If We Knew Our 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.

 

More than McCarthyism: The Attack on Activism Students Don’t Learn About from Their Textbooks

By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca
In legislatures across the country, Republican lawmakers are introducing bills to curtail what educators — in public schools and universities — can say and teach about racism and sexism. This latest moral panic from the Right comes on the heels of recent legislation dangerously curtailing the rights of transgender people — especially young people — and enacting another round of voter suppression. It is paramount that we organize to defeat these threats to the health and safety of LGBTQ people, voting rights, and the freedom of educators to tell the truth. It is also worth reminding ourselves — and our students — of other times in U.S. history when powerful politicians manufactured threats and whipped up fear to neutralize progressive challenges to the status quo — the McCarthy Era being a well-known high-water mark of state repression.

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The United States Is Not a Democracy. Stop Telling Students That It Is.

By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca
When our students only learn about this exceptionally strange system, the electoral college, from their corporate-produced history and government textbooks, they have no clue why this is how we choose our president. More importantly, they develop a stunted sense of their own power — and little reason to believe they might have the potential to create something better.

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What Our Students Should Know About the Struggle for the Ballot — but Won’t Learn from Their Textbooks

By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca
From voter ID laws to voter-roll purges, gerrymandering to poll closures to the deadly in-person voting conditions during a pandemic, the right to vote is under attack and the stakes are high. It is critical that students learn about the fight for voting rights, past and present.

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Remembering Red Summer If We Knew Image | Zinn Education Project

Remembering Red Summer — Which Textbooks Seem Eager to Forget

By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca
Confronting a national epidemic of white mob violence, 1919 was a time when Black people defended themselves, fought back, and demanded full citizenship in thousands of acts of courage and daring, small and large, individual and collective.

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When Black Lives Mattered: Why Teach Reconstruction

By Adam Sanchez
Every day seems to bring new horrors as the U.S. president’s racist rhetoric and policies have provided an increasingly encouraging environment for attacks on Black people and other communities of color. The acquittal of yet another police officer accused of murdering a Black man in St. Louis, the raging battle across the country over whether symbols of slavery should be removed from public spaces, and the formation of a “Commission on Election Integrity” to further suppress voting by people of color are just a few of the recent reminders that racism is as American as apple pie. In moments like these, it’s worth remembering a time in U.S. history when Black lives mattered.

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Disguising Imperialism: How Textbooks Get the Cold War Wrong and Dupe Students

By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca
The perpetual interventionism and global hegemony exercised by the U.S. government today urgently need to be questioned and dismantled. Such a monumental task requires a citizenry armed with clear-eyed understandings of its past. That cannot be accomplished when the Cold War is sanitized and downsized, confined to one chapter of a textbook...

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Deportations Family Leaving | Zinn Education Project

Downplaying Deportations: How Textbooks Hide the Mass Expulsion of Mexican Americans During the Great Depression

By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca
The Trump Administration’s horrifying record on immigration, exemplified by the heartbreaking scenes of family separation during the summer of 2018, sparked a new round of discussion and debate about U.S. deportation policy.

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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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Taino - Whose History Matters | Zinn Education Project

Whose History Matters? Students Can Name Columbus, But Most Have Never Heard of the Taíno People

By Bill Bigelow
This erasure of huge swaths of humanity is a fundamental feature of the school curriculum, but also of the broader mainstream political discourse. We usually think about the curriculum as what is taught in school. But as important — perhaps more important — is what is not taught, which includes the lives rendered invisible.

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Civics | Zinn Education Project

Teaching More Civics Will Not Save Us from Trump

By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca
Working as a social studies teacher for almost two decades, I have noticed a predictable and perennial pattern. A study is published showing some alarming deficit in the knowledge of people in the United States. Two-thirds of respondents cannot find Iraq on a map. One-third cannot name a single right protected by the First Amendment.

