The Zinn Education Project collects stories from Howard Zinn’s former students at Spelman College and Boston University about his role as a teacher. Here is one example, a story by David Detmer, class of 1980. If you are a former student of Zinn, please contribute your story here.
I should point out that Howard Zinn was not my mentor. My field was (and is) philosophy; he was a historian. My experience with his teaching was limited to taking two classes from him. There were many other students with whom he worked more closely. Nonetheless, I was astonished by the degree of interest he seemed to take in my work, and the care with which he analyzed and critiqued it.
In my experience, his great range as a scholar significantly enhanced his effectiveness as a teacher. For example, on the very first occasion in which I visited his office in order to discuss a paper I had written for him, he noticed that I was carrying a copy of Plato’s Republic. After we had finished talking about my paper, he asked me what I thought about Plato. As our conversation unfolded I was amazed at his detailed knowledge of the Republic, and his ready command of that knowledge. I would make a critical argument about something Plato says in Book II of the Republic, and Zinn would counter with something like, “Yes, but that overlooks the following distinction, which he makes in Book VII….”
Since many of Zinn’s critics accuse him of being a propagandist, I should also point out that all of the comments on Plato that he made during this conversation were directly responsive to my questions, or to points I was making, and all of them had the effect of deepening my grasp of Plato, and of helping me to strengthen the arguments I was developing (especially by calling to my attention considerations that I had overlooked). Once he had initiated the conversation, the entire remainder of its direction was determined by my concerns. I could not at the time, and still cannot in retrospect, detect any agenda on his part other than that of helping me.
Moreover, now that I have read almost all of his published works (at the time I had read none of them), I can see in this conversation evidence that his intellectual curiosity—his reading, and learning, and thinking about things—extended far beyond the already wide domain of topics and figures that he addressed in his own projects. For, while he has written about Plato’s Crito in connection with his work on civil disobedience, I know of no significant engagement with the Republic in his published writings.
On another occasion when I visited him at his office I was carrying a copy of the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique de la raison dialectique, which had not yet been translated into English. To my amazement, he initiated a conversation about that as well, and showed himself to be quite familiar with its contents. When I complimented him for having read the book, he “confessed” that he had read only parts of it, and that his knowledge had been derived in part from reviews and commentaries. In any case, since Zinn has never written anything substantial on the Critique of Dialectical Reason (though occasional scattered references to Sartre can be found in some of his works), this incident suggests, once again, that he was a scholar who read widely, and on a great variety of subjects, so that both his teaching and his scholarship rested on a strong foundation of knowledge.
In addition to this impressive knowledge base, and his extraordinary gift (acknowledged even by many of his harshest critics) for clear expression, perhaps the biggest factor leading to Zinn’s success as a teacher was his relaxed, friendly, good-humored, unthreatening manner. While he certainly offered a challenge to the beliefs of many of his students, which he accomplished by presenting ideas of deadly seriousness, he also did so with a light hand, and with plenty of wit and humor. He encouraged everyone, not only to participate in class discussions, but also to “challenge authority” by disagreeing with him. In my experience, those who did so were always treated with the utmost respect, and were never ridiculed, patronized, or scolded. His classes, though rich in content, were fun, and my sense was that nearly everyone in them, no matter what their political orientation, not only learned a lot, but also had a good time in doing so.
Read more memories by former students at the Howard Zinn, Our Favorite Teacher page.
We revisit Howard Zinn’s essay, “If History Is to Be Creative,” published in A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, a collection of essays from The Progressive magazine. The following excerpt is a reflection on the role and responsibility of the engaged historian, and is an inspiration for us all to continue the fight for justice. Zinn writes, “If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, and occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.”
By Howard Zinn
America’s future is linked to how we understand our past. For this reason, writing about history, for me, is never a neutral act. By writing, I hope to awaken a great consciousness of racial injustice, sexual bias, class inequality, and national hubris. I also want to bring into the light the unreported resistance of people against the power of the Establishment: the refusal of the indigenous to simply disappear; the rebellion of Black people in the antislavery movement and in the more recent movement against racial segregation; the strikes carried out by working people all through American history in attempts to improve their lives.
To omit these acts of resistance is to support the official view that power only rests with those who have the guns and possess the wealth. I write in order to illustrate the creative power of people struggling for a better world. People, when organized, have enormous power, more than any government. Our history runs deep with the stories of people who stand up, speak out, dig in, organize, connect, form networks of resistance, and alter the course of history.
I don’t want to invent victories for people’s movements. But to think that history writing must aim simply to recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat. If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, and occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.
History can help our struggles, if not conclusively, then at least suggestively. History can disabuse us of the idea that the government’s interests and the people’s interests are the same.
