Why teach “a people’s history”?

Why should we teach “a people’s history” instead of the traditional narrative? Here are responses from some of the authors featured on the website and teachers.

Howard Zinn

We are pleased to share the keynote address Howard Zinn gave at the 2008 National Conference for the Social Studies (NCSS) conference. He offers clear examples of how history teachers can help students think outside of the box. This is an excellent film to be shown in parts or in full for staff discussion.

View this movie in high-resolution. | Transcript.


Since the launch of the Zinn Education Project in 2008, we have received lots of comments from teachers about the value of “a people’s history” and how they are incorporating it in their classroom. Here are a few of those comments:

Why teach "a people's history"? - "Students exposed to different perspectives learn that history is made by the actions of choices of everyday people like them" | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

A long list of “good guys” with no one to struggle with is neither a true story nor a good story. It doesn’t resonate because it leads the student to believe that we are all waiting for the next exceptional leader, instead of becoming a force for change in our own communities. A People’s History helped me recognize this as a student of history and inspires my attempt to bring true stories to young people, weary of the inaccessible lists that history teaching has become.
—Reynolds Bodenhamer, 11th-Grade U.S. History, Gulfport, MS

Zinn’s work offers an alternative perspective that students need in order to think more critically about key issues in history.
—William Thomas, Auburn, NH

Knowing that resources like the Zinn Education Project exist make me feel so hopeful about the network of people who are engaged in this kind of dialogue with their students. I am a young, white female living in Baltimore and teaching at an all black middle school. These resources are so valuable to me personally and to the relationships being built between the students and the faculty. Thank you to everyone involved in keeping this collaboration evolving!
—Lara Emerling, Middle School Teacher, Baltimore, MD

Thank you so very much for sharing Zinn’s materials with us. We badly need to get a message of advocacy and action into our communities and into our hearts. Your support makes this easier, in a fight that feels overwhelming …
—Nancy Jean Smith, California State University Stanislaus, Stockton, CA

…[I]t was my sense that throughout the year last school year, and so far this school year, [that] the kids responded well to the Zinn book … [because] they appreciate Zinn’s perspective. I think most of the kids realize that there has been something seriously flawed with the way in which U.S. history has been presented to them, and Zinn’s book, for many of them, verifies this feeling. Even the kids who don’t agree with Zinn’s take on US history appreciate the fact that he has a definite approach to history and the kids say that a strong perspective makes the text more engaging than traditional history texts. Also, the students enjoy his narrative style where one topic or series of events is dealt with in a clean, short chapter, as opposed to a traditional textbook’s reliance on sections that seem to drone on with facts layered on more facts. We will see how this year continues.”
—Nick Caltagirone, High School Teacher, West Chicago, IL

Read full list of teachers’ comments


Judy Richardson

Co-editor of Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts By Women in SNCC

Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC (Book) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

Back in 1978, when we first started production on what later became the 14-hour Eyes on the Prize series, everything — films, books, curricula — revolved around Dr. King. Times have changed somewhat, but not as much as I would have assumed. The wonderful new local movement scholarship that has examined activism in southern communities big and small somehow hasn’t “trickled down” beyond the upper reaches of academia the way it rightfully should have.

The problem with this singular focus on Dr. King isn’t just that it’s ahistorical. Even more insidious, by focusing only on the greatness of Dr. King, we ignore the amazing courage, strength and brilliant leadership of regular folks, particularly Black folks in the Deep South like Fannie Lou Hamer, Hartman Turnbow, Fred Shuttlesworth, Charles and Henrietta Moore (and we should never forget one of the Movement’s foremost strategists, Ella Baker). It was they who had been plowing the ground of political and social change even before the heightened activism of the 1960s, and it was they who were often killed — or destroyed in other ways — before they could even see the fruits of the seeds they’d sown.

By focusing only on a few “special” people like Dr. King and Rosa Parks — rather than highlighting, as Howard Zinn did, the stories of “ordinary” heroines and heroes — we fail to understand that most activists in the movement didn’t consider themselves “special” at all. They were simply people who chose to change things — chose to risk their lives, their livelihoods and possibly their personal dreams for the future to right the wrongs they could no longer ignore. Also important to students: many of those who were at the cutting edge of this change were young people. It is through the vanguard of the young activists of the 1960s that students will, hopefully, see themselves as the activists of today.

If we don’t learn that it was people just like us — our mothers, our uncles, our classmates, our clergy — who made and sustained the modern Civil Rights Movement, then we won’t know we can do it again. And then the other side wins — even before we ever begin the fight.

Ronald Takaki

Author of A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America

A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (Book) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

Let me tell you what I have been striving to do as a teacher and scholar. I noted the power and pervasiveness of the master narrative of American history, which defines American as white. We have an opportunity at the beginning of this 21st century to challenge this narrative and to re-vision our nation’s history. How can diverse Americans become “one people”? I believe that one path is for us to pursue [a] study of the past that includes all of us, making all of us feel connected to one another as “we the people,” working and living in a nation, founded and “dedicated” (to use Lincoln’s language) to the “proposition” that “all men are created equal.” So, our expanding ethnic diversity of this century, a time when we will all be minorities, offers us an invitation to create a larger memory of who we are as Americans and to re-affirm our founding principle of equality. Let’s put aside fears of the “disuniting of America” and warnings of the “clash of civilizations.” As Langston Hughes sang, “Let America be America, where equality is in the air we breathe.”

Ray Raphael

Author of A People’s History of the American Revolution. Text below from the teaching activity, Re-examining the Revolution.

A People’s History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence (Book) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

In textbooks students learn that a handful of celebrated personalities make things happen, the rest only tag along; a few write the scripts, the rest just deliver their lines. This turns history on its head. In reality, so-called leaders emerge from the people — they gain influence by expressing views that others espouse.

In the telling of history, however, the genesis of leadership is easily forgotten. Textbook authors and popular history writers fail to portray the great mass[es] of humanity as active players, agents on their own behalf. Supposedly, only leaders function as agents of history. They provide the motive force; without them, nothing would happen. The famous Founders, we are told, made the American Revolution. They dreamt up the ideas, spoke and wrote incessantly, and finally convinced others to follow their lead. But in trickle-down history, as in trickle-down economics, the concerns of the people at the bottom are supposed to be addressed by mysterious processes that cannot be delineated. What happens at the top is all that really counts. This distorts the very nature of the historical process, which must, by definition, include masses of people.

The way we learn about the birth of our nation is a case in point. If we teach our students that a few special people forged American freedom, we misrepresent, and even contradict, the spirit of the American Revolution. Our country owes its existence to the political activities of groups of dedicated patriots who acted in concert. Throughout the rebellious colonies, citizens organized themselves into an array of local committees, congresses, and militia units that unseated British authority and assumed the reins of government. These revolutionary efforts could serve as models for the collective, political participation of ordinary citizens. Stories that focus on these models would confirm the original meaning of American patriotism: Government must be based on the will of the people. They would also show some of the dangers inherent in majoritarian democracy: the suppression of dissent and the use of jingoism to mobilize support and secure power. They would reflect what really happened, and they would reveal rather than conceal the dynamics of political struggle.