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Black Power During Reconstruction | Zinn Education Project

The Other ’68: Black Power During Reconstruction

By Adam Sanchez
From the urban rebellions to the salute at the Olympics, commemorations of 1968 — a pivotal year of Black Power — have appeared in news headlines throughout this anniversary year. Yet 2018 also marks the 150th anniversary of 1868 — the height of Black Power during Reconstruction.

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Fireworks over New York | Zinn Education Project

Rethinking the 4th of July

By Bill Bigelow
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.

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What the Koch Brothers Want Students to Learn about Slavery | Zinn Education Project

What the Koch Brothers Want Students to Learn About Slavery

By Adam Sanchez
Given that the billionaire Charles Koch has poured millions of dollars into eliminating the minimum wage and paid sick leave for workers, and that in 2015 he had the gall to compare his ultra-conservative mission to the anti-slavery movement, he’s probably the last person you’d want educating young people about slavery. Yet the history-teaching wing of the Koch brothers empire is seeking to promote an alternate narrative to slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.

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Pentagon Papers collage | Zinn Education Project

What Spielberg’s The Post — and Our Textbooks — Leave Out

By Bill Bigelow
It’s impossible to walk away from the film without understanding that at the heart of the struggle over the Pentagon Papers was the exposure of government lying about the war in Vietnam. The film offers papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post a warm pat on the back for publishing the Pentagon Papers and exposing these lies. But Spielberg’s film ignores the fact that there was abundant evidence of deceit long before these newspapers decided to publish the Pentagon Papers in June of 1971.

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The Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated the United States (Article) | Zinn Education Project

The Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated the United States

By Richard Rothstein
Racial segregation characterizes every metropolitan area in the United States and bears responsibility for our most serious social and economic problems — it corrupts our criminal justice system, exacerbates economic inequality, and produces large academic gaps between white and African American schoolchildren. We’ve taken no serious steps to desegregate neighborhoods, however, because we are hobbled by a national myth that residential segregation is de facto — the result of private discrimination or personal choices that do not violate constitutional rights.

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Christopher Columbus: No Monuments for Murderers

By Bill Bigelow
A New York Times article said the symbolism of Christopher Columbus is "murky.” But there is nothing murky about Columbus’ legacy of slavery and terrorism in the Americas. The record is clear and overwhelming. The fact that the New York Times could report this with such confidence — adding that “most Americans learn rather innocently, in 1492 [Columbus] sailed the ocean blue until he discovered the New World” — means that educators and activists still have much work to do.

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Taking the Fight Against White Supremacy into Schools

By Adam Sanchez
As a history teacher, there are times when the past reasserts itself with such force that you have to put aside your plans and address the moment. Charlottesville is one of those times. The image of white supremacists openly marching in defense of a Confederate general, viciously beating and murdering those who are protesting their racism — is an image we hoped had died with Jim Crow. That this image is not a relic of the past, is a reality that teachers and students must face.

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Fighting for Okinawa — My Home, Not a Military Base

By Moé Yonamine
My family moved to the United States from Okinawa when I was 7. But Okinawa is still home — and I’m hurt and angered at how the United States and Japan continue to treat Okinawa as little more than a colonial outpost. As a teacher, I’m even more dismayed at how the conventional school curriculum keeps young people in this country ignorant about the abuse, but also about the resistance, in my home islands.

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What We Don’t Learn About the Black Panther Party—but Should

By Adam Sanchez and Jesse Hagopian
Black Panther Party history holds vital lessons for today’s movement to confront racism and police violence, yet textbooks either misrepresent or minimize the significance of the Black Panthers.

This local organizing that Panthers engaged in has been erased in the textbooks, yet it is precisely what won them such widespread support. Armed with a revolutionary socialist ideology, as the Panthers grew, so did what they organized around. They fought in Black communities across the nation for giving the poor access to decent housing, health care, education, and much more.

