by Bill Bigelow Common Dreams August 23, 2012
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.
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. 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 U S 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."
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 -- it was 55 rich white men. Glossed over in the traditional textbook are race and class divisions, including the rebellions of farmers in 1787. 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." 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 -- 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, a Dutch empire, and a Spanish empire, and yes, we are an American empire." The United States expanded through deceit and theft and conquest, just like other empires.
Patriotism is another premise that we need to question. And going to war on behalf of "our country" is offered as the highest expression of patriotism. 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. Zinn urged educators to teach a people's history: "We've never had our injustices rectified from the top. No. The important changes that we've had in history, have not come from 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."
One final "people's history" premise we need to remember -- "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. Ordinary people can change the world.
Bill Bigelow is curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine