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Posts Tagged ‘Howard Zinn’

If you’re not yet familiar with the Zinn Education Project–a collaboration of Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change in Washington, D.C.–and the “If We Knew Our History” column–today is a great day to get acquainted with it.

Rethinking Schools curriculum editor and co-director of the Zinn Education Project Bill Bigelow wrote the most recent article on the U.S. invasion of Grenada.

Here’s an excerpt.  Read the rest of the column here.  (Thanks to Common Dreams for also posting it.)

Grenada: ‘A Lovely Little War’

by Bill Bigelow

Anti-bullying curricula are the rage these days. But as teachers endeavor to build a culture of civility among young people in school, the official history curriculum they are provided often celebrates, or at least excuses, bullying among nations. Well, at least when the United States is the bully. A good example is the U.S. invasion of Grenada—Operation Urgent Fury, as it was called by the Reagan administration—launched exactly 30 years ago this week, on Oct. 25, 1983. Grenada made an unlikely target of U.S. military might. Its main product was not oil but nutmeg. Its naval fleet consisted of about 10 fishing trawlers. Grenada’s population of 110,000 was smaller than Peoria, Illinois. At the time of the invasion, there was not a single stoplight in the entire country. So what put Grenada in the crosshairs of the Reagan administration?

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In 1979, the socialist New Jewel Movement had overthrown the corrupt and unpopular dictator Eric Gairy in an almost bloodless coup. For years, Gairy ruled through fear. His secret police, the “Mongoose Gang,” had been supplied by the U.S.-backed Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. The revolution launched by the New Jewel Movement—the “Revo,” as it was affectionately dubbed—was immensely popular. By 1982, when I first visited the island, a literacy campaign was under way, new schools had been built, and unemployed youth in the countryside benefited from new agricultural cooperatives. Grenada welcomed Cuban aid: teachers, health professionals, and construction workers on the new international airport who aimed to replace the antiquated and dangerous airstrip up in the mountains. In just four years, unemployment was cut from 49 percent to 14 percent. Instead of advertising cigarettes and booze, colorful billboards throughout the island promoted education: “Each One Teach One,” “If You Know, Teach; If You Don’t, Learn,” and “Education Is Production, Too.”

Grenada’s ‘threat’

On a steamy August night, with hundreds of other Grenadians I squeezed into a high school auditorium in Grenada’s capital, St. George’s, to watch musical and theater performances from throughout the Caribbean—Dominica, Barbados, and St. Vincent. Each group closed its act with a short speech on how inspiring they found the changes in Grenada. With shouts and smiles they pledged to return to their islands and spread the word about the Grenadian Revo. This West Indian cultural evening exemplified Grenada’s real “threat”—not a launchpad for invasion, but a socialist-inspired revolution with a reggae beat that sparked imaginations throughout the Caribbean. To use Noam Chomsky’s expression, Grenada was the threat of a good example.

Grenada map / A small island with a population less than 110,000, Grenada was, as Noam Chomsky said, a threat of a good example.The United States responded to developments in Grenada with hostility. In August 1981, more than two years before the actual U.S. invasion—in naval maneuvers called “Ocean Venture 81”—the United States staged a mock invasion of Grenada on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico. Code-named “Amber and the Amberdines,” the supposedly fictitious eastern Caribbean country of Amber was accused of being a pawn of Country Red to “export terrorism to a number of Caribbean countries.” A Ranger battalion based in Fort Lewis, Washington, was airlifted to Vieques. Paratroopers landed in mountainous areas of the island and were backed by air attacks and the amphibious landing of thousands of marines. The obvious similarity between “Amber and the Amberdines” and Grenada and the Grenadines was a not-so-veiled threat. President Reagan claimed that Grenada’s construction of the international airport was a ruse for “Soviet-Cuban militarization”—this despite enthusiastic support for the airport from such un-radical entities as Grenada’s Chamber of Commerce, the Grenada Hotel Association, and the Employers’ Federation.