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Children holding signs - Indigenous Peoples Day Parade - Seattle | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

Support Indigenous Rights: Abolish Columbus Day

By Bill Bigelow
The movement to abolish Columbus Day and to establish in its place Indigenous Peoples' Day continues to gather strength, as every month new school districts and colleges take action. This campaign has been given new momentum as Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas assert their treaty and human rights. Especially notable is the inspiring struggle in North Dakota to stop the toxic Dakota Access Pipeline, led by the Standing Rock Sioux.

Dave Archambault, chairperson of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, explains that the oil pipeline “is threatening the lives of people, lives of my tribe, as well as millions down the river. It threatens the ancestral sites that are significant to our tribe. And we never had an opportunity to express our concerns. This is a corporation that is coming forward and just bulldozing through without any concern for tribes.”

The “bulldozing” of Indigenous lives, Indigenous lands, and Indigenous rights all began with Columbus’s invasion in 1492.

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Howard Protest 1968

What Happened to the Civil Rights Movement After 1965? Don’t Ask Your Textbook

By Adam Sanchez
Fifty years ago this week, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chairperson Stokely Carmichael made the famous call for “Black Power.” Carmichael’s speech came in the midst of the “March Against Fear,” a walk from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, to encourage African Americans to use their newly won right to vote. But while almost every middle and high school student learns about the Civil Rights Movement, they rarely learn about this march — or the related struggles that continued long after the Voting Rights Act.

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Why We Should Learn About the FBI’s War on the Civil Rights Movement (If We Knew Our History) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

Why We Should Teach About the FBI’s War on the Civil Rights Movement

By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca
On March 8, 1971—while Muhammad Ali was fighting Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden, and as millions sat glued to their TVs watching the bout unfold—a group of peace activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and stole every document they could find.

Delivered to the press, these documents revealed an FBI conspiracy—known as COINTELPRO—to disrupt and destroy a wide range of protest groups, including the Black freedom movement. The break-in, and the government treachery it revealed, is a chapter of our not-so-distant past that all high school students—and all the rest of us—should learn, yet one that history textbooks continue to ignore.

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Columbus Didn't Discover America | Zinn Education Project

Time to Abolish Columbus Day

By Bill Bigelow
Once again this year many schools will pause to commemorate Christopher Columbus. Given everything we know about who Columbus was and what he launched in the Americas, this needs to stop. Columbus initiated the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in early February 1494, first sending several dozen enslaved Taínos to Spain. Columbus described those he enslaved as “well made and of very good intelligence,” and recommended to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that taxing slave shipments could help pay for supplies needed in the Indies.

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Coretta Scott King (R) with Women Strike for Peace founder Dagmar Wilson, 1963 | Zinn Education Project

W. E. B. Du Bois to Coretta Scott King: The Untold History of the Movement to Ban the Bomb

By Vincent Intondi
When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. announced his strong opposition to the war in Vietnam, the media attacked him for straying outside of his civil rights mandate. In so many words, powerful interests told him: “Mind your own business.” In fact, African American leaders have long been concerned with broad issues of peace and justice—and have especially opposed nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, this activism is left out of mainstream corporate-produced history textbooks.

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Preaching and Farming at Mission Delores by Anton Refregier | Zinn Education Project

Lying to Children About the California Missions and the Indians

By Deborah A. Miranda
In California schools, students come up against the “Mission Unit” in 4th grade, reinforcing the same lies those children have been breathing in most of their lives. Part of California’s history curriculum, the unit is entrenched in the educational system and impossible to avoid, a powerfully authoritative indoctrination in Mission Mythology to which 4th graders have little if any resistance.

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Ten Things You Should Know About Selma Before You See the Film

By Emilye Crosby
In this 50th anniversary year of the Selma-to-Montgomery March and the Voting Rights Act it helped inspire, national media will focus on the iconic images of “Bloody Sunday,” the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the interracial marchers, and President Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act. This version of history, emphasizing a top-down narrative and isolated events, reinforces the master narrative that civil rights activists describe as “Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, and the white folks came south to save the day.”

