In my last piece I attempted to make a simple, straight-forward case for why teaching history is so important. Today I would like to explain why I think it is that who we learn history from is almost as important as needing to learn it at all. For two significant examples of how divergent views of history can be, I will use historians Paul Johnson and Howard Zinn – their words, works, and ideologies – to fortify my positions.
Any reasonable man-on-the-street would agree with my basic premise: that the source of any knowledge (or wisdom) we accumulate in this life is important.
Teachers and professors want to go to as good of a school as they can because they (and their potential bosses someday) respect the credibility of the instructor and institution. Parents today care about even the pre-school their child attends because of the prestige of the instructors and institution in question. Students are generally more concerned with what their friends and peers have to say about life, but as they get closer to higher education, many begin to apply to colleges based on the reputation of the place and its professors.
Nearly the entire education system in this country is built upon the aura that surrounds this or that school, this or that program, and this or that personality. And it extends out into life after college now as well. Adults buy and recommend books based on little more than a, “Oh! That author is a Harvard professor,” or, “That writer is very good – she studied under so-and-so at Princeton.”
But who really is your child’s English teacher at the local high school? What are the deeply-held convictions of your son’s Sociology professor he gushes about when home on break? What is the worldview of the author who has had the biggest impact on your daughter’s intellectual development?
I am a firm believer in the reality of objective truth, and so should I come to learn that someone as deplorable as Joseph Stalin used to be very kind to his dog, I don’t have to start beating my dog just to make sure I’m nothing like a genocidal maniac. I point this out because I know some will read the rest of my column and say, “So should we only learn from people who share our exact life-philosophy?” I don’t think that at all. Education should be a process of challenging and sharpening of one’s mind from a variety of sources that begins in our youth and ought to continue until the day we die.
A liberal teacher can effectively teach a student from a conservative family. And vice versa.
The problem is not that our young people learn a Leftist view of the liberal arts – it’s that we only learn a Leftist view of the liberal arts. Learning about liberalism from a liberal is not the problem – learning about conservatism from a predominantly liberal academic world is.
I am obviously partisan in my love for, and appreciation of, the subject of history, but there are few areas of study that are as important to learn (and where who one learns it from matters more).
Paul Johnson and the late Howard Zinn are two of the most prominent historians of the last 20-30 years. They are masters in their fields. Their books have sold millions of copies. Anyone evenly remotely interested in history, and certainly anyone who has studied history in college or graduate school, recognizes their names and likely has read something they’ve written or heard something they’ve said in the public square.
Paul Johnson is a religious conservative. Howard Zinn is a secular liberal. You wouldn’t need to be informed of these facts had you read almost any book either of them wrote. They are both up-front and candid regarding their personal views.
And yet in public schools and secular universities, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is the most widely-used text book in the country. Paul Johnson, the author of A History of the American People, while still well-known, is always and instantly labeled (and effectively dismissed) as “that conservative” historian. The quality of Johnson’s work cannot be denied, but he is ignored and dismissed by education boards and department chairs when it comes time to choose curriculum because he is unapologetically Catholic and conservative.
So who cares, right? What’s the big deal? Why the sour grapes about Zinn being read and studied more than Johnson?
First, let me say that I am using these two popular names because I believe that they are representative of the larger point I’m trying to make. So don’t get too hung up in your mind on “Johnson vs. Zinn.”
Second, the reason I care, and you should care (regardless of your personal political and cultural convictions), is simple: students today are largely receiving one side, one perspective of American history. It is a cynical view. It is a view that not only accentuates our national mistakes, but plants and cultivates the idea that those mistakes are definitive, not merely descriptive of certain people at specific times. It is a view that goes out of its way to try and link what are today considered “conservative” principles and values with all of the worst of those mistakes.
There is plenty of scholarship on the decidedly Left-of-Center slant purposely put on the teaching of the history of this great nation. I didn’t need research to tell me this, merely to confirm what I already knew as a product of the public school system and devourer of popular non-fiction literature.
To illustrate what I’m driving at, here are two YouTube clips that I believe highlight the conflicting worldviews that Howard Zinn and Paul Johnson typify in the field of historical analysis and scholarship. Both interviews are conducted by nationally syndicated columnist and talk show host Dennis Prager. The first is with Professor Zinn:
(Note: The interview with Zinn has multiple parts, and I highly recommend you take them all in.)
And this one is with Professor Johnson:
I think the clips speak for themselves. I’m not telling anyone what to think, but simply that you ought to think – and think hard – about what kind of citizenry would emanate from each of the two men’s worldviews. There is certainly room for both views in American education, but if you had to pick one to focus on, which would it be? Which is closer to your own sentiments?
To the parents out there: what are your kids reading? We’ve established that history is critically important to learn, but who are your children learning it from? You are shelling out tax dollars for a public school system that few of you take none of your rightful ownership in. Then you spend even more to send your kids to colleges and universities without ever inquiring about the quality and content of that education. Education will change when the behavior and interest level of parents change.
To all adults and thoughtful Americans: what are you, yourself, reading? Do you read? Do you know anything about the history of this country? Are your decisions at the ballot box based on a firm grasp of what has come before and, based on that understanding of the past, what may be around the bend for the U.S.?
History matters, but so do its sources.
R.J. Moeller graduated from Taylor University with a degree in Business in 2005 and is currently a graduate student in the Masters of Divinity program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School while also serving as a youth pastor in the Chicago-land area. R.J. blogs for both American Enterprise Institute and Americans For Prosperity. In addition, he is also the writer, editor, and procurer of his own website “A Voice in the Wilderness” (rjmoeller.com) where he discusses the intersection of theology, culture, education and free market economics. R.J. has been published in World Magazine, and is actively involved with The Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, MI. R.J. loves to fish and play tennis, be disappointed by the Cubs, and hang with his Rottweiler, Rudy. He lists among his influences GK Chesterton, Thomas Sowell, Dennis Prager, Francis Schaeffer, and Fyodor Dostoevsky.