History can tell how often governments have lied to us, how they have ordered whole populations to be massacred, how they deny the existence of the poor, how they have led us to our current historical moment—the “Long War,” the war without end.
True, our government has the power to spend the country’s wealth as it wishes. It can send troops anywhere in the world. It can threaten indefinite detention and deportation of 20 million immigrant Americans who do not yet have green cards and have no constitutional rights. In the name of our “national interest,” the government can deploy troops to the U.S.-Mexican border, round up Muslim men from certain countries, secretly listen in on our conversations, open our e-mails, examine our bank transactions, and try to intimidate us into silence.
It is easy to be overwhelmed or intimidated by the realization that the war makers have enormous power. But some historical perspective can be useful, because it tells us that at certain points in history governments find that all their power is futile against the power of an aroused citizenry.
There is a basic weakness in governments, however massive their armies, however vast their wealth, however they control images and information, because their power depends on the obedience of citizens, of soldiers, of civil servants, of journalists and writers and teachers and artists. When the citizens begin to suspect they have been deceived and withdraw their support, government loses its legitimacy and its power. We have seen this happen in recent decades all around the globe. Awaking one morning to see a million angry people in the streets of the capital city, the leaders of a country begin packing their bags and calling for a helicopter.
This is not fantasy; it is recent history. It’s the history of the Philippines, of Indonesia, of Greece, Portugal and Spain, of Russia, East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Romania. Think of Argentina and South Africa and other places where change looked hopeless and then it happened. Remember Somoza in Nicaragua scurrying to his private plane, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos hurriedly assembling their jewels and clothes, the shah of Iran desperately searching for a country that would take him in as he fled the crowds in Tehran, Duvalier in Haiti barely managing to put on his pants to escape the wrath of the Haitian people.
There is a long history of imperial powers gloating over victories, becoming overextended and overconfident, and not realizing that power is not simply a matter of arms and money. Military power has its limits—limits created by human beings, their sense of justice, and capacity to resist. The United States with 10,000 nuclear weapons could not win in Korea or Vietnam, could not stop a revolution in Cuba or Nicaragua. Likewise, the Soviet Union with its nuclear weapons and huge army was forced to retreat from Afghanistan and could not stop the Solidarity movement in Poland.
A country with military power can destroy but it cannot build. Its citizens become uneasy because their fundamental day-to-day needs are sacrificed for military glory while their young are neglected and sent to war. The uneasiness grows and grows and the citizenry gathers in resistance in larger and larger numbers, which become too many to control; one day the top-heavy empire collapses.
Change in public consciousness starts with low-level discontent, at first vague, with no connection being made between the discontent and the policies of the government. And then the dots begin to connect, indignation increases, and people begin to speak out, organize, and act.
Today, all over the county there is growing awareness of the shortage of teachers, nurses, medical care, and affordable housing, as budget cuts take place in every state of the union. A teacher recently wrote a letter to the Boston Globe: “I may be one of 600 Boston teachers who will be laid off as a result of budget shortfalls.” The writer then connects it to the billions spent for bombs, for, as he puts it, “sending innocent Iraqi children to hospitals in Baghdad.”
There are millions of people in this country opposed to the current war. When you see a statistic “40 percent of Americans support the war,” that means that 60 percent of Americans do not. I am convinced that the number of people opposed to the war will continue to rise while the number of war supporters will continue to sink. Along the way, artists, musicians, writers, and cultural workers lend a special emotional and spiritual power to the movement for peace and justice. Rebellion often starts as something cultural.
The challenge remains. On the other side are formidable forces: money, political power, the major media. On our side are the people of the world and a power greater than money or weapons: the truth.
Truth has a power of its own. Art has a power of its own. That age-old lesson—that everything we do matters—is the meaning of the people’s struggle here in the United States and everywhere. A poem can inspire a movement. A pamphlet can spark a revolution. Civil disobedience can arouse people and provoke us to think. When we organize with one another, when we get involved, when we stand up and speak out together, we can create a power no government can suppress.
We live in a beautiful country. But people who have no respect for human life, freedom, or justice have taken it over. It is now up to all of us to take it back.
Excerpted from A Power Governments Cannot Suppress • City Lights Publishing • 2007
Actor and activist Jesse Williams, best known for his role on Grey’s Anatomy, won the BET Humanitarian Award on June 26, 2016. Williams, who read in the 2014 Voices Performance in Los Angeles, and serves on the board of the Advancement Project, is the son of public school teachers and a former U.S. history teacher (in Philadelphia) himself. He acknowledged the role of teachers and students learning history (outside the textbook) in his acceptance speech. Here is an excerpt,
I want to thank my parents for teaching me to focus on comprehension over career, they made sure I learned what the schools are afraid to teach us.