Here are 10 points to keep in mind about Selma’s civil rights history.

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The Koch Brothers Sneak into School: How Right-wing Billionaires Seek to Shape the Social Studies Curriculum

How Right-wing Billionaires Seek to Shape the Social Studies Curriculum

By Bill Bigelow
This month in Boston, thousands of teachers will gather for the annual National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) conference. Two non-teachers will be there, too: Charles and David Koch, the notorious right-wing billionaires.

Well, the Kochs won’t be there in person, but they will be represented by a Koch-funded and controlled organization: the Arlington, Virginia-based Bill of Rights Institute.

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Guns and the Southern Freedom Struggle: What’s Missing When We Teach About Nonviolence

By Charles E. Cobb Jr.
The best way to understand this Mississippi movement episode is...as a story of organizers and the communities they were embedding themselves in during the Freedom Movement of the 1960s. Within this organizing experience, guns in the hands of supporters sometimes existed in tension with the nonviolence usually used to define movement philosophy and practice, but that more often existed in tandem with nonviolence. In other words, something more complex was at play.

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Bombed out cars by Jo Freeman | Zinn Education Project

‘Is This America?’: Sharecroppers Challenged Mississippi Apartheid, LBJ, and the Nation

By Julian Hipkins III and Deborah Menkart
Fannie Lou Hamer gripped the nation with her televised testimony of being forced from her home and brutally beaten (suffering permanent kidney damage) for attempting to exercise her constitutional right to vote.

“Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings?” she asked the credentials committee at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

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The Forgotten Fight Against Fascism

By William Loren Katz
Anyone who has gone through school in the United States knows that history textbooks devote a lot of attention to the so-called “Good War”: World War II. A typical textbook, Holt McDougal’s The Americans, includes 61 pages covering the buildup to World War II and the war itself. Today’s texts acknowledge “blemishes” like the internment of Japanese Americans, but the texts either ignore or gloss over the fact that for almost a decade, during the earliest fascist invasions of Asia, Africa, and Europe, the Western democracies encouraged rather than fought Hitler and Mussolini, and sometimes gave them material aid.

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A People’s History of Muslims in the United States (Article) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

A People’s History of Muslims in the United States: What Textbooks and the Media Miss

By Alison Kysia
When I teach history related to Islam or Muslims in the United States, I begin by asking students what names they associate with these terms. The list is consistent year after year: Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, and Muhammad Ali.

All of these individuals have affected U.S. history in significant ways. If we take a step back and look at the messages these figures communicate about Muslims in U.S. history, we see a story dominated by men and by the Nation of Islam. Although important, focusing solely on these stories leaves us with a skewed view of Muslims in U.S. history. Even these examples are a stretch. Most of my students reference 9/11 as the first time they heard of Muslims.

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White House Black History | Zinn Education Project

Missing from Presidents’ Day: The People They Enslaved

By Clarence Lusane
Schools across the country are adorned with posters of the U.S. presidents and the years they served in office. U.S. history textbooks describe the accomplishments and challenges of the major presidential administrations — George Washington had the Revolutionary War, Abraham Lincoln the Civil War, Teddy Roosevelt the Spanish-American War, and so on. Children’s books put students on a first-name basis with the presidents, engaging readers with stories of their dogs in the Rose Garden or childhood escapades. Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution welcomes visitors to an exhibit of the first ladies’ gowns and White House furnishings.

Nowhere in all this information is there any mention of the fact that more than one in four U.S. presidents were involved in human trafficking and slavery.

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Our House Divided: What U.S. Schools Don’t Teach About U.S.-Style Apartheid

By Richard Rothstein
In the current issue of the School Administrator, I write that we do a much worse job of facing up to our racial history in the United States, leading us to make less progress than necessary in remedying racial inequality.

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Grenada education poster| Zinn Education Project

Grenada: ‘A Lovely Little War’

By Bill Bigelow
Anti-bullying curricula are the rage these days. But the official history curriculum teachers are provided often celebrates, or at least excuses, bullying among nations. Well, at least when the United States is the bully.

