Two Rethinking Schools Books Earn Awards

We have wonderful news. Two of our recent books earned Honor Awards from Skipping Stones magazine–a journal that has been celebrating exceptional multicultural children’s literature and professional education resources for over 26 years.

REEcoverRethinking Elementary Education and Teaching About the Wars earned the awards. Luckily, we have a special promotion going on right now so you can get these books and any others from our collection now with our 20% end-of-school-year discount.  Use code GRADE14 at checkout.

Also a winner of the Independent Book Publishers Association Ben Franklin Gold Award, Rethinking Elementary Education is a collection of articles by teachers, parents, and activists about elementary school life and learning. The book covers classroom community, media literacy, language arts, science, social studies and other topics through a social justice lens.

Jonathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities, described Rethinking Elementary Education this way: “Another glorious package of encouragement and challenge from the most enlightened and most fervent group of teachers and their allies in our nation. Indispensable for elementary teachers–and a feisty provocation to all educators to stand up and fight for our beliefs.”

Teaching About the WarTeaching About the Wars, edited by Jody Sokolower, focuses on U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Although the United States has been at war continuously since just after 9/11, the role of the U.S. military around the world is rarely discussed in classrooms. This collection provides lessons and activities for teachers to engage students in critical thinking about this critical issue.

We’re so grateful for everyone who contributed to both of these books and to Skipping Stones for recognizing our work and passion for multicultural social justice education.

And we’re grateful to you for your continued support of our work.

If you want to see for yourself why these books earned accolades, use code GRADE14 for a 20% discount off these or any of the books in our collection.

Rethinking Schools on Facebook: 10 Most Popular Stories of 2013

Those of you who follow us on Facebook know that we regularly post articles, stories, and resources that we think would be of interest to Rethinking Schools readers. At the risk of jumping on the top-10 bandwagon, we decided to review our posts for the year and to highlight the ones that were the most popular, judged by total reach. Some are funny, some are moving, some are outrageous—all are provocative and worth reviewing.

1. Dec. 15: “Wrong” answers on tests from brilliant kids.

2. April 18: Today’s Democracy Now! had an excellent segment — “A Rush to Misjudgment” — about some of the hurried and racist mainstream media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. This would be an excellent segment to use with students.

3. Nov. 2: Rethinking Schools editor Wayne Au was the scariest thing ever for Halloween this year: a high-stakes, standardized test!

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4. Oct. 5: History matters. Today’s patterns of wealth and power have their roots in slavery. “Top 6 Countries That Grew Filthy Rich From Enslaving Black People

5. April 2:  Our friend and colleague, Bill Ayers, has written a fabulous letter to the New York Times about the Atlanta cheating scandal. Read it here.

6. Oct. 17: The brilliant and magnificent Cornel West. Please watch and share. “Cornel West on the ‘shameless silence’ of progressives about Obama and education reform

7. Aug. 22: This is a fascinating expose at Daily Kos of how Time Magazine covers in the United States differ from Time covers throughout the world. Great questions to raise about this with students. Shared by Rethinking Schools author Özlem Sensoy.

8. May 3: Have you followed the story of the 16-year-old girl in Florida who was arrested and expelled for her science experiment gone awry? An example of the school-to-prison pipeline in action.

9. April 15: Rethinking Schools friend Dave Zirin reflects on the tragedy at the Boston Marathon, and offers some moving people’s history in the process.

10. September 7: Betsy Toll of the organization Living Earth, wrote this wonderful letter to The Oregonian, in Portland, saying we’re not weary of war, we’re sick of it. War is an “educational issue.” Read Betsy’s letter.

Army Teaches Wrong Lesson in Nation’s High Schools

Today is the 68th anniversary of bombing of Nagasaki.  Our friend and ally Pat Elder describes in his op-ed below how high school text books get the history wrong.  See our Zinn Education Project for resources for teaching about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

– Kris Collett

pat-elder-20120105-190This summer the world will pause to commemorate the 68th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most Americans are still supportive of Truman’s decision despite overwhelming historical evidence the bomb had “nothing to do with the end of the war,” in the words of Major General Curtis E. LeMay.

