If We Knew Our History Series - Articles that puncture myths and stereotypes | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

The Zinn Education Project’s “If We Knew Our History” series features articles by teachers, journalists, and scholars that highlight inadequacies in the history textbooks published by giant corporations and that too often find their way into our classrooms. Articles in this series puncture myths and stereotypes. But they also discuss why it is so important that our students have access to a richer “people’s history” that questions inequality and highlights efforts to create a more just society. Our premise is that if we knew our history, the world would be a better place.

Columbus resources | Zinn Education Project

It’s Columbus Day…Time to Break the Silence

By Bill Bigelow
This past January, almost exactly 20 years after its publication, Tucson schools banned the book I co-edited with Bob Peterson, Rethinking Columbus. It was one of a number of books adopted by Tucson’s celebrated Mexican American Studies program—a program long targeted by conservative Arizona politicians.

The school district sought to crush the Mexican American Studies program; our book itself was not the target, it just got caught in the crushing. Nonetheless, Tucson’s—and Arizona’s—attack on Mexican American Studies and Rethinking Columbus shares a common root: the attempt to silence stories that unsettle today’s unequal power arrangements.
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It’s Constitution Day! Time to Teach Obedience or History? (Article) - Teaching about the Constitution requires a critical and nuanced exploration—one that is alert to the race and class issues at the heart of our governing document. | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

It’s Constitution Day! Time to Teach Obedience or History?

By Bill Bigelow
Pearson-Prentice Hall’s high school textbook, United States History, opens its chapter on the Constitution with this Daniel Webster quote: “We may be tossed upon an ocean where we can see no land—not, perhaps, the sun and stars. But there is a chart and a compass for us to study, to consult, and to obey. The chart is the Constitution.” United States History tells students approvingly that Ronald Reagan and others have recited this Webster quote at celebrations of the Constitution.

This is the kind of on-bended-knee Constitution worship that has long been a staple of our country’s social studies curricula.

Sure, these days, most U.S. history textbooks acknowledge that the Constitution was not without controversy. Holt McDougal’s The Americans offers a perfunctory couple of pages on the debate between elite groups of Federalists and Anti-Federalists. But corporate textbooks present the Constitution as a wise inevitability, awaiting only the Bill of Rights as the icing on a delicious cake of compromise.
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Howard Zinn at 90—Lessons from the People’s Historian

By Bill Bigelow
This week—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.
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Fists of Freedom: An Olympic Story Not Taught in School

By Dave Zirin
It has been almost 44 years since Tommie Smith and John Carlos took the medal stand following the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and created what must be considered the most enduring, riveting image in the history of either sports or protest. But while the image has stood the test of time, the struggle that led to that moment has been cast aside.

When mentioned at all in U.S. history textbooks, the famous photo appears with almost no context. For example, Pearson/Prentice Hall’s United States History places the photo opposite a short three-paragraph section, “Young Leaders Call for Black Power.” The photo’s caption says simply that “...U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved fists in protest against discrimination.”
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The Truth About Helen Keller (Lesson) | Zinn Education Project

Who Stole Helen Keller?

By Ruth Shagoury
In these times of vast economic disparities and ecological crisis, children need examples of people throughout history who committed their lives to justice—to bringing more equality and fairness to the world. Helen Keller, whose birthday we celebrate this month—June 27th—could be one of those role models. Instead, textbooks and children’s literature distort her life’s work, and miss key opportunities to inspire young people to make a difference in the world.
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Teaching Untold Stories During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

By Moé Yonamine
“They’re Latinos…I think they’re some kind of farm workers.”

“No, they’re Asians with name tags.”

And then a student in a quiet voice walked by me slowly and muttered, “I think something really bad is happening to them.”