A good example is the U.S. invasion of Grenada—Operation Urgent Fury, as it was called by the Reagan administration—launched on Oct. 25, 1983. Grenada made an unlikely target of U.S. military might. Its main product was not oil but nutmeg. Its naval fleet consisted of about 10 fishing trawlers. Grenada’s population of 110,000 was smaller than Peoria, Illinois. At the time of the invasion, there was not a single stoplight in the entire country. So what put Grenada in the crosshairs of the Reagan administration?

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March on Washington | Zinn Education Project

Claiming and Teaching the 1963 March on Washington

By Bill Fletcher Jr.
August 28 marks the anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Publicly associated with Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, this march brought more than 250,000 people to the nation’s capital. The day went down in history as a powerful show of force against Jim Crow segregation. Over time this great event has risen to levels of near mythology. The powerful speech by Dr. King, replayed, in part, for us every January on Martin Luther King Day, has eclipsed all else—so much so that too many people believe that the March on Washington was entirely the work of Dr. King. It is also barely remembered that the March on Washington was for freedom and jobs.

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Mitch Daniels and academic freedom cartoon | Zinn Education Project

Indiana’s Anti-Howard Zinn Witch-hunt

By Bill Bigelow
Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, one of the country’s most widely read history books, died on January 27, 2010. Shortly after, then-Governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels got on his computer and fired off an email to the state’s top education officials: “This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away.”

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Pentagon Papers collage | Zinn Education Project

Camouflaging the Vietnam War: How Textbooks Continue to Keep the Pentagon Papers a Secret

By Bill Bigelow
In the Academy Award-winning documentary Hearts and Minds, Daniel Ellsberg, who secretly copied and then released the Pentagon Papers, offers a catalog of presidential lying about the U.S. role in Vietnam: Truman lied. Eisenhower lied. Kennedy lied. Johnson “lied and lied and lied.” Nixon lied.

Ellsberg concludes: “The American public was lied to month by month by each of these five administrations. As I say, it’s a tribute to the American public that their leaders perceived that they had to be lied to; it’s no tribute to us that it was so easy to fool the public.”

In June of 1971, Ellsberg surrendered to federal authorities at Post Office Square in Boston. Forty-two years later, few of the historical secrets that Ellsberg revealed—especially those that focus on the immediate post-World War II origins of U.S. involvement in Vietnam—appear in the school curriculum.

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Burning Tulsa: The Legacy of Black Dispossession

By Linda Christensen
The author describes teaching about racist patterns of murder, land theft, displacement, and wealth inequality through the 1921 Tulsa Massacre.

The term “race riot” does not adequately describe the events of May 31 - June 1, 1921 in Greenwood, a Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In fact, the term itself implies that both Blacks and whites might be equally to blame for the lawlessness and violence. The historical record documents a sustained and murderous assault on Black lives and property. This assault was met by a brave but unsuccessful armed defense of their community by some Black World War I veterans and others.

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Abolition/Earth Day | Zinn Education Project

An Earth Day Message: Take Heart from the Abolition Movement

By Bill Bigelow
Imagine for a moment that it is 1858 and you are an abolitionist. Talk about discouragement: The previous year, in its Dred Scott decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that no black person—whether enslaved or free—was entitled to become a U.S. citizen. A few years before, Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which vastly expanded the U.S. government’s authority to seize and return to slavery individuals who had fled to freedom—or even those blacks born free in the North. Many Northern blacks crossed into Canada rather than live in constant fear.

And abolitionists were waging not just a moral struggle against the enslavement of human beings. Slavery was the largest industry in the United States, worth more than all the factories, banks, and railroads combined. In effect, the abolition movement aimed to expropriate without compensation the wealth of the most powerful social class in the country.

