Historian Howard Zinn, through his book A People’s History of the United States, provided many people with their first glimpse of what the teaching of history could be. That book inspired us to look beyond the lives of presidents and generals to the lives of those who have lived at the margins of society. He showed us how ordinary people are responsible for making change.
A People’s History of the United States, The Zinn Reader, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (his autobiography), and, more recently, Voices of a People’s History of the United States demonstrate how examining our real history can help us transform the world. Howard Zinn spoke with managing editor Catherine Capellaro about the history in the making and what teachers can do to inspire students to question and resist the current administration.
RS: The United States is facing scandals over the spying on Americans, torture, and misleading the public into war. What can teachers do in their classrooms to help create informed, active participants in a democracy?
Zinn: The first thing teachers have to do is make a decision for themselves that they will not be obedient in staying within the boundaries that are usually set by principals, school administrators, and parent-teacher associations. The teacher has to make a decision right from the start that “I am not here just to prepare these students to pass tests so they can move ahead and become successful and take their dutiful place in society.”
From the start, the teacher has to be bold and, of course, it involves taking risks. It’s always risky for teachers to introduce social issues into the classroom — especially issues that are controversial, that are in the headlines — spying, torture, the war in Iraq. And yet this is something every teacher must do.
The big problem is how to do it. How to do it in a way that does not constitute running roughshod over students’ feelings and opinions, how to do it in a way that engages students in a dialogue that raises questions rather than simply bursting out initially with answers. Raising the questions is probably the most important thing a teacher can do. “How do you feel about this? What do you think about this?” When students respond to those questions, then dialogue begins and if the questions are important ones, then what will come out of the discussions will be a very valuable education.
RS: What are some things are happening today that should be a part of the history curriculum 20 years from now?
Zinn: Well, obviously the war in Iraq, the whole issue of the “war on terrorism” and a very keen examination of what a “war on terrorism” means. I think people 20 years from now should do an examination of what is happening today, but an examination in depth, in historical depth, so that they’re not simply looking back and discussing the war in Iraq, but they’re discussing the history of American foreign policy, discussing the history of the relations between Iraq and the West.
And I think that, 20 years from now, people teaching history should be talking about the Bush administration and comparing it to other administrations, comparing it also to what a good administration would do — asking students “What would an ideal president do in these situations where there’s a war that’s being waged in Iraq, when people are going hungry in Africa, where people are dying in large numbers of disease, where natural disasters have taken place.”
I think they should look back at what happened in the Katrina disaster in New Orleans, should be told what happened in Malaysia just before that. They should be confronted with what the budget of the United States was this year and how that budget allocated the wealth of the country. Looking back in 20 years, we should ask what we’ve done in the face of all the scientific evidence about global warming and the destruction of species and the deterioration of the environment. What was done in the year 2006 to try to change this?
RS: Part of Rethinking Schools’ mission is to help our students find hope even when there seems like there is very little. Where do you think the study of history can provide sources of hope?
Zinn: I think we can provide hope by digging out of the archives and out of the newspapers — and wherever they can be found — stories of people who resisted what was going on. Give students heroes other than the traditional heroes — other than the presidents of the United States who dominate most history instruction. Give them the story of Cindy Sheehan. Give them the story of the Iraq Veterans Against the War. Give them the story of the environmentalists — the tree-huggers — and the people who are protesting what’s happening to our forests.
Tell them about the people who were in the government and who then left the government and protested against it. I was just reading about a CIA agent who sent back his medal, which he received for 23 years of service in the CIA. He just sent the medal back to the Senate Committee on Intelligence, saying “I do not want to have this medal anymore, because I don’t want to be associated with what the CIA does. I don’t want to be associated with torture.” Find those individuals who represent resistance, who represent a refusal to accept what is going on and present them as models for young people, rather than the usual military heroes and political leaders.
RS: Teachers more than ever are facing a blizzard of “content standards.” What are some essential understandings of the past that teachers could focus on?
Zinn: I think it’s very important to show in what way racism and slavery have been so central to the history of our country. And they’ve been so minimized. To talk about the fact that though we have something called “the Progressive Period” the number of black people lynched during the Progressive Period is greater than any other period in American history. We can talk about segregation, not as a Southern phenomenon, but as something that was supported and collaborated with by the national government. To give race the importance it should have, as if you were looking at American history from a black point of view.
And another thing: to look at American history from the point of view of classes, to dispel the myth of one big, happy family, that we’re all united, we all have the same national interest — to show that our interests have been different from the very beginning. In American history there has always been a difference of interest between rich and poor, between landlord and tenant, between government and the ordinary people of the country. I think this is crucial, because as long as people are embedded with the thought that our interests and the government interests are the same, then they will just assume that whatever the government tells them must be in their interest.
And of course, an honest examination of the history of American foreign policy, a critique of the idea of “American exceptionalism” and arrogance — to look upon the United States as just one other nation in the world, not as one blessed by God to the exclusion of everybody else. An honest look at American foreign policy will do away with this supercilious notion that we are the greatest, we are the best, that our people have a greater right to live than other people — that we as 5 percent of the world’s population have the right to 25 percent of the wealth of the world, which is how much we consume.
RS: Do you have any advice for Rethinking Schools on our 20th anniversary?
Zinn: To Rethinking Schools I would say, just continue what you are doing. I recommend Rethinking Schools wherever I go to people who ask about teaching — to teachers, to students, and to parents. Rethinking Schools has done a wonderful job of making resources available to teachers, to students, to counter the miseducation that most young people are subjected to in this country. I think it just needs to persist.