Then came October 1983. In the space of a few days, the leadership of the New Jewel Movement imploded. Grenada’s hugely popular prime minister, Maurice Bishop, was arrested by a faction of his own government and then executed along with many of his close associates. In massive demonstrations following Bishop’s arrest, the Grenadian army fired into the crowds. Shortly after, a military government was formed and announced a 24-hour shoot-to-kill curfew. This violence was the culmination of sectarian infighting whose origins are still murky—a flammable concoction of ambition, ideological rigidity, and leadership isolation, made more volatile by the ever-present threat of U.S. intervention.

In the midst of these traumatic events the United States launched its invasion—sending 7,600 troops into the tiny island—mostly from the United States, but with some from Jamaica and other Caribbean nations. An equivalent force invading the United States would total more than 20 million soldiers. Ronald Reagan defended the invasion, saying Grenada “was a Soviet-Cuban colony being readied as a military bastion to export terror and undermine democracy. We got there just in time.”

Read the rest of “Grenada: ‘A Lovely Little War.'” 

Photo credit:  Forward ever, backward never! poster. North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA).

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With Pfc. Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden in the news this week, have you thought about if and how you will teach about these individuals and other whistleblowers in your classroom this school year?

Here are some ideas to get you started.  Offer your own suggestions/resources in the comments.

Use this powerful portrait of Pfc. Manning by Robert Shetterly at Americans Who Tell The Truth.

“If you had free reign over classified networks and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain — what would you do? God knows what happens now. Hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms… I want people to see the truth. Because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”

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And from our Zinn Education Project, check out lessons for teaching about whistleblowers based on the history of the Vietnam war and the Pentagon Papers case.

“This 100-page teaching guide . . . for middle school, high school, and college classrooms, enhances student understanding of the issues raised in the award winning film, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. . .

“Through the story of Daniel Ellsberg, students can explore the type of information revealed by whistleblowers, the risks and motivations of whistleblowers, and the tactics used to silence whistleblowers. . .

“Not only does The Most Dangerous Man in America Teaching Guide offer a “people’s history” approach to learning about whistleblowing and the U.S. war in Vietnam, it also engages students in thinking deeply about their own responsibility as truth-tellers and peacemakers.”

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by Bill Bigelow

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Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, one of the country’s most widely read history books, died on January 27, 2010. Shortly after, then-Governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels got on his computer and fired off an email to the state’s top education officials: “This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away.”

But Gov. Daniels, now president of Purdue University, was not content merely to celebrate Howard Zinn’s passing. He demanded that Zinn’s work be hunted down in Indiana schools and suppressed: “The obits and commentaries mentioned his book ‘A People’s History of the United States’ is the ‘textbook of choice in high schools and colleges around the country.’ It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”

We know about Gov. Daniels’ email tantrum thanks to the Associated Press, which obtained the emails through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Scott Jenkins, Daniels’ education advisor, wrote back quickly to tell the governor that A People’s History of the United States was used in a class for prospective teachers on social movements at Indiana University.

Daniels fired back: “This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state. No student will be better taught because someone sat through this session. Which board has jurisdiction over what counts and what doesn’t?”

After more back and forth, Daniels approved a statewide “cleanup” of what earns credit for professional development: “Go for it. Disqualify propaganda and highlight (if there is any) the more useful offerings.”

cartoon_danielaacademicfreedomDaniels recently defended his attack on Zinn’s work, telling the Associated Press, “We must not falsely teach American history in our schools.” In a letter posted on his Purdue University webpage, Daniels claimed that, “the question I asked on one day in 2010 had nothing to do with higher education at all.” Daniels should go back and read his own emails.

There are so many disturbing aspects to this story, it’s hard to know where to begin.

The first, of course, is Daniels’ gleeful, mean-spirited reporting of Zinn’s death. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Howard Zinn’s career knows that his great passions were racial equality and peace. Finding cause for joy in the death of someone whose life was animated by confidence in people’s fundamental decency is shameful.

As someone who spent almost 30 years as a high school history teacher, I’m amused by the impoverished pedagogical vision embedded in Daniels’ emails and subsequent defense. Daniels wants Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States banned from the curriculum, so that the book is not “force-fed” to students. Governor Daniels evidently assumes that the only way one can teach history is to cram it down students’ throats. To see some alternative ways to engage students, Daniels might have a look at our lessons at the Zinn Education Project, which use Zinn’s People’s History of the United States in role plays, in critical reading activities, to generate imaginative writing, and to search for the “silences” in students’ own textbooks.