Americans suffer from a misinformation campaign initially perpetrated by the Truman administration and carried on to this day by high school textbooks that continue to tell the story as if Hiroshima and Nagasaki were indispensible in ending the war and saving countless American lives. The historical record is clear, however. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”

There is no hint of controversy regarding the decision to drop the bomb in the majority of texts in use in American classrooms and many textbooks contain blatant historical inaccuracies, but the greatest purveyor of historical mistruth is the U.S. Army’s Leadership, Education and Training (LET 3) Custom Edition for Army JROTC. JROTC is the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. More than a half million American high school students are enrolled in JROTC classes nationwide.

JROTC students do more than march in uniform on the football field. They study government (the unit on constitutional law is entitled “You the People”), and they study a “history” of sorts. The JROTC treatment of Truman’s decision to drop the bomb is riddled with falsehoods and leaves students convinced that destroying those cities was the right thing to do.

Thanks to policymakers and military leaders of the era who have subsequently told their stories, we know today what transpired. We can also thank Professor Gar Alperovitz of the University of Maryland for a stellar academic career dedicated to analyzing American policy in this regard. Quite simply, President Truman dropped those bombs on a defeated Japan to tell the Russians and the world to back off. We had two bombs and we were going to use them. In a typically cavalier fashion, Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., Commander, U.S. Third Fleet remarked, “It was a mistake to ever drop [the bomb]. . .they had this toy and they wanted to try it out, so they dropped it. .”

Today we know:

  • The bombs weren’t needed to win the war. Every top U.S. military leader of the era has since stated that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were militarily insignificant.
  • The idea that dropping the bombs saved a million American lives is completely fabricated. The war against Japan could have been “won” without additional loss of life.
  • The Japanese had been trying to surrender for months. They simply wanted to guarantee their emperor’s safety, a desire the Americans eventually allowed.
  • The Japanese would have unconditionally given up without the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the Soviet Union entered the war.
  • The bombing was not so much the last military chapter of the Second World War as it was the first Chapter of the Cold War.

The authors of the JROTC course book grapple with the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan within the context of an ethical case study where students discuss ethical choices and consequences inherent in a series of historical events. Rather than presenting an unbiased version of events, the discussion is tainted by a strong preference toward bombing Japan, complete with falsehoods and inexcusable omissions.

The JROTC text packages all the most prevalent misperceptions regarding Truman’s decision into one outrageous historical account. The U.S. Army is teaching high school students that using atomic weaponry was necessary to forestall a costly invasion of the Japanese mainland that would have cost a million American lives. The text leaves the impression that the Japanese military in mid-1945 was extraordinarily powerful and that the Japanese were fanatical in their resolve to resist. The text also perpetrates the falsehood that the top brass supported the bombing when in fact all of the top brass subsequently came out to object to its use. Finally, and perhaps most egregiously, the Army’s version of events distorts the complex geostrategic mix involving the Soviets.

The Army text leaves out Japanese attempts to surrender. The book makes no mention of the prior agreements to bring the Soviets into the war against Japan or the Soviet declaration of war on August 8th. The JROTC text fails to recognize that Japanese power quickly disintegrated during the first 6 months of 1945, especially after the US firebombing campaign destroyed 180 square miles of 67 cities, killing more than 300,000 people, figures that exclude the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The book doesn’t describe absolute American control of Japanese skies in the summer of 1945.

Consider the following selections from Leadership, Education and Training 3:

“The Soviet Union had not participated in the Pacific campaign, choosing to remain neutral with Japan while fighting for survival against Germany. Truman was in Potsdam meeting with Churchill, trying to enlist the aide of Stalin, when he learned of the atomic test at Trinity.”

At face value this is true, but this statement represents the totality of the Army’s discussion of the Soviet role. The JROTC text minimizes the importance of the Soviets while elevating the significance of the atomic bombings in bringing about Japan’s surrender. The Soviets are portrayed as being weak but it was Stalin’s decision to enter the war and the Red Army’s assault on Manchuria on August 9th and subsequent rapid advance through weak Japanese defenses that caused the Japanese to immediately sue for peace.

