History is messy

A People's History of the United States
A People’s History of the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have just been reading an interesting article by David Plotnikoff published by the Stanford University School Of Education. The article is called “Does Zinn’s alternative history teach bad lessons?”.

The article relates to a critique by education professor Sam Wineburg of the influence of Howard Zinn‘s book “A People’s History of  The United States”. This book has been a huge success in giving an alternative view of American history seen from the perspective of the people who Zinn saw as oppressed by rampant and uncontrolled  Capitalism as well as racism (slavery and genocide of the native population).

Wineburg gives examples of where Zinn makes the same mistakes about the use (or non-use) of sources in order to substantiate his main argument as is found in the pro-manifest destiny, America as the torch bearer of liberty histories that Zinn was countering.

He explains that history is never a clear cut example of definitive reasons for events. It is messy. There are many reasons why people acted as they did and although they may have been guided by greed, or bigotry, or a belief in their racial superiority and that they had  a direct line to their God, they did not act on these ideas solely in order to bring about the results that occurred.

This then raises questions about the reasons for studying history. I would pertain that history should be studied in terms of the skills that it can give a student and not as a means to ascertain a definitive block of questionable information. History is about research, opinion, it involves discussion, debate.It involves questioning. In terms of research  it involves the key skill these days of finding answers within the sea of information that lies on the net. It is about the use of video, photographs, as well as the examination of documentary evidence.

I remember talking to someone once who asked me about the validity of a history or political science degree. I stated that there were numerous skills that could be picked up in studying these subjects it was not about becoming a historian or a political scientist. We need to consider all subjects in terms of the skills that they give us to cope in an ever changing world. This does then raise questions about the Government’s ideas about just what should be studied in schools. I am a strong believer that the subject, in itself, is often irrelevant and that we should be focusing on the key skills that we want students to have in order to be get the flexibility of mind and the capacities to collaborate, innovate and live in an increasingly web-dominated world.

For Zinn and American history we can read Gove’s obsession with good kings and bad queens. History is messy but maybe Michael Gove never really learned that!



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