Take for example the last textbook I was assigned as a teacher at a public high school in Portland, Oregon, American Odyssey, published by Glencoe/McGraw-Hill. In the book’s one thousand pages, it includes exactly two paragraphs on the U.S. war with Mexico—the war that led to Mexico “ceding,” in the polite language of school curricula, about half its country to the United States.  American Odyssey does not quote a single Mexican, a single soldier, a single abolitionist, a single opponent of the war. Well, in fact, the textbook doesn’t quote anyone. As one of my students pointed out when we read the book’s dull passages in class, “It doesn’t even view it as a war. It’s a situation.”

Read the rest of Indiana’s Anti-Howard Zinn Witch Hunt at our Zinn Education Project.

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If you’re thinking about going to see the movie “Lincoln” over the holiday break, first read the latest “If We Knew Our History” column by Rethinking Schools curriculum editor Bill Bigelow.

The ongoing “If We Knew Our History” columns at the Zinn Education Project show why it is so important for teachers to “teach outside the textbook”–to bring a people’s history to our students. The Zinn Education Project is a collaboration between Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change.

Rethinkin’ Lincoln on the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

by Bill Bigelow

Here’s a history quiz to use with people you run into today: Ask them who ended slavery.

I taught high school U.S. history for almost 30 years, and as we began our study, students knew the obvious answer: Abraham Lincoln. But by the time our study ended, several weeks later, their “Who ended slavery?” essays were more diverse, more complex—and more accurate. In coming months and years, teachers’ jobs will be made harder by Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln, in which Daniel Day-Lewis gives a brilliant performance as, well, Lincoln-the-abolitionist. The only problem is that Lincoln was not an abolitionist.

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Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner chose to concentrate on the final months ofLincoln’s life, when, as the film shows in compelling fashion, the president went all-out to pass the 13th Amendment, forever ending U.S. slavery. Missing from this portrait is the early Lincoln—the Lincoln that did everything possible to preserve slavery.

Today’s Common Core State Standards propose that teachers concentrate on the compact and stirring Gettysburg Address, also featured in Lincoln. But my students and I begin with Lincoln’s first words as president, his first inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1861. In this speech, not quoted in a single commercial textbook I’ve ever seen, Lincoln promised slaveowners that they could keep their slaves forever. He said that “ample evidence” existed in all his published speeches that he had no intention of ending slavery, and quoted himself to that effect: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” And, in less explicit, but no less clear language, Lincoln promised to “cheerfully,” as he put it, enforce the Fugitive Slave Act in protection of the nation’s “property, peace, and security.” Finally, in a gesture rich with irony, Lincoln said that he would not oppose the constitutional amendment that had recently passed Congress, “to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service.” Had it gone into effect, this slavery-forever amendment would have been the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

TheFieryTrialAccording to historian Eric Foner in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on Lincoln and slavery, The Fiery Trial, Lincoln:

  • sent that pro-slavery 13th Amendment to the states for ratification;
  • agreed to admit New Mexico to the Union as a slave state;
  • continued with schemes to deport — “colonize” in the jargon of the day — African Americans, proposing they be sent to Guatemala, Chiriqui (Colombia), and Haiti;
  • and in just the first three months after the Civil War began, returned more escaped slaves to their supposed owners than had been returned in the entire presidency of his immediate predecessor, James Buchanan.

As the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, commented in late 1861, Abraham Lincoln “has evidently not a drop of anti-slavery blood in his veins.”

Lincoln may be remembered today as “the Great Emancipator,” but Lincoln was no abolitionist. His aim throughout his presidency was to keep the Union together, a task fraught with contradictions, as large swaths of the country embraced both the Union and slavery–for example, Missouri, Delaware, Maryland, and Kentucky. As Lincoln himself said famously in August 1862, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.”

Lincoln’s stance on slavery as the war progressed was based on military rather than moral considerations.