Truman and his trusted advisor, Secretary of State James Byrnes both believed the bomb would keep the Russians in line in Eastern Europe. Dropping the bomb launched the Cold War. It wasn’t necessary to end World War II.

During the Tehran Conference in 1943 Stalin agreed that the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan after Hitler was defeated. In 1945 at the Yalta Conference Stalin agreed to enter the War with Japan within three months of the end of the war in Europe. The Soviet invasion began on August 8, 1945, precisely three months after the German surrender on May 8th. The start of the invasion fell between the atomic bombings of Hiroshima, on August 6, and Nagasaki, on August 9. In the words of Air Force General Claire Chennault,”Russia’s entry into the Japanese war was the decisive factor in speeding its end and would have been so even if no atomic bombs had been dropped.” An examination of the Japanese historical record confirms this point. It is reprehensible for the Army to omit a more thorough discussion of the pivotal role of the Soviet Union in bringing about an end to the war.

“Truman was troubled by the mounting casualties in the Pacific as Allied forces drew nearer the Japanese home islands. Driven by the Bushido warrior code, the Japanese were prepared to resist to the last, and more willing to die than surrender.”

Truman knew a week before Potsdam that Japan’s emperor had intervened to attempt to end the war and there were several attempts at peace before this. Japan was prepared to surrender, provided that it could retain its emperor but Truman had two bombs and he was determined to use them to fire a kind of a shot across the bow to the Soviets as post-war Europe was taking shape. General Douglas MacArthur understood it this way. “The war might have ended weeks earlier, he said, if the United States had agreed, as it later did anyway, to the retention of the institution of the emperor.”

Colonel Charles Bonesteel, Chief of the War Department Operations Division Policy poignantly described the situation in the summer of 1945, “The poor damn Japanese were putting feelers out by the ton so to speak — through Russia.”

“The Joint Chiefs told Truman to expect over 1,000,000 American casualties and even larger number of Japanese dead in the pending attack on the home islands.”

This is false. There’s no record of the Joint Chiefs of Staff formally studying the decision and they never made an official recommendation to the President, according to Alperovitz. Additionally, the Joint Chiefs never claimed to be involved. The claim of 1 million casualties as a result of an (unnecessary) American invasion is a complete fabrication. It originated from a 1947 Harper’s article by Secretary of War Stimson. Stimson invented the number. It is not based on a shred of historical evidence.

For his part, President Truman randomly selected the number of American lives ostensibly saved as a result of dropping the bomb. He said it would “save thousands of American lives.” He later remarked, “It occurred to me that a quarter of a million of the flower of our young manhood was worth a couple of Japanese cities, and I still think they were and are.” He also said, “I thought 200,000 of our young men would be saved by making that decision.”

The Japanese position was hopeless by the summer of 1945. They were trying to surrender because they were defeated. According to Brigadier Gen. Carter W. Clarke,“We brought them down to an abject surrender through the accelerated sinking of their merchant marine and hunger alone, and when we didn’t need to do it, and we knew we didn’t need to do it, and they knew that we knew we didn’t need to do it, we used them as an experiment for two atomic bombs.” Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Henry H. “Hap” Arnold looked at the situation from the air, “The Japanese position was hopeless even before the first atomic bomb fell, because the Japanese had lost control of their own air.”

“By August 1945, the United States had two nuclear bombs in its arsenal. On August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Over 140,000 Japanese were killed in the blast, and an uncounted number died from the lingering effects of radiation. On August 9, 1945, a second atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. The next day, August 10, 1945, Japan indicated its willingness to surrender.”

Japan had been indicating its “willingness to surrender” for some time before the bombs were dropped. The Japanese finally acceded to allied surrender terms because the Soviets had invaded Manchuria the day before.

Every top American military leader was revolted by Truman’s decision to drop the bomb. They couldn’t see its military necessity. It is incomprehensible that the today’s Army feels compelled to contradict its greatest leaders who understood the role of the military in relation to its political superiors. Commander of the U.S. Army Strategic Air Force, General Carl Spaatz understood the separation.He said,”The dropping of the atomic bomb was done by a military man under military orders. We’re supposed to carry out orders and not question them. “That was purely a political decision. [It] wasn’t a military decision..”

