Losing Our Favorite Teacher

By Bill Bigelow for the staff and editors of Rethinking Schools

Illustrator: Peter Simon

Photo: Peter Simon
Howard Zinn speaking at an antiwar
protest at Boston University in the 1960s.

On learning of the sudden death of Howard Zinn at 87, friend and fellow social justice activist Fred Branfman wrote, “I have met many political people in my lifetime. Howard was by far the most honest, human, open, kind, generous, gracious, sweetest, humorous, and charming of them.” Throughout Rethinking Schools’ relationship with Howard Zinn, which began with the publication of Rethinking Columbus in 1991 and culminated recently with the Zinn Education Project, these are exactly the qualities that we experienced. Howard granted us numerous interviews, allowed us to use his writing in the magazine and other publications, wrote kind blurbs for our books, put us in contact with funders and other activists—and in countless ways showed us how deeply he respected teachers and believed in the power of education. We will miss his wisdom, his courage, his humanity, his friendship.

After Howard’s death, writer Naomi Klein said, “We just lost our favorite teacher.” We agree. Zinn’s most influential work, A People’s History of the United States, was a gift to teachers everywhere—an eloquent anti-textbook that pointed the way to an approach to the past that was at once angry, passionate, and hopeful. Corporate textbooks delete all fundamental criticism of war, empire, and a profit-first economic system. They erase the impact of social movements and make it appear that events march inexorably forward without the influence of ordinary people. Zinn wanted none of that. He insisted that our history has been a long struggle for justice, and that anything decent and democratic in today’s society exists because people fought for it. Zinn highlighted those who challenged injustice—and focused on the achievements of activism and dissent. (“Civil disobedience is not a problem,” he liked to say. “The problem is civil obedience.”) In short, Howard recognized and celebrated the best in us.

Howard Zinn made us more courageous as teachers. He encouraged us to be radical—to attempt to know the world by going to the roots, by pursuing the question “Why?” as tenaciously as we could. He wanted teachers to show students how the world has been made better by small acts of defiance and solidarity by ordinary people, not only by the illustrious leaders of social movements. And certainly not by the traditional heroes who, more often than not, deserve more contempt than praise—think Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson, or Woodrow Wilson.

His life had “nurtured an indignation against the bullies of the world,” he wrote, and he wanted students to see themselves as potential activists, to consider ways that they could make a difference—as people who would stand up to those bullies.

Zinn the Teacher

Howard Zinn saw no contradiction between teaching and activism. In fact, for him they were inseparable:

When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. I have often wondered how so many teachers manage to spend a year with a group of students and never reveal who they are, what kind of lives they have led, where their ideas come from, what they believe in, or what they want for themselves, for their students, and for the world.

Zinn revealed his commitments in the classroom, but also beyond the classroom. He wrote, “I always believed that teachers taught more by what they did than by what they said.” And this doing won him the respect and affection of his students as well as sometimes the enmity of college authorities.

After earning his Ph.D at Columbia University, Zinn was hired as a professor and chair of the history and social sciences department at Spelman College in Atlanta, a “tightly controlled” school for African American young women, as Zinn described it. Zinn arrived at Spelman in 1956, before Spelman students were active in civil rights struggles.

The novelist and poet Alice Walker recently remembered her first encounter with Howard Zinn; she sat next to him at an awards dinner at Spelman, shortly before she became his student: “I was surprised that he did not feel white . . . i.e., heavy, oppressive, threatening, and almost inevitably insensitive to the feelings of a person of color.” In the classroom, Walker remembers, “Howard Zinn was magical as a teacher. Witty, irreverent, and wise.”

But in a time of what Zinn called the “malignancy” of Southern racism, he felt the need to push beyond the classroom. In early 1959, Zinn suggested to the Spelman Social Science Club, for which he was the faculty adviser, that they initiate a social action project. The students decided to desegregate Atlanta’s public libraries.

As Zinn tells the story in his inspiring autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, black students repeatedly entered the whites-only main branch of the Atlanta public library to ask for a book—John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, Tom Paine’s Common Sense, or the Declaration of Independence—only to be turned away. Students and other activists threatened a lawsuit until finally the library board voted to desegregate the library system.

Zinn uses this story to illustrate a theme that weaves throughout everything he wrote or said: History is filled with courageous and determined acts for justice, which are the source of hope for the future. He points out that too often the history of the Civil Rights Movement focuses on Supreme Court cases, landmark pieces of legislation, or even the great marches and demonstrations. “Missing from such histories,” Zinn writes, “are the countless small actions of unknown people that led up to these great moments. When we understand this, we can see that the tiniest acts of protest in which we engage may become the invisible roots of social change.”

