Critically Thinking Through a Dry Passage about a Book

Session 04

Link to the full article: https://slate.com/human-interest/2018/09/howard-zinn-in-history-class-teachers-and-a-peoples-history-of-the-united-states.html

With more than 2 million copies in print, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is more than a book. It is a cultural icon. “You wanna read a real history book?” Matt Damon asks his therapist in the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting. “Read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. That book’ll … knock you on your ass.” The book’s original gray cover was painted red, white, and blue in 2003 and is now marketed with special displays in suburban megastores. Once considered radical, A People’s History has gone mainstream. By 2002, Will Hunting had been replaced by A. J. Soprano of the HBO hit The Sopranos. Doing his homework at the kitchen counter, A. J. tells his parents that his history teacher compared Christopher Columbus to Slobodan Milošević. When Tony fumes, “Your teacher said that?” A. J. responds, “It’s not just my teacher—it’s the truth. It’s in my history book.” The camera pans to A. J. holding a copy of A People’s History.

History, for Zinn, is looked at from “the bottom up”: a view “of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army.” Decades before we thought in such terms, Zinn provided a history for the 99 percent. Many teachers view A People’s History as an anti-textbook, a corrective to the narratives of progress dispensed by the state. This is undoubtedly true on a topical level. When learning about the Spanish-American War, students don’t read about Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill. Instead, they follow the plight of foot soldiers sweltering in the Cuban tropics, clutching their stomachs, not from Spanish bullets but from food poisoning caused by rancid meat sold to the army by Armour & Company. Such stories acquaint students with a history too often hidden and too quickly brushed aside by traditional textbooks.

But in other ways—ways that strike at the very heart of what it means to learn history as a discipline—A People’s History is closer to students’ state-approved texts than its advocates are wont to admit. Like traditional textbooks, A People’s History relies almost entirely on secondary sources, with no archival research to thicken its narrative. Like traditional textbooks, the book is naked of footnotes, thwarting inquisitive readers who seek to retrace the author’s interpretative steps. And, like students’ textbooks, when A People’s History draws on primary sources, these documents serve to prop up the main text but never provide an alternative view or open a new field of vision.

Howard Zinn has the same right as any author to choose one interpretation over another, to select which topics to include or ignore. I find myself agreeing with A People’s History in some places (such as the Indian Removal Act, and the duplicity and racism of the Wilson administration) and shaking my head in disbelief at others (e.g., Zinn’s conflation of the party of Lincoln with the Democratic Party of Jefferson Davis). Yet where my proclivities align with or depart from Zinn’s is beside the point.

I am less concerned with what Zinn says than his warrant for saying it, less interested in the words that meet the eye than with the book’s interpretive circuitry, which doesn’t. Largely invisible to the casual reader are the moves and strategies that Zinn uses to bind evidence to conclusion, to convince readers that his interpretations are right. More is at stake in naming and making explicit these moves than an exercise in rhetoric. For when they encounter Zinn’s A People’s History, students undoubtedly take away more than new facts about the Homestead strike or Eugene V. Debs. They are exposed to and absorb an entire way of asking questions about the past as well as a means of using evidence to advance historical argument. For many students, A People’s History will be the first full-length history book they read—and, for some, it will be the only one. Beyond what they learn about Shays’ Rebellion or the loopholes in the Sherman Antitrust Act, what does A People’s History teach young people about what it means to think historically?

Our article this week, from Slate, was a hard one to follow for me. Follow along with the article in the show notes and see how well you understand the author. As always, Jack, founder of Jack Westin is here to help us break down today’s passage, piece by piece! Be sure to also check out The MCAT Podcast to help you more with the MCAT as you take on this journey to medical school.

Link to the full article:

Howard Zinn’s Anti-Textbook

With more than 2 million copies in print, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is more than a book. It is a cultural icon. “You wanna read a real history book?” Matt Damon asks his therapist in the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting. “Read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. That book’ll … knock you on your ass.” The book’s original gray cover was painted red, white, and blue in 2003 and is now marketed with special displays in suburban megastores. Once considered radical, A People’s History has gone mainstream. By 2002, Will Hunting had been replaced by A. J. Soprano of the HBO hit The Sopranos. Doing his homework at the kitchen counter, A. J. tells his parents that his history teacher compared Christopher Columbus to Slobodan Milošević. When Tony fumes, “Your teacher said that?” A. J. responds, “It’s not just my teacher—it’s the truth. It’s in my history book.” The camera pans to A. J. holding a copy of A People’s History.

History, for Zinn, is looked at from “the bottom up”: a view “of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army.” Decades before we thought in such terms, Zinn provided a history for the 99 percent. Many teachers view A People’s History as an anti-textbook, a corrective to the narratives of progress dispensed by the state. This is undoubtedly true on a topical level. When learning about the Spanish-American War, students don’t read about Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill. Instead, they follow the plight of foot soldiers sweltering in the Cuban tropics, clutching their stomachs, not from Spanish bullets but from food poisoning caused by rancid meat sold to the army by Armour & Company. Such stories acquaint students with a history too often hidden and too quickly brushed aside by traditional textbooks.

But in other ways—ways that strike at the very heart of what it means to learn history as a discipline—A People’s History is closer to students’ state-approved texts than its advocates are wont to admit. Like traditional textbooks, A People’s History relies almost entirely on secondary sources, with no archival research to thicken its narrative. Like traditional textbooks, the book is naked of footnotes, thwarting inquisitive readers who seek to retrace the author’s interpretative steps. And, like students’ textbooks, when A People’s History draws on primary sources, these documents serve to prop up the main text but never provide an alternative view or open a new field of vision.

Howard Zinn has the same right as any author to choose one interpretation over another, to select which topics to include or ignore. I find myself agreeing with A People’s History in some places (such as the Indian Removal Act, and the duplicity and racism of the Wilson administration) and shaking my head in disbelief at others (e.g., Zinn’s conflation of the party of Lincoln with the Democratic Party of Jefferson Davis). Yet where my proclivities align with or depart from Zinn’s is beside the point.

I am less concerned with what Zinn says than his warrant for saying it, less interested in the words that meet the eye than with the book’s interpretive circuitry, which doesn’t. Largely invisible to the casual reader are the moves and strategies that Zinn uses to bind evidence to conclusion, to convince readers that his interpretations are right. More is at stake in naming and making explicit these moves than an exercise in rhetoric. For when they encounter Zinn’s A People’s History, students undoubtedly take away more than new facts about the Homestead strike or Eugene V. Debs. They are exposed to and absorb an entire way of asking questions about the past as well as a means of using evidence to advance historical argument. For many students, A People’s History will be the first full-length history book they read—and, for some, it will be the only one. Beyond what they learn about Shays’ Rebellion or the loopholes in the Sherman Antitrust Act, what does A People’s History teach young people about what it means to think historically?

[01:42] Types of Passages to Look At

Jack recommends finding opinionated articles, where they give one side of an argument or a debate. The problem with news sites is they pick up articles where topics are relevant to the reader. You want to read boring stuff. One site Jack recommends is ALDaily.com, including their Opinion section. Other journals you can look to include Economist, The Atlantic Journal, Washington Post. You can also use the daily passages from Jack Westin, where they purposely pick out tests that are very boring, which are similar to the actual test.

[03:15] Paragraph 1, Sentence #1

With more than 2 million copies in print, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is more than a book.

Jack says:

Either this book is amazing or it has a huge impact. But the latter may be the more correct since it didn’t say it’s a good thing. It just says a lot of people has read it. Also, the MCAT italicizes names of work. If they mention they italicize, it’s usually a piece of work.

[05:10] Paragraph 1, Sentence #2

It is a cultural icon.

Jack says:

Seems this is gearing towards a positive direction. It mentions cultural, so we’re not talking about economics or education. So keep this perspective.

[05:47] Paragraph 1, Sentence #3-4

“You wanna read a real history book?” Matt Damon asks his therapist in the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting. “Read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. That book’ll … knock you on your ass.”

Jack says:

The character is supporting this. And you can guess this is really a good book that can surprise you in some way.

