Saturday, July 27, 2013

Howard Zinn is good for the soul

In Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon (playing the part of "Will") utters a famous line about the now-deceased historian Howard Zinn to Sean (the psychiatrist played by Robin Williams):
You wanna read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. That book’ll fuckin’ knock you on your ass.
I vividly remember that scene, since at the time--in 1997--I had just decided to go back to college to complete an undergraduate degree in history. I had already read A People's History, though, some eight or nine years previously (for fun, not for any sort of school requirement). Still, I enjoyed hearing the book being mentioned in the movie, as it was a favorite of mine then and remains so to this day.

But there was another history-related scene in the movie that has also stuck with me. It was the exchange in the bar between Will and the obnoxious, self-important grad student named Clark. Will's friend Chuckie (Ben Affleck) and Clark are competing for the attentions of Skylar (Minnie Driver). Clark attempts to embarrass Chuckie by ridiculing his lack of education. And it works, until Will steps in. Watch it for yourself:


The critical (for me) exchange between Will and Clark:
Clark (to Chuckie): No, no, no, no! There's no problem here. I was just hoping you might give me some insight into the evolution of the market economy in the southern colonies. My contention is that prior to the Revolutionary War, the economic modalities, especially in the southern colonies, could be most aptly described as agrarian pre-capitalist.  
Will (jumping in): Of course that's your contention. You're a first-year grad student; you just got finished reading some Marxian historian, Pete Garrison probably. You're gonna be convinced of that 'till next month when you get to James Lemon. Then you're going to be talking about how the economies of Virginia and Pennsylvania were entrepreneurial and capitalist way back in 1740. That's gonna last until next year; you're gonna be in here regurgitating Gordon Wood, talkin' about, you know, the pre-revolutionary utopia and the capital-forming effects of military mobilization.  
Clark: Well, as a matter of fact, I won't, because Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social...  
Will: "Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth"? You got that from Vickers' "Work in Essex County," page 98, right? Yeah, I read that too. Were you gonna plagiarize the whole thing for us? Do you have any thoughts of your own on this matter? Or do you, is that your thing, you come into a bar, read some obscure passage and then pretend - you pawn it off as your own, as your own idea just to impress some girls, embarrass my friend?
Now I'm no card-carrying genius like the character played by Damon, but this scene still struck a chord with me, because despite my lack of degrees--at the time--I knew what Damon was saying, I understood all the general points he was making, even with the introduction of the fictional historian "Pete Garrison" and the made-up quote from Vickers' real (and significant) treatise. In this brief exchange, Will reveals himself to be something of a radical, when it comes to history and historians. So it's no wonder that later in the movie, he has high praise for the unavowed leader of the New Left Historians, Howard Zinn.

New Left Historians--who began to appear in the 1960's, along with the New Left Everything Elses--approach history from a "bottom up" perspective. They are concerned not only with how things changed for the lower economic classes, but with what the lower classes actually thought about the changes, as well. Still, New Left history is undoubtedly Marxist in orientation, which tends to turn off many people. For instance, there is the former governor of Illinois, Mitch Daniels. This piece is actually something of a response to the recent kerfuffle over his supposed attempt to remove Zinn's book from use in Indiana schools back in 2010. Of Zinn's book, Daniels says (in an e-mail) it is a:
...Truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page.
That's rough. And I'm sorry to say, not particularly accurate. This is not to say there are no problems with Zinn's book. There are. Many, many problems. But there are a lot of problems with most other books that attempt to cover the totality of the American experience, as well. Because let's face it, such an undertaking is no small feat, no easy thing to do. Choices have to be made and--ultimately--an historian must have a point of view.

Zinn's perspective is clear; he wore it on his sleeve like a badge of honor. His histories were intended to speak for those groups who had little or limited voices in the more traditional histories. Does he go too far in this regard? In my opinion, yes. Zinn is not just writing history, he is selling ideology. And Mitch Daniels makes something of a fair point, with regard to Zinn's work being used in schools: it can't--or at least shouldn't--be the primary textbook for teaching a general course in American history. But that doesn't mean it has no place in history departments. For again, there is a great deal of value in the book, a great deal of information worth knowing, worth learning.

At the same time, Zinn's transgressions--where he allows his ideology to supersede evidence for the purposes of his historical narrative--are instructive because, I think, they are both well done and easy to spot (once you know what to look for). That's something that needs to be taught, as well: critical thinking, how to know when you're getting a tainted view of reality.

Thus, like so many other works by so many other great historians, A People's History--and Zinn's other offerings, as well--needs to be read, both for the specifics it contains and for the point of view it espouses. Oh, and for one other reason. Because it is, itself, also history: it's a testament to and a product of the times it was written in, a part of the radicalism that swept through academia after the sixties and an example of the rise of new techniques in the study of history.

Plus, if you have a copy on your bookshelf, it makes you look smart...

Cheers, all.

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