And that’s the necessary context for students to approach the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect 150 years ago, on January 1, 1863. Interestingly, despite the fact that the proclamation is mentioned in virtually every textbook, it is never printed in its entirety. Perhaps that’s because despite its lofty-sounding title, this is no stirring document of liberty and equality; in fact, it does not even criticize slavery. “Emancipation” is presented purely as a measure of military necessity. Lincoln offered freedom to enslaved people in those areas only “in rebellion against the United States.” It reads like a document written by a lawyer — one who happened to be a Commander in Chief — not an abolitionist. It even goes county by county listing areas where slavery would remain in force, “precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.” According to Eric Foner, the proclamation left more than 20 percent of enslaved people still in slavery — 800,000 out of 3.9 million.

No doubt, the Emancipation Proclamation was a huge deal, and it was cheered by abolitionists and even those who remained enslaved. As the great African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass pointed out, Lincoln’s proclamation united “the cause of the slaves and the cause of the country.” Those opposed to slavery were determined to use the Emancipation Proclamation as an instrument to end slavery everywhere and forever — regardless of Lincoln’s more limited intent. Freedom would be won, not given.

FreedomsUnfinishedRevolutionWith rare exceptions — like the American Social History Project’s fine Freedom’s Unfinished Revolution — middle and high school textbooks fail to credit the real anti-slavery heroes in this story: the enslaved themselves, along with their black and white abolitionist allies. While early in the conflict Lincoln was offering verbal cake and ice cream to slaveowners, the enslaved were doing everything they could to turn a war for national unity into a war to end slavery, impressing Union generals with their courage, skill, and knowledge — ultimately forcing Lincoln to reverse his early policy of returning those fleeing slavery and, in time, leading the president to embrace their entry into the war as soldiers. The actions of the formerly enslaved even turned some white Union soldiers into abolitionists.

This resistance to slavery, along with its effects on Union soldiers, is captured in this 1862 testimony from General Daniel E. Sickles, quoted in Freedom’s Unfinished Revolution:

The most valuable and reliable information of the enemy’s movements in our vicinity that we have been able to get derived from Negroes who came into our lines…

They will submit to any privation, perform any duty, incur any danger. I know an instance in which four of them recently carried a boat from the Rappanhannock River [in Virginia], passing through the enemy’s pickets successfully, to the Potomac and crossed over to my camp and reported themselves there. They gave us information of the enemy’s force which was communicated to headquarters; a service upon which it would be difficult to fix a price. These services rendered by these men are known to the soldiers, and contribute, I presume, largely to the sympathy they feel for them …

There was one case in the 5th regiment where a man named Cox claimed some slaves. He was very badly treated by the soldiers. He came there with an order from the division headquarters for two or three slaves. He pointed out who they were and undertook to take them away; but the soldiers pounced upon him and beat him severely. … He went away without his slaves.

Who we “credit” for the end of slavery in the United States has important contemporary implications. As Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, points out in the film Monumental Myths, if it appears that Abraham Lincoln gave blacks their freedom, then “you create an environment where people begin to think, ‘Well,

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African Americans have always had things handed to them.’ It gets carried into the notions of welfare and the like” –African Americans as receivers of gifts from generous white people.

Beginning with the notion that “Columbus discovered America,” this top-down, Great Man approach has long characterizedhistory instruction in our country. Things happen — good or bad — because those in power make them happen. What this misses is, through our compliance or resistance, the actions of ordinary people. And when it comes to momentous social changes, like the abolition of slavery, one will always find social movements and the oppressed themselves at the center. As historian Howard Zinn said about the end of slavery: “Blacks won their freedom because for 30 years before the Civil War, they participated in a great movement of resistance.”

So when I ask my students to write an essay on “Who (or what) ended slavery?” I get lots of different answers. But none of them credits a single individual. And all of them include evidence of how, in myriad ways, the people themselves make history.

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by Bill Bigelow

This past January, almost exactly 20 years after its publication, Tucson schools banned the book I co-edited with Bob Peterson, Rethinking Columbus. It was one of a number of books adopted by Tucson’s celebrated Mexican American Studies program—a program long targeted by conservative Arizona politicians.

TOP: Some of the books removed from classrooms. BOTTOM: The film “Precious Knowledge” captures the impact and effectiveness of the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson.

