Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Howard Zinn and the Quest for Historical Truth

EDUC 116N
HISTORY 116N

What if the history you learned in high school turned out to be a pack of lies, that all the material you memorized to get a 5 on AP turned out to be government-issued slop intended to deaden critical thinking, not promote it? What if, for example, the "Founding Fathers" turned out to be not the sages who, in the words of the late Senator Robert Byrd, created "this wonderful, glorious experiment in representative democracy," but rather a nefarious cabal who set out to create "the most effective system of national control devised in modern times?" This characterization comes straight from Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, a history that is unabashedly "disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." A People's History is more than a book. With two million copies in print, it's an icon. "You wanna read a real history book," Matt Damon tells Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, "read People's History of the United States. That book'll knock you on your ass." Zinn's book is the defining example of revisionism, in which the cherished truths of a previous generation are turned on their head. Together, in this seminar, we will use A People's History to probe the question of historical truth. How do we know what was true in the past? What's the difference between the history you learned in high school and the way knowledge is made, debated, and verified in the university? Under what conditions are we compelled to rethink our interpretations, even if doing so causes discomfort, dread, pain, and upheaval? Finally,in our age of disinformation on the internet, we'll examine what the digital Wild West means for seeking historical truth.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Sam Wineburg

"In high school I was almost booted out of my AP history course for challenging Ms. Perretano's claim that there were 'seven (mind you, seven, not six or eight) causes of the Spanish-American War.' Wandering in the stacks of the local library, I chanced on a college textbook from a neo-Marxist perspective. It could not have been more different from the state-mandated book assigned in class. This incident set off a life-long quest to understand the nature of historical knowledge: How do we know what (we think) we know? Who gets to say? Should I believe a particular interpretation because it matches my preconceptions, or do I owe it to myself to provide more solid grounding for my beliefs? I am not a historian but a research psychologist, interested in how people learn to think. At Stanford, I am the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education and, by courtesy, of History. I founded the Stanford History Education Group (sheg.stanford.edu), whose curriculum for high school has been downloaded nine million times, and is used in Los Angeles, the second largest district in the nation. I publish in a wide variety of places: Cognitive ScienceJournal of American HistorySmithsonian Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and USAToday, and stories about my work have appeared in the New York Times, the New YorkerNPRWashington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. My 2002 book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past, won the book award from the Association of American Colleges and Universities for the work that makes the most important contribution to the "improvement of Liberal Education and understanding the Liberal Arts." However, the origin for teaching this class came from watching the first-year experience of a fairly recent college graduate, my own daughter (Stanford, 2009). Watching her experience inspired me to think about the course I would want first-year students to take as an introduction to university study."