Why the great historian would have loved what transpired over the past few weeks
By Bill Bigelow
Last week nearly 700 Arkansas teachers and school librarians received copies of books by Howard Zinn—thanks to a right-wing state representative.
Well, not exactly. But here’s the story.
Recently, Republican Kim Hendren, introduced legislation that would prohibit teachers in all public schools or state-supported charter schools from including any books in their curriculum by—or even “concerning”—the historian Howard Zinn, author of the classic A People’s History of the United States, who died in 2010.
In response, the Zinn Education Project—a collaboration between Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change, which I co-direct—offered to send free copies of a Howard Zinn book and A People’s History for the Classroom lessons to any Arkansas middle or high school teacher or school librarian requesting them.
In just a few days, we were flooded with requests. Many of them came accompanied by poignant notes about why people were eager to get the materials. One middle school librarian in Western Grove, Arkansas, near the Missouri border (population 373), wrote, “The proposed bill to ban Mr. Zinn’s book has fired up the Arkansas librarian world. To combat ignorance, I must have knowledge. I respectfully request a copy so I can educate my tiny corner of the world.”
A high school teacher in El Dorado, Arkansas, in the far south, near Louisiana, wrote defiantly, “Books and ideas are increasingly under attack in Arkansas. We need to defend our rights and freedoms and be willing to look at history from multiple viewpoints. As Orwell wrote, freedom is the freedom to say 2+2=4. Sometimes, speaking the truth is a revolutionary act. The truth will be taught in my classroom.”
Donations to support the Zinn Education Project book giveaway poured in from across the country.
I called Rep. Hendren’s office seeking comment about his proposed Zinn ban, and he quickly called me back. “I’ll talk with you because in your message you seemed respectful, but I’ve been called the F-word, people have wished me dead. Apparently, there is some organization out there of Zinn supporters stirring things up.” I assured him that my aim in calling was simply to hear why he sought to single out Howard Zinn’s work for banning.
“I think my constituents had seen some stuff on the internet or media. And Rick Santorum had mentioned it. I’d never heard of Howard Zinn. I’d never heard of the man.” He also mentioned former Republican Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ work to cut Zinn from the curriculum. “I don’t want indoctrination. Let’s just present the bill and see where it goes.” At the end of the call, my impression was that Rep. Hendren was running away from his own piece of legislation.
Mitch Daniels’ effort to ban Zinn from Indiana schools and colleges had been a more serious effort. Unlike Rep. Hendren, Gov. Daniels had clear opinions about Howard Zinn. Shortly after Zinn died, on January 27, 2010, Daniels wrote his education advisor: “The obits and commentaries mentioned [Zinn’s] book A People’s History of the United States is the ‘textbook of choice in high schools and colleges around the country.’ It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?” This email and others were uncovered thanks to sleuthing from the Associated Press.
The Trump right wing is all for “local control” until that “control” means a woman’s right to control her own body, or until a community decides not to cooperate with immigration bullies. Similarly, conservatives tout educational balance and fairness, until it means engaging students in asking critical questions about the behavior of U.S. elites or introducing them to voices of dissent and social movements throughout history. Which, no doubt, is why Republicans like Mitch Daniels or Kim Hendren get so exercised about the influence of Howard Zinn in schools today.
There is not one single piece of Zinn’s history-telling that the book-banners cite. No, I think it’s Zinn’s unapologetic partisanship that gets under their skin. Zinn sums up his approach in a famous passage from the first chapter of A People’s History in which he explores how all historians take sides in what they select and emphasize about the past:
I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by Black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by Southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by Blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America.
Zinn acknowledges that this effort to “see” history as others experienced it will always be limited—no matter how much we “strain.” At the heart of Zinn’s scholarship is not this or that conclusion about particular moments in history, it’s his invitation to empathy. And that’s what makes Zinn’s presence in schools so threatening to some: classrooms full of students straining to ask critical questions from the standpoint of all those not well-served by today’s arrangements of power and privilege.
I think Howard Zinn would have loved what transpired in the past few weeks in Arkansas: Amidst a flurry of White House executive orders to ban Muslims and build pipelines, a conservative legislator tries to jump on the bandwagon, with an attempt to ensure that his state’s children learn only a Fox News version of America’s past. But in response, teachers and librarians throughout the state reject his attempt to stifle critique and questioning; supporters around the country rally in solidarity, and people’s history materials pour into the state’s classrooms and libraries.
Howard Zinn’s writing is full of instances—big and small—of ordinary people gathering to oppose exploitation and schemes of the elites. Hendren’s bill just died in the education committee—offering the world one more instance that simply because people in positions of power want something to happen, does not make it so.