The school district sought to crush the Mexican American Studies program; our book itself was not the target, it just got caught in the crushing. Nonetheless, Tucson’s—and Arizona’s—attack on Mexican American Studies and Rethinking Columbus shares a common root: the attempt to silence stories that unsettle today’s unequal power arrangements.

For years, I opened my 11th grade U.S. history classes by asking students, “What’s the name of that guy they say discovered America?” A few students might object to the word “discover,” but they all knew the fellow I was talking about. “Christopher Columbus!” several called out in unison.

“Right. So who did he find when he came here?” I asked. Usually, a few students would say “Indians,” but I asked them to be specific: “Which nationality? What are their names?”

Silence.

In more than 30 years of teaching U.S. history and guest teaching in others’ classes, I’ve never had a single student say “Taínos.” So I ask them to think about that fact. “How do we explain that? We all know the name of the man who came here from Europe, but none of us knows the name of the people who were here first—and there were hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of them. Why haven’t you heard of them?”

This ignorance is an artifact of historical silencing—rendering invisible the lives and stories of entire peoples. It’s what educators began addressing in earnest 20 years ago, during plans for the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, which at the time the Chicago Tribune boasted would be “the most stupendous international celebration in the history of notable celebrations.” Native American and social justice activists, along with educators of conscience, pledged to interrupt the festivities.

In an interview with Barbara Miner, included in Rethinking Columbus, Suzan Shown Harjo of the Morning Star Institute, who is Creek and Cheyenne, said: “As Native American peoples in this red quarter of Mother Earth, we have no reason to celebrate an invasion that caused the demise of so many of our people, and is still causing destruction today.” After all, Columbus did not merely “discover,” he took over. He kidnapped Taínos, enslaved them—”Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold,” Columbus wrote—and “punished” them by ordering that their hands be cut off or that they be chased down by vicious attack dogs, if they failed to deliver the quota of gold that Columbus demanded. One eyewitness accompanying Columbus wrote that it “did them great damage, for a dog is the equal of 10 men against the Indians.”

Corporate textbooks and children’s biographies of Columbus included none of this and were filled with misinformation and distortion. But the deeper problem was the subtext of the Columbus story: It’s OK for big nations to bully small nations, for white people to dominate people of color, to celebrate the colonialists with no attention paid to the perspectives of the colonized, to view history solely from the standpoint of the “winners.”

Rethinking Columbus was never just about Columbus. It was part of a broader movement to surface other stories that have been silenced or distorted in the mainstream curriculum: grassroots activism against slavery and racism, struggles of workers against owners, peace movements, the long road toward women’s liberation—everything that Howard Zinn dubbed “a people’s history of the United States.”

Which brings us back to Tucson: One of the most silent of the silenced stories in the curriculum is the history of Mexican Americans. Despite the fact that the U.S. war against Mexico led to Mexico “ceding”—at bayonet point—about half its country to the United States, this momentous event merits almost no mention in our textbooks. At best, it is taught merely as prologue to the Civil War.

Mexican Americans were central to building this country, but you wouldn’t know it from our textbooks. They worked in the Arizona copper mines, albeit in an apartheid system where they were paid a “Mexican wage.” In the 1880s, the majority of workers building the Texas and Mexican Railroad were Mexicans, and by 1900, the Southern Pacific Railroad had 4,500 Mexican workers in California alone.

They worked the railroad, and they worked for their rights. In 1903, Mexican and Japanese farmworkers united in Oxnard, California, to form the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association. As Ronald Takaki notes in A Different Mirror, “For the first time in the history of California, two minority groups, feeling a solidarity based on class, had come together to form a union.” They struck for higher pay, writing in a statement that “if the machines stop, the wealth of the valley stops, and likewise if the laborers are not given a decent wage, they too, must stop work and the whole people of this country suffer with them.”

Nowhere was this rich history of exploitation and resistance being explored with more nuance, rigor, and sensitivity than in Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program. Like Rethinking Columbus, Mexican American Studies teachers aimed to break the classroom silence about things that matter—about oppression and race and class and solidarity and organizing for a better world. Watch Precious Knowledge, the excellent film that offers an intimate look at this program—and chronicles the fearful, even ludicrous, attacks against it—and you’ll get a sense of the enormous impact this “rethinking” curriculum had on students’ lives.

