Howard Zinn: Use and Abuse of History Summary

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 mitted 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 pushing for the partial use of history to make a point. An extreme example of course would be Adolph Hitler, you ask a student about Hitler their immediate response would be he was a monster.
Many would agree, but what he did for the economy of Germany and how he brought a starving and poor country back to power can be considered in respects a tremendous act of great leadership and planning. (Trueman , The Nazis and the German Economy) The way history is presented is in a way that makes the presenter (the government) look good in the eyes of its citizens. The picking and choosing of facts only furthers the stereotype that “the world had good guys and bad guys, good countries and bad countries, and ours was good” (Violence and Human Nature 41).
It makes sense in a way that it keeps the masses satisfied with their style and way of government. If the complete history of the U. S. governmental flaws and acts of murders were to be published and used in schools of course the reaction would be to demand change and seek a new way of doing things. But that in itself would be using history in a partial way and again proving history his used to prove points and emphasis ideas based on who is telling them.
Zinn’s idea that being partial is inevitable (Use and Abuse of History 51) cannot be denied, history is always told to prove a point and a point cannot be proven unless ideas are supported with the right facts chosen by those who document them. The ideas, beliefs and values we hold so strong to ourselves dictate the way we see art, literature and the world. The way we see history and record history is also based again on our values and beliefs, what we set in our mind to be so great, honest and true such as our country can be clouded by how attached we are to these values and beliefs we have. The chief problem in historical honesty is not outright lying. It is omission or deemphasis of important data. The definition of important, of course depends on one’s values. ” (Use and Abuse of History51) The values that we hold to ourselves have come from our upbringing, from what we are taught growing up. It is no wonder that American’s see their country as beautiful, free and the birth of the ideal American business dream. Taking into my own perspective, “The Ludlow Massacre” (Use and Abuse of Hitory, 51-53) I initially held the idea that the American government always promoted the growth of its economy in positive measures.
From what was taught to me in history class the only struggle I had known about in the America’s regarding the economy was the great depression and slavery. After reading that part of the article it seems very clear to myself why that was kept away from the public. The stock market crash, the great depression and slavery are all pieces of American history that are unavoidable that are known by the general public, but the Ludlow Massacre because of the scale and the remoteness of the incident, the American government was able to sweep it away out of view of the public eye.
The depression and slavery were both triumphed by the government of America, where it was able to lead their country to economic prosperity and end slavery. But as for the massacre, they burned children and killed hundreds. If this were made general knowledge it may perhaps alter some beliefs of values held in the economic pride of the United States. I see that values lter how you view things because they’re essentially what you believe to be true, and the way history is portrayed it is clear to see that it is partial and that it does take sides. Zinn is very clearly telling the readers that history cannot be told as a whole, bits and pieces are left aside at the discretion of the author. A tiny part maybe left out, but the moral value it can hold can be tremendous even belief altering, that is why history it seems in a sense is regulated and a product that is designed for the general public.
The concept that history “inevitably takes sides” (Use and Abuse of History 51) is a main point in how Zinn argues that history is partial. A bias is always present no matter who the scribe is because the scribe themselves is on a side, or he/she has certain views that alter how they record or present the event they have witnessed. (Use and Abuse of History 51) If this bias is always present is there really a right and wrong way to see two sides given in history?
There is also countless other factors that are prevalent in regards to a bias opinion; is this the idea the publisher wants to display, will this spark controversy, will this get my point across, will this show we are superior? (Use and Abuse of History, 59) Zinn brings forward many ways that would sway a historian to push one side of the story more than the other. “there is a conservative bias to history a tendency to emphasize what previous generations have emphasized. The motive for that is safety, because the historian who breaks the pattern causes stares and suspicions. (Use and Abuse of History,59) The social norm stands dominant in the way history is engineered for the public, I think that it is harder for historians to avoid certain tendencies in what is written because of who will publish it and what controversies it will cause, and especially who will pay for it. History it seems today is more of a business to promote ideas and beliefs that are inside the box, it promotes uniformity in the believers of the past, that those who learn about history’s dark secrets must choose to, that nothing beyond the social norm will be willingly presented to them in fear that their ideologies and beliefs will change.
History’s partial system of facts and the idea that entire civilizations are morally horrid or angelic is so biased because that is the way history has always been. Every story told is nothing but a point of view, that one side of a story always remains dominant to another that portrays a negative outcome for the storyteller. Howard Zinn’s idea that there is no such thing as impartial history because of how it is twisted to either include or ignore things or to emphasize or deemphasize certain ideas seems to do nothing but prove valid.
History is something that has always been partial to emphasize values and ideas to prove something and make sure people interpret it in a certain way. The idea that you cannot ignore the past has a different meaning to me now, you can choose to ignore certain pieces of the past. History’s conservative outlook constantly pushes the same values and ideas this is because we specify which ideas and values should be pushed. The way history is sliced and diced reflects what the government and publishers think how we should view history.
Events of the past are pushed to the side so that ideas of morality and righteousness still stand strong, even though our elected leaders of the past commit crimes it isn’t in the best interest of the general public that this information become readily available. (Use and Abuse of History 56-62) Zinn’s arguments prove to show that history is partial, that things are left out for certain reasons and things are emphasized to prove points.
History can never be impartial because there will always be a degree of bias in whoever records it, neutrality can never really present when describing a conflict because even the idea of neutrality is a personal opinion. History itself is a product to be consumed by the masses, the ideas are ingested and regurgitated so the social norm remains strong and that certain ideologies are always held. Bibliography: 1. Trueman, Chris. “The Nazis and the German Economy. ” The Nazis and the German Economy. History Learning Site, n. d. Web. 10 Oct. 2012. . 2. Zinn, Howard. The Use and Abuse of History. Coursepack

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