Suffering from excruciating Summer boredom and this is what I decided to do with my time. The book is A People's History of the United States, which I'm reading for the first time. I'm still in Chapter 1. Let me know what you think about this stuff I wrote. If you think I'm misunderstanding anything about the text or about history, let me know. If you have thoughts about what I'm writing that could lead to interesting debate and/or discourse, please share.
UPDATED: Instead of long, boring essays, now I'm presenting just my mostly disorganized notes on the section in the first chapter after Zinn talks about Columbus but before he starts talking about Cortez. I'm having trouble shaping it all into something cohesive, help me out.
History is kind of like cartography. In telling it, the distortion of the actual events as they occured in time is a "technical necessity" as natural and inevitable as the distortion of the Earth's actual geography that a cartographer commits when making a map. Certain elements are emphasized, others are de-emphasized, etcetera. However, a historian's distortion, unlike a cartographer's, is more than technical; it carries an ideological weight, as well, and the bent of this ideological prejudice is rarely expressed explicitly, or sometimes, even consciously known by the historian.
In the American education the student is taught history "as if all readers of history had a common interest." There is no ideological prejudice; there is only "the story of what has happened", and it is our task to learn it, usually by rote memorization. In the American educational system "education and knowledge are put forward as technical problems of excellence and not as tools for contending social classes, races, nations". When he or she is put through the American educational machine, he or she is taught history as told by governments, leaders, diplomats and conquerors, as if they represented the nation as a whole -- or at least at its best -- and therefore also represented a mythical "national interest".
One side effect of this approach to history is that we learn the "easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress." We learn to give them "exactly the same proportion of attention that teachers and writers often give them in the most respectable of classrooms and textbooks."
For example, Samuel Eliot Morison, Harvard historian and the most highly distinguished biographer of Columbus, in his book Christopher Columbus, Mariner that "the cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide". This is an important fact, but, as Zinn notes, it "is on one page, buried halfway into the telling of a grand romance."
"When we read the history books given to children in the United States, it all starts with heroic adventure -- there is no bloodshed -- and Columbus Day is a celebration."
It sounds like fascist brainwashing to me.
No nation (and it should be especially true in America, where we pride ourselves in our individualism!) is a family. As individuals, we should never "accept the memory of nations as our own."
Learning history according to this approach is like following a map that leads nowhere.
We live in a world of contending interests -- "And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims of executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners." Zinn summarizes the purpose of his book thusly:
...to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees... the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills... the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists... And so on, to the limited extent that any one person can "see" history from the standpoints of others.
In a typical American education, the student is taught history "as if all readers of history had a common interest". The student is taught history as told by governments and leaders. The "easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress" is one aspect of this particular approach to history. The idea of a "common interest" to history, or to a nation, is a myth. "We must not accept the memory of states as our own".
We live in a world of contending ideologies and conflict. Albert Camus, a key philosopher of the 20th Century, suggests that in a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people "not to be on the side of the executioners". Thus, Zinn prefers to present his history of the United States from the viewpoints of the victims -- trying not to romanticize them or grieve for them pointlessly.