This coming Monday, October 8th is the day set aside as Columbus Day. Let’s commit ourselves to use this—and every so-called Columbus Day—to tell a fuller story of what Columbus’s voyage meant for the world, and especially for the lives of the people who’d been living here for generations. And let’s push beyond “Columbus” to nurture a “people’s history” curriculum—searching out those stories that help explain how this has become such a profoundly unequal world, but also how people have constantly sought greater justice. This is the work on which educators, parents, and students need to collaborate.

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If you care about nurturing a people’s history and ending Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies, click here to find out how you can take action.

This column was first published at GOOD.

Related Resources

Rethinking ColumbusRethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years. Teaching Guide. Edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson. 2003. 192 pages. Readings and lessons for pre-K to 12 about the impact and legacy of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas.

The Line Between Us

The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration.Teaching Guide. By Bill Bigelow. 2006. 160 pages. Lessons for teaching about the history of US-Mexico relations and current border and immigration issues.

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Howard Zinn was a great friend of Rethinking Schools. He generously allowed us to reprint articles of his in the magazine and our books. He agreed to be interviewed by Rethinking Schools editors.  He gave us kind blurbs for our books. He mentioned our work in his talks and referred teachers to us. Most important, Howard Zinn taught us about the world and inspired us to think more deeply about social change. To commemorate his 90th birthday, Rethinking Schools editor Bill Bigelow wrote this article as part of the Zinn Education Project’s article series, “If We Knew Our History.”


This Friday–August 24–would have been the 90th birthday of the great historian and activist Howard Zinn, who died in 2010. Zinn did not merely record history, he made it: as a professor at Spelman College in the 1950s and early 1960s, where he was ultimately fired for his outspoken support of students in the Civil Rights Movement, and specifically the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); as a critic of the U.S. war in Vietnam, and author of the first book calling for an immediate U.S. withdrawal; and as author of arguably the most influential U.S. history textbook in print, A People’s History of the United States.

“That book will knock you on your ass,” as Matt Damon’s character says in the film Good Will Hunting.

Painting of Howard Zinn by Robert Shetterly

It’s always worth dipping into the vast archive of Zinn scholarship, but at the beginning of a school year, and as the presidential campaign heats up, now is an especially good time to remember some of Howard Zinn’s wisdom.

Shortly after Barack Obama’s election, the Zinn Education Project sponsored a talk by Zinn to several hundred teachers at the National Council for the Social Studies annual conference in Houston. Zinn reminded teachers that the point of learning about social studies was not simply to memorize facts, it was to imbue students with a desire to change the world. “A modest little aim,” Zinn acknowledged, with a twinkle in his eye.

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In this talk, available as an online video as well as a transcription, Zinn insisted that teachers must help students challenge “fundamental premises which keep us inside a certain box.” Because without this critical rethinking of premises about history and the role of the United States in the world, “things will never change.” And this will remain “a world of war and hunger and disease and inequality and racism and sexism.”

A key premise that needs to be questioned, according to Zinn, is the notion of “national interests,” a term so common in the political and academic discourse as to be almost invisible. Zinn points out that the “one big family” myth begins with the Constitution’s preamble: “We the people of the United States…” Zinn noted that it wasn’t “we the people” who established the Constitution in Philadelphia — it was 55 rich white men. Missing from or glossed over in the traditional textbook treatment are race and class divisions, including the rebellions of farmers in Western Massachusetts, immediately preceding the Constitutional Convention in 1787. No doubt, the Constitution had elements of democracy, but Zinn argues that it “established the rule of slaveholders, and merchants, and bondholders.”

Teaching history through the lens of class, race, and gender conflict is not simply more accurate, according to Zinn; it makes it more likely that students — and all the rest of us — will not “simply swallow these enveloping phrases like ‘the national interest,’ ‘national security,’ ‘national defense,’ as if we’re all in the same boat.”

As Zinn told teachers in Houston: “No, the soldier who is sent to Iraq does not have the same interests as the president who sends him to Iraq. The person who works on the assembly line at General Motors does not have the same interest as the CEO of General Motors. No–we’re a country of divided interests, and it’s important for people to know that.”