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Ten Years After: How Not to Teach About the Iraq War

By Bill Bigelow
In 2006, with U.S. troops occupying Iraq, the great historian and humanitarian Howard Zinn expressed his desire for the end of the war: “My hope is that the memory of death and disgrace will be so intense that the people of the United States will be able to listen to a message that the rest of the world, sobered by wars without end, can also understand: that war itself is the enemy of the human race.”

At least in a formal sense, our country’s memories of war are to be found in school history textbooks. Exactly a decade after the U.S. invasion, those texts are indeed sending “messages” to young people about the meaning of the U.S. war in Iraq. But they are not the messages of peace that Howard Zinn proposed. Not even close.

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Stripmining Black History Month

In “Stripmining Black History Month,” Jeff Biggers writes that “the neglect and degradation of a region and its history have always mirrored the neglect and abuse of the land.” And there is no more abused land in the United States than Appalachia, where coal companies continue to scrape away mountains to get at the thin coal seams buried within. The coal companies call everything that is not coal, “overburden”—streams, trees, animals, plants. Surely history itself is also a burden for the coal companies, because if we knew our history, we would know the rich legacy of activism that has characterized Appalachia—activism that does not conform to the whitewashed ignorant “hillbilly” stereotypes that the rich and powerful have found so convenient to promote.

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American History Lessons

The original idea for the Zinn Education Project’s “If We Knew Our History” column grew out of our reading “American History Lessons,” by Melissa Harris-Perry in The Nation magazine. Harris-Perry’s article, reproduced here, is a meditation about the role of Black History Month.

She argues that we suffer from a “national deficit of historical knowledge” and that this deficit has contemporary political consequences. If we knew our history, she suggests, people would be less likely to follow the bigots who patch together historical symbols and soundbites to justify their right wing nostrums. And if we knew our history, we’d be more likely to appreciate and defend the accomplishments of social movements.

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Coal Kills by Paul Anderson | Zinn Education Project

The Poison We Never Talk About in School

By Bill Bigelow
The most dangerous substance in the world is barely mentioned in the school curriculum. Coal.

According to the International Energy Agency, burning coal creates more greenhouse gases than any other source—including oil. James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and arguably the world’s foremost climatologist, has called coal “the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on the planet.”

And, as 350.org founder Bill McKibben pointed out recently in a remarkable article in Rolling Stone magazine, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” from a mathematical standpoint, it is demonstrably impossible to prevent the climate from spinning out of control with unimaginably horrible consequences, if we burn the fossil fuels that energy corporations are in the process of exploiting and selling.

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Collage of anti-slavery efforts | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

Rethinkin’ Lincoln on the 150th Birthday of the Emancipation Proclamation

By Bill Bigelow
Here’s a history quiz to use with people you run into today: Ask them who ended slavery.

I taught high school U.S. history for almost 30 years, and as we began our study, students knew the obvious answer: Abraham Lincoln. But by the time our study ended, several weeks later, their “Who ended slavery?” essays were more diverse, more complex—and more accurate. In coming months and years, teachers’ jobs will be made harder by Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln, in which Daniel Day-Lewis gives a brilliant performance as, well, Lincoln-the-abolitionist. The only problem is that Lincoln was not an abolitionist.

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Diggers and female farmers | Zinn Education Project

Stealing and Selling Nature: Why We Need to Reclaim “the Commons” in the Curriculum

By Tim Swinehart
From the Diggers of the 1600s in England to current-day female farmers in India, the value of sharing space for the benefit of the community transcends nations. However the "commons" are buried in chapters that champion industrial capitalism’s “progress” and “innovation."

Hurricane Sandy, and the superstorms that will follow, are not just acts of nature—they are products of a massive theft of the atmospheric commons shared by all life on the planet. Every dollar of profit made by fossil fuel companies relies on polluting our shared atmosphere with harmful greenhouse gases, stealing what belongs to us all. But if we don’t teach students the history of the commons, they’ll have a hard time recognizing what—and who—is responsible for today’s climate crisis.

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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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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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