[07:13] Paragraph 1, Sentence #5

The book’s original gray cover was painted red, white, and blue in 2003 and is now marketed with special displays in suburban megastores.

Jack says:

It’s taking hold of its cultural icon, with the colors representing America. And now this is on display in big stores. It seems to be a factual sentence, meaning you don’t have to take anything from this sentence and you should be fine. So it’s not really changing much here.

[08:10] Paragraph 1, Sentence #6

Once considered radical, A People’s History has gone mainstream.

Jack says:

At one point, it wasn’t that popular and maybe only tied to certain groups of people or niche. And now it seems to be more popular.

[08:52] Paragraph 1, Sentence #7

By 2002, Will Hunting had been replaced by A. J. Soprano of the HBO hit The Sopranos.

Jack says:

The fact they’re replacing it means it can be a support for another concept. Although at this point, we really don’t know a lot.

[10:00] Paragraph 1, Sentence #8

Doing his homework at the kitchen counter, A. J. tells his parents that his history teacher compared Christopher Columbus to Slobodan Milošević.

Jack says:

Maybe comparing Christopher Columbus to this new guy is radical. We don’t know who Slobodan is but it might be referring to the fact that it’s really radical. And it’s different than what we’re used to reading.

[11:17] Paragraph 1, Sentence #9

When Tony fumes, “Your teacher said that?” A. J. responds, “It’s not just my teacher—it’s the truth. It’s in my history book.”

Jack says:

It could be hinting that this book is radical and they’re surprised. It could be a good thing.

[13:00]  Paragraph 1, Sentence #10

The camera pans to A. J. holding a copy of A People’s History.

Jack says:

Here A.J. is holding a copy of the book. It’s the history book and in the book, it’s comparing Christopher Columbus to Slobodan Milošević.

[13:27]  What Paragraph 1 Means

The book wasn’t mainstream before and now it is. It’s a cultural icon and maybe it’s impacting society. The book is impactful. The MCAT might ask why the book is comparing Columbus and Slobodan and the answer would be the one closest to saying that the book is impactful and changing society’s culture.

[15:03]  Paragraph 2, Sentence #1

History, for Zinn, is looked at from “the bottom up”: a view “of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army.”

Jack says:

Now, we’re seeing why it’s radical as it’s talking about the Constitution from the point of view of the slaves. This is the radical point as it explains what the book is all about. The author Zinn, looks at things from the bottom up. You many not know what that means but the author doesn’t necessarily think it’s really from the bottom. The author is quoting it in a sarcastic way or maybe to quote Zinn’s point of view that it is from the “bottom up”  – which can mean the lower class in society. Maybe they don’t necessarily believe that they’re lower in class. You may not catch these names, but it seems there are people at the bottom capturing their point of view. But the author doesn’t necessarily mean they’re actually at the bottom but it’s just the way Zinn describes it.

[17:31]  Paragraph 2, Sentence #2

Decades before we thought in such terms, Zinn provided a history for the 99 percent.

Jack says:

Zin talks about the people who seem to be on the lower end of the society.

[18:12]  Paragraph 2, Sentence #3

Many teachers view A People’s History as an anti-textbook, a corrective to the narratives of progress dispensed by the state.

Jack says:

Anti doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. Corrective is a very strong word because it means it corrects whatever the state dispenses. Dispensing is more of a negative word but you don’t even look at it as a negative word. You can just think they’re correcting something the state said.

[19:37]  Paragraph 2, Sentence #4

This is undoubtedly true on a topical level.

Jack says:

The author is agreeing how teachers are viewing this as a corrective measure.

[19:49]  Paragraph 2, Sentence #5-6

When learning about the Spanish-American War, students don’t read about Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill. Instead, they follow the plight of foot soldiers sweltering in the Cuban tropics, clutching their stomachs, not from Spanish bullets but from food poisoning caused by rancid meat sold to the army by Armour & Company.

Jack says:

So it’s giving an example of something that happened in history that students are not reading about. Noticing Teddy Roosevelt charging up seems to be the way the state likes to perceive or portray things. But the other 99% is suffering. Notice that the first couple of sentences are already setting the scene for everything else you read.