Another premise Zinn identified, one that has become an article of faith among the Tea Party crowd, is “American exceptionalism” — the idea that the United States is fundamentally freer, more virtuous, more democratic, and more humane than other countries. For Zinn, the United States is “an empire like other empires. There was a British empire, and there was a Dutch empire, and there was a Spanish empire, and yes, we are an American empire.” The United States expanded through deceit and theft and conquest, just like other empires, although textbooks cleanse this imperial bullying with legal-sounding terms like the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican Cession.

Patriotism is another premise that we need to question. As Zinn told teachers in Houston, “it’s very bad for everybody when young people grow up thinking that patriotism means obedience to your government.” Zinn often recalled Mark Twain’s distinction between country and government. “Does patriotism mean support your government? No. That’s the definition of patriotism in a totalitarian state,” Zinn warned a Denver audience in a 2008 speech, included in a new volume, Howard Zinn Speaks, edited by Anthony Arnove (Haymarket Books, 2012.)

And going to war on behalf of “our country” is offered as the highest expression of patriotism–in everything from the military recruitment propaganda that saturates our high schools to the social studies curriculum that features photos of U.S. troops heroically battling “enemy soldiers” in a section called “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in the popular high school textbook Modern World History.

Howard Zinn cuts through this curricular fog: “War is terrorism … Terrorism is the willingness to kill large numbers of people for some presumably good cause. That’s what terrorists are about.” Zinn demands that we reexamine the premise that war is necessary, a proposition not taken seriously in any high school history textbook I’ve ever seen. Instead, wars get sold to Americans–especially to the young people who fight those wars — as efforts to spread liberty and democracy. As Howard Zinn said many times, if you don’t know your history, it’s as if you were born yesterday. Leaders can tell you anything and you have no way of knowing what’s true.

Howard Zinn wanted educators to be deeply critical, but never cynical. When speaking to the teachers in Houston, Zinn insisted that another premise we needed to examine is the idea that progress is the product of great individuals. Zinn pointed out that Abraham Lincoln had never been an abolitionist, and when he ran for president in 1860 he did not advocate ending slavery in the states where it existed. Rather, it was largely the “huge antislavery movement that pushed Lincoln into the Emancipation Proclamation–that pushed Congress into the 13th and 14th and 15th Amendments.”

Zinn urged educators to teach a people’s history: “We’ve never had our injustices rectified from the top, from the president or Congress, or the Supreme Court, no matter what we learned in junior high school about how we have three branches of government, and we have checks and balances, and what a lovely system. No. The changes, important changes that we’ve had in history, have not come from those three branches of government. They have reacted to social movements.”

Thus when we single out people in our curriculum as icons, as “people to admire and respect,” Zinn advocated shedding the traditional pantheon of government and military leaders: “But there are other heroes that young people can look up to. And they can look up to people who are against war. They can have Mark Twain as a hero who spoke out against the Philippines war. They can have Helen Keller as a hero who spoke out against World War I, and Emma Goldman as a hero. They can have Fannie Lou Hamer as a hero, and Bob Moses as a hero, the people in the Civil Rights Movement — they are heroes.”

And to this, there is one final “people’s history” premise we need to remember — whether in education or the world outside of schools. As Howard Zinn reminded the audience of social studies teachers in Houston: “People change.” Zinn did not look to President Obama to initiate social transformation; but in 2008, he saw the election as confirmation that the long history of anti-racist struggle in the United States produced an outcome that would have been inconceivable 30 years prior. And this shift in attitude should give us hope.

As we remember Howard Zinn on what would have been his 90th birthday, let’s count him among the many social justice heroes who offer proof that people’s efforts make a difference — that ordinary people can change the world.

Related Resources:

A People’s History for the Classroom helps teachers introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of U.S. history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula.

It includes a new introductory essay by veteran teacher Bill Bigelow on teaching strategies that align with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

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Rethinking Schools editor Bill Bigelow wrote this post for the Zinn Education Project, encouraging teachers — and everyone — to use this July 4th as a time to consider a more multicultural (and less militaristic) approach to examining the birth of the United States of America. He highlights Ray Raphael’s article, “Re-examining the Revolution,” which was first published in Rethinking Schools, and is now posted at the Zinn Education Project.

