Howard Zinn On History, By Howard Zinn

1675 words - 7 pages

Howard Zinn: On History by Howard Zinn (2011) is a collection of previously published essays ranging from Freedom Schools in the 1960s, issues in scholarship, to the American Empire. Even though the essays were written over several decades there is a constant theme throughout the work—the activist scholar. Zinn feels that scholars should not be passive citizens concerned with their research alone, but active citizens that use their research to change society. Zinn, unlike other historians, is not afraid to place what he views as right and wrong into his scholarly work. In fact he sees nothing unethical about inserting his opinion or politics into his writing. The society of higher education teaches historians to be objective by removing the person from the reading—removing opinion from writing. Zinn feels that this is a fruitless enterprise, for in the end opinion and politics will enter writing. In Howard Zinn: On History the case is made that for a different kind of historian. Zinn challenges the traditional notion of an historian a more passive scholar that endlessly tries to remove himself, or herself, from their research. Zinn sees this as an impossibility and instead argues for a more active scholar. This is the central theme that runs through Zinn’s book, a theme that should run through scholarship itself.
In “Historian as Citizen (1966)” Howard Zinn first codifies his views of an opinion based activist scholar in terms of a historian. The first type of historian that he introduces is the mainstream version of the historian, “traditionally, he is passive observer, one who looks for sequential patterns in the past as a guide to the future (…) but without participating himself in attempts to change the pattern or tidy the disorder.” In other words this scenario holds that an historian should concern himself, or herself, in the past to interpret the present, but not use this interpretation to change the unfolding “pattern” of the present. In essence, this type of historian can be called past centered, because the past is their only concern, but Zinn would call this “disinterested scholarship.” This is the role that most young aspiring historians are taught; a role of research and debate that sets aside the individual in the spirit of objectivity and bias.
The fact that this role professes the need for a fruitless pursuit of objectivity and an unbiased observer, to Zinn, makes this “disinterested scholarship.” Of course historians have to be interested in their work, but what is meant by “disinterested scholarship” is this pursuit for objectivity. In “How Free is Higher Education (1980),” Zinn makes it clear just how futile the pursuit for objectivity is, “Is there any rendition (…) of American History that can escape being political [not objective]—that is, expressing a political point of view? To treat Theodor Roosevelt as a hero (…) is that less political than pointing to his role as an early imperialist, a forerunner of a long string...

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