[21:28] How to Improve at Reading

A lot of students ask Jack about how to improve and get better at reading faster and he says it all comes down to the details. If you’re able to pick up on things early on in the paragraph, you’ll be able to read the latter stages of the paragraph more effectively. He recommends taking a moment to understand the first couple of sentences to help you understand the rest.

[22:14]  Paragraph 2, Sentence #7

Such stories acquaint students with a history too often hidden and too quickly brushed aside by traditional textbooks.

Jack says:

The author is saying we don’t tell these stories enough and we often forget them because these traditional textbooks don’t tell the stories. A lot of students may perceive about learning about the war or students not reading about Teddy. These refer to the book. Realize everything is related to that book.

[23:09] What Paragraph 2 Means:

It’s painting a picture of why it’s a radical book. And the radical thing here is highlighting the bottom or lower end.

[24:03]  Paragraph 3, Sentence #1

But in other ways—ways that strike at the very heart of what it means to learn history as a discipline—A People’s History is closer to students’ state-approved texts than its advocates are wont to admit.

Jack says:

Even though teachers are calling it an anti-textbook, the author is saying it’s similar to what the state is saying even if they don’t want to admit it.

[24:55]  Paragraph 3, Sentence #2

Like traditional textbooks, A People’s History relies almost entirely on secondary sources, with no archival research to thicken its narrative.

Jack says:

The author is saying there’s not a lot of research into this. Seems like the author is comparing it to the state textbooks. We don’t really know if the author likes the book. So be careful when you’re reading cultural icon. The author is actually just presenting other people’s point of view. As you’re reading, always consider where the author stands. And they could change their mind so be careful with that.

[26:46]  Paragraph 3, Sentence #3

Like traditional textbooks, the book is naked of footnotes, thwarting inquisitive readers who seek to retrace the author’s interpretative steps.

Jack says:

A good book would usually have footnotes and research. It’s something you should take away after reading this passage.

[27:58]  Paragraph 3, Sentence #4

And, like students’ textbooks, when A People’s History draws on primary sources, these documents serve to prop up the main text but never provide an alternative view or open a new field of vision.

Jack says:

The author would prefer alternative views and thinking it different than the writer. Again, researching is something the author would approve of as well as seeking different viewpoints.

[29:19]  What Paragraph 3 Means:

We still don’t know if the author does like it but we do know that the author thinks it’s similar to state textbooks in some way. It seems like the author doesn’t like it but the author never said it’s a bad book. And that’s okay. That’s where the subjective stuff comes in. Make sure you’re sticking to the passage.

[29:57]  Paragraph 4, Sentence #1

Howard Zinn has the same right as any author to choose one interpretation over another, to select which topics to include or ignore.

Jack says:

It seems like the author is saying it doesn’t matter and choose your own point of view. It’s like the author is going against their own preference, saying they prefer multiple points of view but Zinn can do whatever he wants.

[30:32]  Paragraph 4, Sentence #2

I find myself agreeing with A People’s History in some places (such as the Indian Removal Act, and the duplicity and racism of the Wilson administration) and shaking my head in disbelief at others (e.g., Zinn’s conflation of the party of Lincoln with the Democratic Party of Jefferson Davis).

Jack says:

The author is saying he’s agreeing with some parts of the book and not agreeing with other parts.

[31:26]  Paragraph 4, Sentence #3

Yet where my proclivities align with or depart from Zinn’s is beside the point.

Jack says:

It’s the same as the above sentence. It just says something to do with agree and disagree whether the author’s ideas align or depart. And we don’t know what the point is yet.

[32:18]  What Paragraph 4 Means:

This paragraph is a misdirection. It’s expanding on a point that the author doesn’t care about. It’s just a filler based on the previous sentence.

[32:35]  Paragraph 5, Sentence #1

I am less concerned with what Zinn says than his warrant for saying it, less interested in the words that meet the eye than with the book’s interpretive circuitry, which doesn’t.