Top Naval officers joined in the chorus. Admiral William D. Leahy, the President’s Chief of Staff said, “The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.”

Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet echoed the sentiments of his colleagues, “The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace… The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan.”

“Truman appointed a committee to evaluate using the atomic bomb. The committee examined many options, including a demonstration in Tokyo Bay, but Los Alamos was uncertain the device would detonate. Rather than lose a valuable war asset, and to emphasize its destructive power, the committee recommended dropping the atomic bomb on a city.”

Secretary of State James Byrnes, Truman’s personal representative on the Interim Committee, was the most influential member of the committee and steered policy in the direction of using the new weapon without warning on a Japanese city. It was Byrnes who saw the bomb as a promising way to keep the Soviets in line in the post-war era.

Impressionable high school juniors are on the receiving end of this despicable propaganda. It is astonishing how easily the Army’s authors dismiss a quarter-million lives.

The discussion of the decision to drop the bomb in the JROTC text ends with the following:

“When thinking of ethical decisions that affected U.S. and world history, try to imagine how history would have been changed if the Atomic bomb had not been dropped on Japan during World War II. Would the war have continued much longer? Would the U.S. have been attacked again by the Japanese, as they had been at Pearl Harbor the year before? Because the Soviet Union had declared war on Japan on August 8th, do you think that thousands of Soviet and U.S. soldiers would have lost their lives?”

Based on the information contained in the JROTC text, it is “clear” to American high school students that the war would have dragged on indefinitely if we hadn’t dropped the bomb. We had to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki to keep the Japanese from attacking America as they did in 1944, and we had to do this to save American and Soviet lives!

JROTC lessons are developed and taught by Senior Army Instructors (SAIs) and Assistant Instructors (IAs). Although SAI’s have college degrees, they are typically not state-certified teachers. AIs must be retired from the Army and may be hired with a high school diploma provided they earn an associate’s degree within five years. AIs are the only unsupervised non-professionals allowed to instruct students in classrooms in most states across the country.

Public school officials rarely exercise control over the curricular content of the JROTC program or the professional qualifications of its instructors. It’s time they did.

=====

Pat Elder is the Director of the National Coalition to Protect Student Privacy,  an organization that works to prohibit the automatic release of student information to military recruiting services gathered through the administration of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) in high schools across the country.

Teaching About the Wars: Interview with the Editor

TATWcoverLast month, just in time for the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we released a collection of our best writing about U.S military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, Teaching About the Wars, edited by Rethinking Schools managing editor Jody Sokolower.

From the introduction, “Breaking the Silence on War,” through articles on the historical roots of the current wars and on to resistance, Teaching About the Wars encourages students to question premises, read between the lines, and grasp the enormity of war. An expanded and revised version of our earlier Whose Wars? Teaching About the Iraq War and the War on Terror, the book is filled with role plays, imaginative writing exercises, and critical reading and writing activities. These tools help students probe the roots and consequences of U.S. involvement in the region and stand in stark contrast to the propagandistic cheerleading in our textbooks.

Since its release, we have received a good deal of positive feedback about the collection, including from author, journalist, and anti-war activist David Swanson. He chose to interview Jody on his Talk Nation Radio program, and we are reposting this interview here for you.  Enjoy.

Teaching About the Wars is available as a PDF e-book or in paperback. 

Howard Zinn at 90: Lessons from the People’s Historian

Howard Zinn was a great friend of Rethinking Schools. He generously allowed us to reprint articles of his in the magazine and our books. He agreed to be interviewed by Rethinking Schools editors.  He gave us kind blurbs for our books. He mentioned our work in his talks and referred teachers to us. Most important, Howard Zinn taught us about the world and inspired us to think more deeply about social change. To commemorate his 90th birthday, Rethinking Schools editor Bill Bigelow wrote this article as part of the Zinn Education Project’s article series, “If We Knew Our History.”


