(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)
My wife likes to tell this one story from when she was in high school, and she asked her U.S. History teacher why the class wasn’t learning more about the Indians. “We don’t have time for the Indians,” he responded. “We have an AP curriculum to get through.”
Had I been as inquisitive as my wife when I was a teenager, I would have received the same answer. So, I suspect, would most of you; indeed, for too many of us, the study of American history ended up being little more than a linear, logical march through the years – filled with neat plot lines of cause and effect, victors and enemies, and a whole lot of triumphant white men.
Like so many others, I didn’t realize there was another way to imagine the chronicling of the American narrative, or the construction of history itself, until I first read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Once I did, my understanding of the world was forever changed.
It was one year ago today – January 27, 2010 – that Zinn died at the age of 87. And it was nearly twenty years ago that I, as a twenty-something American History teacher in Brooklyn, first assigned excerpts of A People’s History to an unsuspecting class of 16- and 17-year-olds.
I can still recall the combination of pleasure and puzzlement when we dedicated precious class time to an extended conversation of the ways industrialization had impacted the lives of women, who, Zinn wrote, “were being pulled out of the house and into industrial life, while at the same time [feeling] pressured to stay home where they were more easily controlled.” There was the unit when we learned that the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – originally passed to ensure that former slaves were forthwith defined as full “persons” under the law – had instead been overwhelmingly co-opted by clever lawyers intent on protecting the personal rights of corporations. And there was the time of the year when, echoing my wife’s long-ago request, we read the 1838 words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, urging then-president Martin Van Buren to abandon the efforts underway to forcibly remove all Cherokees to make way for American expansion:
The soul of man, the justice, the mercy that is the heart’s heart in all men, from Maine to Georgia, does abhor this business . . . a crime is projected that confounds our understandings by its magnitude, a crime that really deprives us as well as the Cherokees of a country for how could we call the conspiracy that should crush these poor Indians our government, or the land that was cursed by their parting and dying imprecations our country any more?
How indeed? And yet, here we were, being asked a different set of questions, and being forced to make sense for the first time of the many glories and hypocrisies of our national history. A People’s History was, in short, a radical, exasperating, inspiring, motivating vision of America, and of American history. And my students loved it. As one of them told me, years later, “Until I read Zinn, I viewed the world uncritically. But he taught me to mistrust the single viewpoint, to doubt, to verify, to ask more questions, and to always, always look for where the bones are buried.”
As in all things, of course, Zinn is best consumed in moderation; it is as foolish to exclusively teach his writings on American history as it is to solely teach the more sanitized stuff of textbooks. And yet all of us should be grateful for what Zinn helped bring about – a widening of the American narrative, a deepening of our understanding of what it means to be free, and an awakening in our cultural consciousness to forever remind us that, as with so much of life, all is not as it seems.
So on this anniversary of Howard Zinn’s death, I hope you’ll join me in honoring his memory. Visit the Zinn Education Project (http://zinnedproject.org/). Take a more open and honest look at the past. And help ensure that our schools equip students with the analytical tools they need to make sense of — and improve — the world today.
Rest in peace.