Jack says:

This can be hard to understand so just focus on the parts that you understand. Maybe the first clause is all you really need here. It’s been proven in the previous paragraph that the author doesn’t care what they say. “Warrant” refers to reasons here. So he doesn’t care what he says, but why he says it. Still very complicated. But as long as you realize we’re talking about another element, other than what Zinn agrees with. We’re talking about why Zinn would say something.

[34:31]  Paragraph 5, Sentence #2

Largely invisible to the casual reader are the moves and strategies that Zinn uses to bind evidence to conclusion, to convince readers that his interpretations are right.

Jack says:

This is still deep but it seems the author is talking about what Zinn says to how or why Zinn says it. This is the vibe you should be getting. Don’t give up if you don’t understand every sentence you’re reading as long as you’re trying your best to keep track of what’s going on. You should be okay and be able to figure it out.

[35:49]  Paragraph 5, Sentence #3

More is at stake in naming and making explicit these moves than an exercise in rhetoric.

Jack says:

The author is saying it’s important to make clear why the author is doing this kind of rhetoric. It seems to be an important part the author cares about.

[36:54]  Paragraph 5, Sentence #4

For when they encounter Zinn’s A People’s History, students undoubtedly take away more than new facts about the Homestead strike or Eugene V. Debs.

Jack says:

Zinn is doing something we may not be aware of. And that thing is giving students facts or more than just facts. People are doing something people are not necessarily aware of that includes more than facts.

[37:40]  Paragraph 5, Sentence #5

They are exposed to and absorb an entire way of asking questions about the past as well as a means of using evidence to advance historical argument.

Jack says:

Everything we read was trying to say this. We were trying to guess but if you guessed too often or wrongly, you’re going to miss this point of view. The good thing about this paragraph is they cleared it up and told us exactly what you need to know. Zinn helped us ask questions.

[38:50]  Paragraph 5, Sentence #6

For many students, A People’s History will be the first full-length history book they read—and, for some, it will be the only one.

Jack says:

This is going back to the impact the book has.

[39:12]  Paragraph 5, Sentence #7

Beyond what they learn about Shays’ Rebellion or the loopholes in the Sherman Antitrust Act, what does A People’s History teach young people about what it means to think historically?

Jack says:

Zinn is trying to tell students how to think about history. And in a way, the author ends with that in this paragraph.

[40:00]  What Paragraph 5 Means:

Realize that Zinn does something more than just give facts. It makes us think about history. And we can pick that up from sentence 5, where this is already exposed. And that’s the most important sentence here that gives away everything we were talking about before. That is the key the author is trying to present, at least in this paragraph. However, we still don’t know whether the author likes this or not. We don’t know if this is a good thing or bad thing.

[41:30] Final Thoughts

Our job is not to predict what the author thinks or how the author thinks about it. Our job is to understand what the author thinks. We don’t need to predict for the author. We just need to know what the author is trying to convey. What we know here is Zinn does this and he makes us questions about history. Other than that, you’re not responsible for it.

In the last episode, we talked about reading the title and what the passages may not have anything to do with the title. The subtitle to this article is calling the book limited and close-minded. So we get from the subtitle that the author doesn’t like it. But from everything we read, we don’t know that yet. The MCAT doesn’t care about the subtitle. They care about what’s in front of you. They’ll ask questions about what’s in front of you. So don’t read the titles as they can throw you off. We don’t know what part of the essay the author is really referring to.

Ultimately, the MCAT wants to see if you can not bring in your bias. They want to see if you can think critically by being objective. Remember, everything we’re going over is the basis and the fundamentals to thinking critically – being objective and being able to understand what you’re reading.

Additionally, something they do often is they present passages you may be familiar with. Everyone knows Hitler or some dictator is bad but they might present a passage about how they did great things for their country. That’s baffling. And so if the passage says that, you have to go with it. So they’re testing whether or not you cannot bring in your bias. In fact, not knowing a lot about history could actually help you. And the same is true for the sciences. Otherwise, if you know too much, that might throw you off on the test.

[45:20] More from Jack Westin

If you want more practice, go to medicalschoolhq.net/jackwestin and sign up for the daily CARS MCAT questions everyday in your email. Or text the word MCATCARS to 44222.

Links:

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