This Friday–August 24–would have been the 90th birthday of the great historian and activist Howard Zinn, who died in 2010. Zinn did not merely record history, he made it: as a professor at Spelman College in the 1950s and early 1960s, where he was ultimately fired for his outspoken support of students in the Civil Rights Movement, and specifically the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); as a critic of the U.S. war in Vietnam, and author of the first book calling for an immediate U.S. withdrawal; and as author of arguably the most influential U.S. history textbook in print, A People’s History of the United States.

“That book will knock you on your ass,” as Matt Damon’s character says in the film Good Will Hunting.

Painting of Howard Zinn by Robert Shetterly

It’s always worth dipping into the vast archive of Zinn scholarship, but at the beginning of a school year, and as the presidential campaign heats up, now is an especially good time to remember some of Howard Zinn’s wisdom.

Shortly after Barack Obama’s election, the Zinn Education Project sponsored a talk by Zinn to several hundred teachers at the National Council for the Social Studies annual conference in Houston. Zinn reminded teachers that the point of learning about social studies was not simply to memorize facts, it was to imbue students with a desire to change the world. “A modest little aim,” Zinn acknowledged, with a twinkle in his eye.

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In this talk, available as an online video as well as a transcription, Zinn insisted that teachers must help students challenge “fundamental premises which keep us inside a certain box.” Because without this critical rethinking of premises about history and the role of the United States in the world, “things will never change.” And this will remain “a world of war and hunger and disease and inequality and racism and sexism.”

A key premise that needs to be questioned, according to Zinn, is the notion of “national interests,” a term so common in the political and academic discourse as to be almost invisible. Zinn points out that the “one big family” myth begins with the Constitution’s preamble: “We the people of the United States…” Zinn noted that it wasn’t “we the people” who established the Constitution in Philadelphia — it was 55 rich white men. Missing from or glossed over in the traditional textbook treatment are race and class divisions, including the rebellions of farmers in Western Massachusetts, immediately preceding the Constitutional Convention in 1787. No doubt, the Constitution had elements of democracy, but Zinn argues that it “established the rule of slaveholders, and merchants, and bondholders.”

Teaching history through the lens of class, race, and gender conflict is not simply more accurate, according to Zinn; it makes it more likely that students — and all the rest of us — will not “simply swallow these enveloping phrases like ‘the national interest,’ ‘national security,’ ‘national defense,’ as if we’re all in the same boat.”

As Zinn told teachers in Houston: “No, the soldier who is sent to Iraq does not have the same interests as the president who sends him to Iraq. The person who works on the assembly line at General Motors does not have the same interest as the CEO of General Motors. No–we’re a country of divided interests, and it’s important for people to know that.”

Another premise Zinn identified, one that has become an article of faith among the Tea Party crowd, is “American exceptionalism” — the idea that the United States is fundamentally freer, more virtuous, more democratic, and more humane than other countries. For Zinn, the United States is “an empire like other empires. There was a British empire, and there was a Dutch empire, and there was a Spanish empire, and yes, we are an American empire.” The United States expanded through deceit and theft and conquest, just like other empires, although textbooks cleanse this imperial bullying with legal-sounding terms like the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican Cession.

Patriotism is another premise that we need to question. As Zinn told teachers in Houston, “it’s very bad for everybody when young people grow up thinking that patriotism means obedience to your government.” Zinn often recalled Mark Twain’s distinction between country and government. “Does patriotism mean support your government? No. That’s the definition of patriotism in a totalitarian state,” Zinn warned a Denver audience in a 2008 speech, included in a new volume, Howard Zinn Speaks, edited by Anthony Arnove (Haymarket Books, 2012.)

And going to war on behalf of “our country” is offered as the highest expression of patriotism–in everything from the military recruitment propaganda that saturates our high schools to the social studies curriculum that features photos of U.S. troops heroically battling “enemy soldiers” in a section called “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in the popular high school textbook Modern World History.

Howard Zinn cuts through this curricular fog: “War is terrorism … Terrorism is the willingness to kill large numbers of people for some presumably good cause. That’s what terrorists are about.” Zinn demands that we reexamine the premise that war is necessary, a proposition not taken seriously in any high school history textbook I’ve ever seen. Instead, wars get sold to Americans–especially to the young people who fight those wars — as efforts to spread liberty and democracy. As Howard Zinn said many times, if you don’t know your history, it’s as if you were born yesterday. Leaders can tell you anything and you have no way of knowing what’s true.

