Howard Zinn: Use and Abuse of History Summary

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Response to Howard Zinn article

History is something we constantly refer to progress ourselves as humans, we learn from our mistakes and continue to strive from our successes. But who is to say what is a horrible mistake or a courageous act of valor? That which was documented about what happened so long ago, was done by a person who spread the story or wrote it down from their perspective. Howard Zinn’s argument that there is no such thing as impartial history clearly illustrates that when history is recorded there is always two sides to the story, that things are either left out or kept in to sway the reader to one side or the other. “Everyone is biased, whether they know it or not, in possessing fundamental goals, purposes and ends.” (Zinn, Use and Abuse of History,51) Not only can history be recorded partially but also it can be preached partially. By that I mean that in today’s society many things are censored, not published or not publicized. If they don’t share a view that the government doesn’t like, that a publisher knows will not sell a book or that will cause negative controversy the history probably won’t make it to the eyes of the public. (Use and Abuse of History,62). History is partial because no matter who tells it, all the details cannot be accounted for, things are left out or over emphasized to prove a point or show a certain view.

In today’s school system children learn history the way it has been mandated by the government not out of teacher’s discretion. The way history is taught in America is very partial, the idea that America is this country that is oh so glorious and built on the fundamentals of a perfect and morally strong society is over-glorified. The story of Christopher Columbus is a great example that Zinn uses. American’s teach their youth about the courageous sailor who founded the new world and the glory he brought. But leave out the side notes of the genocide he had started and the ruthlessness of slavery all for his own personal glory. (Use and Abuse of History 56-57) Two sides of the same story, though both sides are never told. The idea that the founder of a country was a ruthless murderer would never swing in elementary schools, no matter how much of a reality it is. “One must inevitably omit large chunks of what is available in historical information. But what is omitted is critical in the kind of historical education people get” (Use and Abuse of History 56). It is insane to think that children should be taught every shred of history in school, they focus on the main points but again these main points are synthesized to show what a regulated counsel of officials decides is appropriate knowledge to learn. The books however that detail accounts that hold a darker look at the events or people like Christopher Columbus are not hidden or burned. Instead they are out there but they are not brought to students in silver platters and shoved down their throats. Rather they are off to the side and are available to those who look but if the schools do such a good job and proving how much of a hero Christopher Columbus was who would ever look for such a book? History is partial because society’s elected officials choose what is put in the public eye, the officials decide what the social norm for history will be and they over emphasize glory and nationalism for the sake of our their nation’s pride not because it is the right side of the story, but what the public will perceive as the right story.

“Whenever someone says, ‘history proves…’ and then cites a list of historical facts, we should beware. We can always select facts from history (there are lots to choose from) to prove almost anything...” (Violence and human nature 41) The way we can use and abuse history is as easy as putting someone’s name into Google and hitting search. People can pick and choose what facts about something they wish to argue, again...
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