Rethinking the 4th of July

In Portland, Oregon, where I live, the 4th of July holiday offers an excuse for a wonderful annual blues festival in Waterfront Park downtown. Unfortunately, in my neighborhood, it also provides cover for people to blow off fireworks that terrify young children and animals, and that turn the air thick with smoke and errant projectiles. Last year, the fire department here reported 172 fires sparked by toy missiles, defective firecrackers, and other items of explosive revelry.

But apart from the noise pollution, air pollution, and flying debris pollution, there is something profoundly inappropriate about blowing off fireworks at a time when the United States is waging war with real fireworks around the world. To cite just one example, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London found recently that U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan alone have killed more than 200 people, including at least 60 children. And, of course, the U.S. war in Afghanistan drags on and on. The pretend war of celebratory fireworks thus becomes part of a propaganda campaign that inures us—especially the children among us—to the real wars half a world away.

But the yahoo of fireworks also turns an immensely complicated time in U.S. history into a cartoon of miseducation. For example, check out Ray Raphael’s “Re-examining the Revolution” at the Zinn Education Project, an article that every history teacher should read before wading into the events leading up to 1776. Raphael analyzed 22 elementary, middle school, and high school texts and found them filled with inaccuracies—some merely silly, but others that leave students with important misunderstandings about U.S. history, and how social change does and does not happen.

Raphael offers some context for the Declaration of Independence:

In 1997, Pauline Maier published American Scripture, where she uncovered 90 state and local “declarations of independence” that preceded the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The consequence of this historical tidbit is profound: Jefferson was not a lonely genius conjuring his notions from the ether; he was part of a nationwide political upheaval.

Similarly, Raphael reports that

[I]n 1774 common farmers and artisans from throughout Massachusetts rose up by the thousands and overthrew all British authority.  In the small town of Worcester (only 300 voters), 4,622 militiamen from 37 surrounding communities lined both sides of Main Street and forced British-appointed officials to walk the gauntlet, hats in hand, reciting their recantations 30 times each so everyone could hear. There were no famous “leaders” for this event. The people elected representatives who served for one day only, the ultimate in term limits. “The body of the people” made decisions and the people decided that the old regime must fall.

As Raphael concludes, “Textbook authors and popular history writers fail to portray the great mass of humanity as active players, agents on their own behalf.” Instead, textbooks credit Great Men—Washington, Franklin, Jefferson—and render all others as “mere followers.”

Of course, there is lots more that complicates the events surrounding the 4th of July and the Revolutionary War. As Raphael notes, “not one of the elementary or middle school texts [I reviewed] even mentions the genocidal Sullivan campaign, one of the largest military offensives of the war, which burned Iroquois villages and destroyed every orchard and farm in its path to deny food to Indians.” (For use with students, see “George Washington: An American Hero?” in Rethinking Columbus, published by Rethinking Schools.) Nor do texts mention the indigenous resistance movements of the 1780s in response to American “settler” expansion, which Raphael calls “the largest coalitions of Native Americans in our history.”

Also included at the Zinn Education Project site is a link to Danny Glover delivering one of history’s most passionate denunciations of U.S. racism and hypocrisy: Frederick Douglass’s “The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro.” Howard Zinn introduces Glover at one of the remarkable “The People Speak” events. Douglass delivered the speech on July 5, 1852 in Rochester, New York, at a Declaration of Independence commemoration:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”

Douglass delivered his speech four years after the United States finished its war against Mexico to steal land and spread slavery, five years before the vicious Supreme Court Dred Scott decision, and nine years before the country would explode into civil war. His words call out through the generations to abandon the empty “shout of liberty and equality” on July 4, and to put away the fireworks and flags. In the spirit of Frederick Douglass, the Zinn Education Project urges teachers to use July 4 as a time to rethink how we equip students to reflect on the complicated birth of the United States of America.

Bill Bigelow (bill@rethinkingschools.org) is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and the co-director of the Zinn Education Project.

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