Howard Zinn wanted educators to be deeply critical, but never cynical. When speaking to the teachers in Houston, Zinn insisted that another premise we needed to examine is the idea that progress is the product of great individuals. Zinn pointed out that Abraham Lincoln had never been an abolitionist, and when he ran for president in 1860 he did not advocate ending slavery in the states where it existed. Rather, it was largely the “huge antislavery movement that pushed Lincoln into the Emancipation Proclamation–that pushed Congress into the 13th and 14th and 15th Amendments.”

Zinn urged educators to teach a people’s history: “We’ve never had our injustices rectified from the top, from the president or Congress, or the Supreme Court, no matter what we learned in junior high school about how we have three branches of government, and we have checks and balances, and what a lovely system. No. The changes, important changes that we’ve had in history, have not come from those three branches of government. They have reacted to social movements.”

Thus when we single out people in our curriculum as icons, as “people to admire and respect,” Zinn advocated shedding the traditional pantheon of government and military leaders: “But there are other heroes that young people can look up to. And they can look up to people who are against war. They can have Mark Twain as a hero who spoke out against the Philippines war. They can have Helen Keller as a hero who spoke out against World War I, and Emma Goldman as a hero. They can have Fannie Lou Hamer as a hero, and Bob Moses as a hero, the people in the Civil Rights Movement — they are heroes.”

And to this, there is one final “people’s history” premise we need to remember — whether in education or the world outside of schools. As Howard Zinn reminded the audience of social studies teachers in Houston: “People change.” Zinn did not look to President Obama to initiate social transformation; but in 2008, he saw the election as confirmation that the long history of anti-racist struggle in the United States produced an outcome that would have been inconceivable 30 years prior. And this shift in attitude should give us hope.

As we remember Howard Zinn on what would have been his 90th birthday, let’s count him among the many social justice heroes who offer proof that people’s efforts make a difference — that ordinary people can change the world.

Related Resources:

A People’s History for the Classroom helps teachers introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of U.S. history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula.

It includes a new introductory essay by veteran teacher Bill Bigelow on teaching strategies that align with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

Rethinking the 4th of July

Rethinking Schools editor Bill Bigelow wrote this post for the Zinn Education Project, encouraging teachers — and everyone — to use this July 4th as a time to consider a more multicultural (and less militaristic) approach to examining the birth of the United States of America. He highlights Ray Raphael’s article, “Re-examining the Revolution,” which was first published in Rethinking Schools, and is now posted at the Zinn Education Project.

Rethinking the 4th of July

In Portland, Oregon, where I live, the 4th of July holiday offers an excuse for a wonderful annual blues festival in Waterfront Park downtown. Unfortunately, in my neighborhood, it also provides cover for people to blow off fireworks that terrify young children and animals, and that turn the air thick with smoke and errant projectiles. Last year, the fire department here reported 172 fires sparked by toy missiles, defective firecrackers, and other items of explosive revelry.

But apart from the noise pollution, air pollution, and flying debris pollution, there is something profoundly inappropriate about blowing off fireworks at a time when the United States is waging war with real fireworks around the world. To cite just one example, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London found recently that U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan alone have killed more than 200 people, including at least 60 children. And, of course, the U.S. war in Afghanistan drags on and on. The pretend war of celebratory fireworks thus becomes part of a propaganda campaign that inures us—especially the children among us—to the real wars half a world away.

But the yahoo of fireworks also turns an immensely complicated time in U.S. history into a cartoon of miseducation. For example, check out Ray Raphael’s “Re-examining the Revolution” at the Zinn Education Project, an article that every history teacher should read before wading into the events leading up to 1776. Raphael analyzed 22 elementary, middle school, and high school texts and found them filled with inaccuracies—some merely silly, but others that leave students with important misunderstandings about U.S. history, and how social change does and does not happen.