At the conclusion of the 1963 academic year, Howard Zinn was fired for his activism, for supporting his students rather than deferring to the Spelman administration. When Amy Goodman asked Alice Walker on a recent Democracy Now! broadcast why Zinn had been thrown out of Spelman, she answered simply, “He was thrown out because he loved us, and he showed that love by just being with us. He didn’t see why we should be second-class citizens.” The college president told people he’d sacked Zinn for “insubordination.” Walker remembers Zinn’s response: “‘Yes,’ he would later say, with a classic Howie shrug, ‘I was guilty.’”

But whatever the consequences, Zinn never saw activism as sacrifice. Just the opposite: “The reward for participating in a movement for social justice is . . . the exhilaration of standing together with other people, taking risks together, enjoying small triumphs and enduring disheartening setbacks—together.”

Failure to Quit

Howard Zinn titled one of his books Failure to Quit—the language of a charge brought against him after one of his many arrests for civil disobedience. Howard wore this accusation as a badge of honor, and offered this title as encouragement for us all: By all means, fail to quit, fail to give in, fail to lose hope in the possibility of change.

One might have imagined that Zinn, arriving at Boston University after being fired from Spelman, would have, if not quit, then at least toned it down a bit. Instead he became a leader of the young anti-Vietnam War movement. As his friend, the scholar-activist Noam Chomsky pointed out in an interview shortly after Zinn’s death, Howard’s book, The Logic of Withdrawal, published in early 1967, was the first to demand the unconditional withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam: “He was the first person to say—loudly, publicly, very persuasively—that this simply has to stop; we should get out, period, no conditions; we have no right to be there; it’s an act of aggression; pull out.”

At Boston University, Zinn again had to choose between supporting his students and playing it safe. In 1967, the political science department voted to grant Zinn tenure, but it had to be confirmed by the trustees later that spring at their annual meeting. Students invited Howard to speak at an antiwar protest held in front of the Sheraton Boston Hotel, where LBJ’s secretary of state, Dean Rusk, one of the architects of the Vietnam War, was the featured speaker. The event was the Founders Day dinner, timed to coincide with a meeting of the Boston University trustees—the same trustees who that very day were to decide whether or not to approve Zinn’s tenure. Howard knew it might sink his tenure bid, but he agreed to speak anyway. In his talk, he denounced the war (and according to one report, the trustees) amidst the arriving limousines and their tuxedoed riders. (Zinn received his tenure notification a fewdays later; the trustees had voted prior to that evening’s dinner.)

Howard officially retired from Boston University in 1988—not surprisingly, he invited his students, during his last class, to join him on the picket line nearby to support striking nurses. But Zinn never really retired; he continued to probe for ways to reach his “students”—all of us.

Howard’s final year was one of his most productive, and he continued to reach others with new projects. For some time he had been working with colleagues on the film The People Speak, which features performers like Matt Damon, John Legend, and Marisa Tomei using dramatic readings to bring to life voices of dissent from U.S. history, including Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and Fannie Lou Hamer. The film was broadcast on the History Channel in December and is just now being released on DVD.

The sadness that washed over us after learning of Howard’s death was in part recognition of the immense loss of such a brilliant writer, speaker, and teacher. But our sadness was also personal. Howard Zinn was as authentic and kind in private as he appeared in public. One teacher, Michael Swogger, writing on the Zinn Education Project website, remembered how Howard sent individual responses to high school students who had written to him about an article of his they’d read. When Michael wrote Howard to explain that his school couldn’t afford to buy copies of A People’s History, Zinn sent written permission allowing Michael to photocopy whichever sections he needed. And even though they’d never met, Howard happily agreed to get together with Michael and his wife for coffee and donuts in Harvard Square when they were in Cambridge. Howard Zinn radiated humility and warmth.

Joy, Solidarity, Hope

Throughout his long life, Howard Zinn had seen enough of the world’s horrors that it would have been understandable had he become a cynic. But if there is one word that should be forever associated with him, it’s “hope.”

When George Bush launched his endless war on terror after 9/11, Rethinking Schools looked for a quote that could sum up our belief that it was not ridiculous to still be hopeful. We turned to the final paragraphs of Howard Zinn’s You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train:

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

“What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

“And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

Howard Zinn lived a politically engaged life of joy and solidarity. His life was indeed a marvelous victory—a continuing victory, which for generations to come will inform and inspire.