Interview with Howard Zinn author of The People’s History of the United States

Why should students study history?
I started studying history with one view in mind: to look for answers to the issues and problems I saw in the world about me. By the time I went to college I had worked in a shipyard, had been in the Air Force, had been in a war. I came to history asking questions about war and peace, about wealth and poverty, about racial division.
Sure, there’s a certain interest in inspecting the past and it can be fun, sort of like a detective story. I can make an argument for knowledge for its own sake as something that can add to your life. But while that’s good, it is small in relation to the very large objective of trying to understand and do something about the issues that face us in the world today.
Students should be encouraged to go into history in order to come out of it, and should be discouraged from going into history and getting lost in it, as some historians do.

How do you prevent history lessons from becoming a recitation of dates and battles and Congresspersons and presidents?
You can take any incident in American history and enrich it and find parallels with today. One important thing is not to concen- trate on chronological order, but to go back and forth and find similarities and analogies.
You should ask students if anything in a particular historical event reminds them of something they read in the newspapers or see on television about the world today. When you press students to make connections, to abstract from the unique- ness of a particular historical event and find some- thing it has in common with another event—then history becomes alive, not just past but present.

Is it possible for history to be objective?
Objectivity is neither possible nor desirable. It’s not possible because all history is subjec- tive, all history represents a point of view. History is always a selection from an infinite number of facts and everybody makes the selection differ- ently, based on their values and what they think is important. Since it’s not possible to be objective,you should be honest about that. Objectivity is not desirable because if we want to have an effect on the world, we need to empha- size those things which will make students more active citizens and more moral people.