Raphael offers some context for the Declaration of Independence:

In 1997, Pauline Maier published American Scripture, where she uncovered 90 state and local “declarations of independence” that preceded the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The consequence of this historical tidbit is profound: Jefferson was not a lonely genius conjuring his notions from the ether; he was part of a nationwide political upheaval.

Similarly, Raphael reports that

[I]n 1774 common farmers and artisans from throughout Massachusetts rose up by the thousands and overthrew all British authority.  In the small town of Worcester (only 300 voters), 4,622 militiamen from 37 surrounding communities lined both sides of Main Street and forced British-appointed officials to walk the gauntlet, hats in hand, reciting their recantations 30 times each so everyone could hear. There were no famous “leaders” for this event. The people elected representatives who served for one day only, the ultimate in term limits. “The body of the people” made decisions and the people decided that the old regime must fall.

As Raphael concludes, “Textbook authors and popular history writers fail to portray the great mass of humanity as active players, agents on their own behalf.” Instead, textbooks credit Great Men—Washington, Franklin, Jefferson—and render all others as “mere followers.”

Of course, there is lots more that complicates the events surrounding the 4th of July and the Revolutionary War. As Raphael notes, “not one of the elementary or middle school texts [I reviewed] even mentions the genocidal Sullivan campaign, one of the largest military offensives of the war, which burned Iroquois villages and destroyed every orchard and farm in its path to deny food to Indians.” (For use with students, see “George Washington: An American Hero?” in Rethinking Columbus, published by Rethinking Schools.) Nor do texts mention the indigenous resistance movements of the 1780s in response to American “settler” expansion, which Raphael calls “the largest coalitions of Native Americans in our history.”

Also included at the Zinn Education Project site is a link to Danny Glover delivering one of history’s most passionate denunciations of U.S. racism and hypocrisy: Frederick Douglass’s “The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro.” Howard Zinn introduces Glover at one of the remarkable “The People Speak” events. Douglass delivered the speech on July 5, 1852 in Rochester, New York, at a Declaration of Independence commemoration:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”

Douglass delivered his speech four years after the United States finished its war against Mexico to steal land and spread slavery, five years before the vicious Supreme Court Dred Scott decision, and nine years before the country would explode into civil war. His words call out through the generations to abandon the empty “shout of liberty and equality” on July 4, and to put away the fireworks and flags. In the spirit of Frederick Douglass, the Zinn Education Project urges teachers to use July 4 as a time to rethink how we equip students to reflect on the complicated birth of the United States of America.

Bill Bigelow (bill@rethinkingschools.org) is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and the co-director of the Zinn Education Project.

‘Repeat After Me: The United States Is Not an Imperialist Country—Oh, and Don’t Get Emotional About War’

By Bill Bigelow

You may have seen that an administrative law judge in Arizona, Lewis Kowal, just upheld the decree by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction that Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program violates state law. Judge Kowal found that the Tucson program was teaching Latino history and culture “in a biased, political, and emotionally charged manner.” According to CNN, one lesson that the judge objected to taught that the historic treatment of Mexican Americans was “marked by the use of force, fraud and exploitation.

Try this “history detective” experiment. Ask the next person you encounter to tell you what they know about the U.S. war with Mexico. More than likely, this will be a short conversation, because that war (1846-48) merits barely a footnote in U.S. history textbooks. The most recent textbook I was assigned when I taught high school history in Portland, Ore. was American Odyssey. In 250 pages devoted to pre-20th century U.S. history, the book includes exactly two paragraphs on this war. (The district’s new adoption, History Alive! Pursuing American Ideals, doubles the coverage to a whopping four paragraphs.)

(Download Teaching Activity PDF from the Zinn Education Project: “U.S. Mexico War: ‘We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God’“)

And yet this is the war that “gave”—in the words of American Odyssey—California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and part of Colorado to the United States of America. And the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, formally ending the war, ratified the annexation of Texas, which had broken away from Mexico largely because of Mexico’s policies against slavery.

