"The interchange between student and teacher, the free inquiry that is promulgated in the classroom, a spirit of equality in the classroom, to me that is part of a democratic education." - Howard Zinn
This week, the world said goodbye to Howard Zinn, an award-winning writer, activist, professor, and role model for democratic educators. He was 87.
Zinn dedicated his life to promoting true democracy and social justice through education and action. Although he spoke and wrote extensively on the injustices that humans have inflicted upon each other, throughout history and in the present, he never lost hope for a more peaceful world.
In one of his last interviews, Zinn said that he wanted to be remembered as "somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power that they didn't have before." He said that he hoped to foster the realization that "the power ultimately rests in people themselves and that they can use it."
The son of Jewish immigrants, Zinn attended New York public schools and later witnessed war firsthand as a bombadier in World War II. He then attended New York University on the G.I. Bill and went on to receive master's and doctoral degrees at Columbia University. His experiences with the complexities and horrors of war informed his decision to become a peace activist, vocally opposing the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. Zinn has published more than 20 books on topics including civil rights, civil liberties, history, and education for citizenship.
Democratic education was one of Zinn's passions, and he modeled it through his teaching. He spent seven years as a history professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, where activist author Alice Walker was among his students, and then taught at Boston University for nearly 24 years. Walker called him "the best teacher I ever had." Zinn also taught Marian Wright Edelman, future President of the Children's Defense Fund.
"To me, a democratic education means many things: It means what you learn in the classroom; it means what you learn outside the classroom; it means not only the content of what you learn, but it means the atmosphere in which you learn it; it refers to the relationship between teacher and student...Students as human beings, as citizens in a democracy, have the right to determine their lives."
Zinn made a significant impact on the public consciousness with his bestselling book, A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present which has sold over 2 million copies and been translated into many languages since it was originally published in 1980. In contrast to the usual textbook tellings of American history, Zinn's book focused "not on the achievements of the heroes of traditional history, but on all those people who were the victims of those achievements, who suffered silently or fought back magnificently." These people include people of color, women, and working people.
Three decades after "A People's History" was first published, it is now more common for mainstream history textbooks to mention the common people in addition to those who held political power.
"A People's History" became part of the cultural vernacular when Matt Damon, who grew up having Zinn as a neighbor and family friend, mentioned the book in the script he wrote for the movie Good Will Hunting with Ben Affleck, another friend of Zinn. "If you want to read a real history book," Damon's character tells Robin Williams' character, "read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. That book will knock you on your a--."
Until I came across "A People's History" as a high school student, I thought history was dull and lifeless. I couldn't see how it related to my own life. But Zinn's way of telling history was different. He told stories, full of vivid detail, about common men and women who drew my sympathies right away. I was hooked, from the first line of Chapter 1 about Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Americas, from the point of view of the Native Americans who received him:
Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island's beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat.
Today I ordered another book by Zinn, the 2008 Howard Zinn on Democratic Education, which examines an American school system that teaches students to accept the status quo rather than question it critically. Students who are taught to believe what their teachers say without question, Zinn suggests, are easily indoctrinated by their government as well. The book makes a case for education that is interwoven with history and current events, and which teaches students to take action rather than be passive receptacles of information.
Zinn certainly walked his own talk. On his last day teaching at Boston University, he finished his class 30 minutes early in order to join a picket line in support of an on-campus nurses' strike. At his urging, 100 of the students attending his lecture that day joined him. Zinn's rabble-rousing put him into conflict with the former president of Boston University, John Silber, who tried to oust Zinn from the university, saying that he was an example of teachers "who poison the well of academe." (In other words, he was my kind of teacher.)
Two nonprofit organizations, Rethinking Schools and Teaching For Change, recently launched The Zinn Education Project, which encourages teachers in middle and high schools to use "A People's History of the United States" and supplemental materials for teaching history. "Students learn that history is made not by a few heroic individuals," says the website for the Zinn Education Project, "but instead by people's choices and actions, thereby also learning that their own choices and actions matter."
Zinn's work spanned time and crossed boundaries of age and genre. The members of the band Pearl Jam, for example, were friends of Zinn, and their song "Down" was inspired by him. The lyrics are a tribute to a man who remained optimistic no matter how many obstacles were before him:
if hope could grow from dirt like me
It can be done
Wont let the light escape from me
Wont let the darkness swallow me
Linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky said that Zinn's writings "simply changed perspective and understanding for a whole generation."
Ben Affleck said, "(Zinn) taught me how valuable -- how necessary -- dissent was to democracy and to America itself. He taught that history was made by the everyman, not the elites."
You are an inspiration to us all, Dr. Zinn, and we promise to continue the work you started.