My students at Roosevelt High School in Portland, Oregon—one of the state’s most racially diverse schools—studied each black and white photo posted around the room, inspecting the background and the facial expressions; confused, anxious, frustrated. They began a journey to uncover the hidden story of the Japanese Latin American removal, internment, and deportation during World War II.
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Rethinking Cinco de Mayo (Article) - 1901 poster for Cinco de Mayo by Jose Guadalupe Posada | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

Rethinking Cinco de Mayo

By Sudie Hofmann
I recently came across a flier in an old backpack of my daughter’s: Wanted: Committee Chairs for this Spring’s Cinco de Mayo All School Celebration. The flier was replete with cultural props including a sombrero, cactus tree, donkey, taco, maracas, and chili peppers. Seeing this again brought back the moment when, years earlier, my daughter had handed the flier to me, and I’d thought, “Oh, no.” The local K-6 elementary school’s Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) was sponsoring a stereotypical Mexican American event. There were no Chicana/o students, parents, or staff members who I was aware of in the school community and I was concerned about the event’s authenticity. I presumed the PTSA meant well, and was attempting to provide a multicultural experience for students and families, but it seemed they were likely to get it wrong.
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Changing the Climate in School

By Bill McKibben and Bill Bigelow
Maybe you’ve heard. We are facing a climate crisis that threatens life on our planet. Climate scientists are unequivocal: we are changing the world in deep, measurable, dangerous ways—and the pace of this change will accelerate dramatically in the decades to come.

Then again, if you’ve been a middle school or high school student recently, you may not know this.

That’s because the gap between our climate emergency and the attention paid to climate change in the school curriculum is immense. Individual teachers around the country are doing outstanding work, but the educational establishment is not.
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The Real Irish American Story Not Taught in Schools

By Bill Bigelow
“Wear green on St. Patrick’s Day or get pinched.” That pretty much sums up the Irish-American “curriculum” that I learned when I was in school. Yes, I recall a nod to the so-called Potato Famine, but it was mentioned only in passing.

Sadly, today’s high school textbooks continue to largely ignore the famine, despite the fact that it was responsible for unimaginable suffering and the deaths of more than a million Irish peasants, and that it triggered the greatest wave of Irish immigration in U.S. history. Nor do textbooks make any attempt to help students link famines past and present.
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Fasanella - The Great Strike | Zinn Education Project

One Hundred Years After the Singing Strike

By Norm Diamond
Today’s Occupy movement is a reminder that throughout U.S. history a major engine of change has been grassroots organizing and solidarity. As an old Industrial Workers of the World song goes:

An injury to one, we say’s an injury to all, United we’re unbeatable, divided we must fall. —“Dublin Dan” Liston, The Portland Revolution

Major history textbooks, however, downplay the role of ordinary people in shaping events, especially those who formed labor unions and used the strike to assert their rights. One of the most significant strikes in U.S. history occurred exactly 100 years ago, in the Lawrence, Mass. textile mills, and yet it merits barely a mention in the most widely used U.S. history textbooks.
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‘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.
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Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years (Teaching Guide) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

The New (and Improved?) Textbook Columbus

By Bill Bigelow
Recently, I ran across an old manual that described itself as “An easy step-by-step guide to obtain U.S. Citizenship.” A page of history and government questions begins:
Q: Who discovered America?
A: Christopher Columbus in 1492.

This was the simple, and simplistic, history that I learned in 4th grade in the early 1960s growing up in California—a kind of secular Book of Genesis: In the beginning, there was Columbus; he was good and so are we.

And it stayed the history that most everyone learned until the Columbus quincentenary in 1992 brought together Native Americans, social justice organizations, and educators to demand a more inclusive and critical version of what occurred in 1492 and after.
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Don’t Despair About the Supreme Court

By Howard Zinn
The courts have never been on the side of justice, only moving a few degrees one way or the other, unless pushed by the people. Those words engraved in the marble of the Supreme Court, “Equal Justice Before the Law,” have always been a sham. No Supreme Court, liberal or conservative, will stop the war in Iraq, or redistribute the wealth of this country, or establish free medical care for every human being. Such fundamental change will depend, the experience of the past suggests, on the actions of an aroused citizenry, demanding that the promise of the Declaration of Independence—an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—be fulfilled.
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