Now, this award, this is not for me, this is for the real organizers all over the country, activist civil rights attorneys, the parents, the teachers, the students who are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do. All right? It’s kind of basic mathematics, the more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize.
We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people — out of sight and out of mind — while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil, black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit. The thing is though… the thing is that just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.
Watch the full speech below and/or read here.
Two years ago, Williams was one of the readers in the 2014 Voices Performance in Los Angeles. He read Zinn’s, “The Problem Is Civil Obedience” (November 1970), from Voices of a People’s History of the United States on November 13, 2014, at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center George and Sakaye Aratani Japan America Theatre in Los Angeles, California. The message is timely.
The filmed stage performance of Howard Zinn’s play Emma is now available for rent or purchase.
Emma dramatizes the life of Emma Goldman, the famed anarchist, feminist, and free-spirited thinker who was exiled from the United States because of her outspoken views, including her opposition to World War I. Read More
June 27 marks the birth of Emma Goldman (June 27, 1869–May 14, 1940), an anarchist who was an early advocate of free speech, birth control, women’s equality and independence, and unions. After reading Richard Drinnon’s biography of Emma Goldman, Rebel in Paradise, Howard Zinn read Goldman’s autobiography, Living My Life. As a historian with a PhD, he was astonished he had never learned about Goldman in his studies. “Here was this magnificent woman, this anarchist, this feminist, fierce, life-loving person.” Read More
French filmmakers Daniel Mermet and Olivier Azam of Les Mutins de
Pangee have released part one of a three-part documentary about Howard
Zinn. Only available in French, it can be rented or purchased on
Vimeo.com. The 1:40 hour film, called Howard Zinn une histoire
populaire américaine, features interviews with Howard Zinn, Noam
Chomsky, and Chris Hedges.
Proceeds from film sales will help fund production of parts 2 and 3.
The Zinn Education Project collects stories from former students at Spelman College and Boston University about his role as a teacher. Here is one example, a story by Michael Stavros, Class of 1973. If you are a former student of Zinn, please contribute your story here.
As we approach a new calendar year, we revisit Howard Zinn’s warmth, humor, and optimism in this interview with David Barsamian from July 1997. Zinn discusses being considered non-scholarly in the academic world (“…if you write stuff that an ordinary person can read, you’re suspect”), the notion of a pure well of academe (“a well that I would argue was itself poisonous. It perpetuated an education that left out large numbers of the world’s people”), and how social change happens (“You never know what spark is going to really result in a conflagration”). Originally published in The Progressive, the following is excerpted from The Historic Unfulfilled Promise. Read More
As the school year gets underway, we share this excerpt from Original Zinn: Conversations on History and Politics on democratic education, the value of skepticism, and building trust with students. In this interview with David Barsamian at Alternative Radio, Howard Zinn explains that he built trust with his students “by showing them that outside the classroom I was not retreating into my home and my study. I was involved in the social struggle that related to their lives. When they decided to participate in this struggle, that I was with them, I was walking on picket lines with them, I was engaging in demonstrations with them, I was sitting in with them. And that, more than anything, created an atmosphere of trust, of democracy in our relationship.” Following are related classroom resources.
There are contrasting perspectives on what the term well educated means. What does it mean to you?
There is an orthodox view of what it means to be well educated, and the orthodox view is that a person is well educated who has gone through all the realms of education. And the higher up you go, the more degrees you have, the better educated you are. The more knowledge you have, the more facts you have acquired, the more languages you can speak, the more important people you can quote, the more reading you have done, all of that falls within the orthodox definition of higher education, of education itself, being well educated. And, of course, a lot of that is legitimate; that is, to me a lot of that makes sense.
But it is not sufficient for me. Read More
August 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. In the following excerpt from You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn, a WWII bombardier, recalls, “Hiroshima and Royan were crucial in my gradual rethinking of what I had once accepted without question—the absolute morality of the war against fascism.” He continues, “I had become aware, both from the rethinking of my war experiences and my reading of history, of how the environment of war begins to make one side indistinguishable from the other.” Related resources on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and WWII follow.
There was only one point during the war when a few doubts crept into my mind about the absolute rightness of what we were doing. I’d made friends with a gunner on another crew. We had something in common in that literary wasteland of an air base: we were both readers, and we were both interested in politics. At a certain point he startled me by saying, “You know, this is not a war against fascism. It’s a war for empire. England, the United States, the Soviet Union—they are all corrupt states, not morally concerned about Hitlerism, just wanting to run the world themselves. It’s an imperialist war.” Read More
Visit www.howardzinnbookfair.com for updates, schedule, and more information.