Most Mexicans know that the war against Mexico was another chapter in U.S. imperialism—a “North American invasion,” as it’s commemorated in a huge memorial in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park. But don’t take Mexicans’ word for it. Here’s what Col. Ethan Allan Hitchcock, aide to the commander of U.S. forces Gen. Zachary Taylor, wrote at the time in his journal about the war’s origins:

“I have said from the first that the United States are the aggressors. … We have not one particle of right to be here … It looks as if the government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses.”

Exactly. President James K. Polk, himself a slave-owner, had ordered U.S. troops into an area claimed by Mexico and inhabited by Mexicans and waited for them to be attacked. And when they were, Polk claimed aggression and the U.S. had its war. The invading U.S. Army actually called itself the Army of Occupation.

The abolition movement regarded the war as a land grab to expand slavery. The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass denounced the Mexican invasion as “a murderous war—as a war against the free states—as a war against freedom, against the Negro, and against the interests of workingmen of this country—and as a means of extending that great evil and damning curse, negro slavery.”

Henry David Thoreau coined the term “civil disobedience” in defense of his position that people should not pay taxes to support the war against Mexico. Thoreau argued that a minority can act against an unjust system only when it “clogs by its whole weight.”

Students enrolled in Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program would likely have known this history, because, after all, this is the story of how people living in Tucson no longer live in Mexico. But according to Judge Kowal, the program violates state law. That law bans curriculum that might “promote resentment toward a race or class of people.” And, as mentioned, Kowal complained that the material in Mexican American Studies was presented in “an emotionally charged manner…

I have not seen the full Mexican American Studies curriculum, although I know it includes important texts like Rudolfo Acuña’s classic Occupied America and Paulo Freire’s A Pedagogy of the Oppressed—a book studied in every teacher education program worthy of the name.

But I’m wondering how one can teach about the history of the U.S. relationship with Mexico in a manner that is not “emotionally charged.” You want to talk about “bias”? What about the bias of a textbook that can “cover” a war like that waged against Mexico in two paragraphs, or four paragraphs, and fail to so much as quote a Mexican, an abolitionist, a soldier, a woman, an African American, or a Native American—or fail to describe the death or injury of a single human being? What about the bias of a textbook or an entire curriculum that can discuss invasion and war in a manner that is not “emotionally charged”?

Here’s a U.S. infantry lieutenant who wrote his parents after a U.S. officer named Walker was killed in battle, quoted in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States:

“Gen. Lane … told us to ‘avenge the death of the gallant Walker’ … Grog shops were broken open first and then, maddened with liquor, every species of outrage was committed. Old women and girls were stripped of their clothing—many suffered still greater outrages. Men were shot by dozens … their property, churches, stores, and dwelling houses ransacked … It made me for the first time ashamed of my country.”

In his memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant wrote that this was “one of the most unjust [wars] ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation …”

The problem with the school curriculum in this country is that it is not emotionally charged enough. Poverty rates are skyrocketing—especially for children of color. People are losing their homes because of the criminal behavior of huge financial institutions—and race has a lot to do with who profits and who suffers. This country’s military is still being sent to invade and occupy—and murder people with silent, invisible drones. The rich and powerful poison our atmosphere, our water, our food, and our children.

So, yes, let’s have a curriculum that gets emotional—and that tells a fuller truth than is offered in our textbooks. And let’s stand in solidarity with the teachers and students in Tucson who are demanding to teach and learn about things that matter.

Bill Bigelow is Curriculum Editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, and co-directs the Zinn Education Project. He is author of The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration.

Related Resources:

The Line Between Us The Line Between Us explores the history of U.S-Mexican relations and the roots of Mexican immigration, all in the context of the global economy. And it shows how teachers can help students understand the immigrant experience and the drama of border life. Using role plays, stories, poetry, improvisations, simulations and video, veteran teacher Bill Bigelow demonstrates how to combine lively teaching with critical analysis.
A People's History for the Classroom A People’s History for the Classroom helps teachers introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of U.S. history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula. Teaching articles and lesson plans — drawn from an assortment of Rethinking Schools publications — emphasize the role of working people, women, people of color, and organized social movements in shaping history, and raise important questions about patterns of wealth and power throughout U.S. history.

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