of history. This is true even at private and Catholic schools as the syllabus from Bishop Montgomery High School in Torrance, California, shows, A People’s History is assigned alongside the leftist textbook, The American Pageant. Zinn’s book is used in teacher training materials. Passages appear in books for elementary and middle school students.  

Zinn’s reach is far and wide, with professors in various disciplines recommending his tome. His words are read and performed in publicly supported arts events. Last year, I attended a lecture by local adjunct history professor Brandon Dunn on “A People’s History of Utica,” where in the audience sat his role model, his high school teacher from nearby Clinton, Jeffrey Gressler. That evening Dunn announced his plans to get his teaching certificate so he could teach high school.

Howard Zinn, who almost certainly was a member of the Communist Party USA, lied about American history, much like William Z. Foster the head of the Party did in his own similar history, Outline Political History of the Americas published in 1951. Ethnic Studies zeroes in on the focal point of these histories. It is based on the idea that certain groups should be studied to understand how uniquely oppressive and bigoted the United States is. Stalin himself could not have dreamed up of a more effective way to turn American youth against their country.


[i] Earl Caldwell, “Soledad Witness Puts George Jackson at Murder Site,” New York Times, January 9, 1972, p. 36.

[ii] Malcolm Braly, “They’re Not Political Prisoners,” New York Times, October 11, 1971, p. 35.

[iii] David Horowitz, Radical Son (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 267.

[iv] David Horowitz, The Black Book of the American Left (New York: Encounter Books, 2013), 59.


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