Writing a column to appear in the July 4, 1975, issue of the Boston Globe, I wanted to break away from the traditional celebrations of Independence Day, in which the spirit of that document, with its call for rebellion and revolution, was most often missing. The column appeared with the title “The Brooklyn Bridge and the Spirit of the Fourth.”
In New York, a small army of policemen, laid off and angry, have been blocking the Brooklyn Bridge, and garbage workers are letting the refuse pile up in the streets. In Boston, some young people on Mission Hill are illegally occupying an abandoned house to protest the demolition of a neighborhood. And elderly people, on the edge of survival, are fighting Boston Edison’s attempt to raise the price of electricity.
So it looks like a good Fourth of July, with the spirit of rebellion proper to the Declaration of Independence. Read More
Memorial Day will be celebrated … by the usual betrayal of the dead, by the hypocritical patriotism of the politicians and contractors preparing for more wars, more graves to receive more flowers on future Memorial Days. The memory of the dead deserves a different dedication. To peace, to defiance of governments.
In 1974, I was invited by Tom Winship, the editor of the Boston Globe, who had been bold enough in 1971 to print part of the top secret Pentagon Papers on the history of the Vietnam War, to write a bi-weekly column for the op-ed page of the newspaper. I did that for about a year and a half. The column below appeared June 2, 1976, in connection with that year’s Memorial Day. After it appeared, my column was canceled.
Continue reading “Whom Will We Honor Memorial Day?”
Spelman College girls are still “nice,” but not enough to keep them from walking up and down, carrying picket signs, in front of supermarkets in the heart of Atlanta.
By Howard Zinn and Paula J. Giddings • The Nation • March 23, 2015
This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
By Howard Zinn • First published in The Nation • August 6, 1960
One afternoon some weeks ago, with the dogwood on the Spelman College campus newly bloomed and the grass close-cropped and fragrant, an attractive, tawny-skinned girl crossed the lawn to her dormitory to put a notice on the bulletin board. It read: Young Ladies Who Can Picket Please Sign Below.
The notice revealed, in its own quaint language, that within the dramatic revolt of Negro college students in the South today another phenomenon has been developing. This is the upsurge of the young, educated Negro woman against the generations-old advice of her elders: be nice, be well-mannered and ladylike, don’t speak loudly, and don’t get into trouble. On the campus of the nation’s leading college for Negro young women—pious, sedate, encrusted with the traditions of gentility and moderation—these exhortations, for the first time, are being firmly rejected. Read More
Formerly named the “Thomas Paine Award,” the Freedom to Write Award was re-named in honor of Howard Zinn. PEN New England stated,
“In awarding Johnetta Elzie and DeRay McKesson the 2015 Zinn Award, we are recognizing their work in speaking truth to power and providing a necessary counterpoint to the mainstream narrative.
“Their reporting and This Is the Movement newsletter engaged and unified disparate voices in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Their activism focused an enraged community, and has been instrumental in transforming a cycle of tragedies into a movement, assuring that the world would not forget the names of Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and too many others.”
Continue reading at PEN New England.
This year, as the Pentagon prepares to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, we revisit this essay by Howard Zinn written in 1998, the 30th anniversary year of when he traveled with the Reverend Daniel Berrigan to Hanoi to receive prisoners released by the North Vietnamese. In talking about the terrible effects of the Vietnam War, Zinn states, “all wars are wars against civilians, and are therefore inherently immoral” and “political leaders all over the world should not be trusted when they urge their people to war claiming superior knowledge and expertise.” This is an excerpt from Howard Zinn on War followed by related resources.
On this 5th anniversary of the passing of Howard Zinn, we encourage you to read Zinn’s biography, articles, and interviews. The site was rebuilt in August of 2014 and provides a treasure trove of his work. If you have additional interviews, photos, or archival materials by Howard Zinn that can be published online, email email@example.com.
Read more from the Winter 2015 Newsletter.
In the 1960s, Howard Zinn, along with Ella Baker, served as advisers to SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. On this 50th anniversary year of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, we revisit Zinn’s first-hand account of Selma’s Freedom Day in 1963. “The idea was to bring hundreds of people to register to vote, hoping that their numbers would decrease fear. And there was much to fear,” Zinn writes.
The following excerpt is from Chapter 5 of Zinn’s autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, and is followed by related resources about Selma’s voting rights campaign, Freedom Day, and SNCC.
December 30 is the anniversary of Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo being indicted in 1971 for releasing the Pentagon Papers. The papers were part of a 7,000-page, top secret history of the U.S. political and military involvement in the Vietnam War from 1945-71. In other words, their “crime” was to make the American public aware of the history of the war.
Excerpted from chapter 12 of You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn recounts the lead-up to Ellsberg and Russo’s indictment. Following are resources for learning more about the Pentagon Papers, Vietnam, and Anti-War Movements. Read More