Introduction: The Life and Work of Howard Zinn

Article. By Robert J. Helfenbein and Rose A. Jackson. Indiana University. 2013.
Introduction to a special edition of "International Journal of Social Education" by scholars presenting and discussing perspectives on the important influences of Howard Zinn to education, history, and citizenship.
Themes: Education

The Life and Work of Howard ZinnWe were not born critical of existing society. There was a moment in our lives (or a month, or a year) when certain facts appeared before us, startled us, and then caused us to question beliefs that were strongly fixed in our consciousness — embedded there by years of family prejudices, orthodox schooling, imbibing of newspapers, radio, and television. This would seem to lead to a simple conclusion: that we all have an enormous responsibility to bring to the attention of others information they do not have, which has the potential of causing them to rethink long-held ideas. — Zinn 2005

The history of the United States — like all history — can be characterized in terms of change: changing demographics, new forms of society, contentious politics, and social upheaval. In these times of change, education has consistently been and remains to be simultaneously blamed as cause and offered as solution. However, throughout this history, schools in the United States primarily play a role in maintaining the status quo. Rather than the promotion of reform efforts that reflect changes in the broader social, economic, and cultural landscape, the past decades of education have instead been characterized by student achievement on standardized tests, a rabid search for “best practices,” strict accountability models, and expanded standardization of curriculum. Curriculum work that takes up the charge to meet broader social needs in diverse contexts faces difficulty in a movement toward nation-wide standardization. Regardless of claims otherwise, schools continue to serve as a sadly consistent player within the set of forces in the persistent reproduction of social inequality (Mehan 1992). Yet despite the more restricted environment of school and schooling, educators remain in a powerful position to widen their students—perspectives, encourage critical thinking, and foster an ethical stance through an exploration of social inequalities, both historical and contemporary. Of those scholars who embrace the possibilities of and education that attends to the social, the civic, and the critical, there are few who serve as an example in the same way as historian Howard Zinn. Therefore, this special issue of the International Journal of Social Education has chosen to highlight the life and work of this powerful scholar, educator, and activist.

Howard Zinn, described as a historian, teacher, war veteran, and even shipyard laborer, is known not only for his contribution to history, but also his intellectual activism which extended his influence beyond the halls of the academy into the public consciousness and the radical resistance. Through a multitude of books, essays, speeches, plays, and multimedia, Zinn rejected notions of objectivity in historical scholarship and instead promoted “history from below” as an offset for vital omissions in an already heavily biased U.S. history. Until the end of his life, Zinn worked to preserve the democratic nature of education, utilizing the role of history to assist others in recognizing subjectivity while encouraging a broader model of civic engagement for both academics and classroom teachers.

With Zinn’s passing in January 2010, educators might now ask: How has Howard Zinn’s life influenced what it means to be a social educator in a constantly changing world? This question requires introspection on the act of teaching itself, an exposition on the role of education in a democracy, and ultimately an exploration of the possibilities of social studies curriculum. Such an approach broaches fundamental questions about the role of the social studies teacher, the functions of history in a broader world, and even the meaning of citizenship itself; in other words, what is this work we do? (Helfenbein 2005). The intention of this special issue is to provide a forum for scholars from a variety of positions to reflect on precisely that question.

Much has been written about the history of social studies and it is easy to see how questions around what and whose history we teach have been contemptuous at best (see Levstik and Tyson 2008; Ross 2001). As ideological position and contemporary politics alter one’s view of the aims and importance of social studies curriculum, the ways in which the debate rages in larger society affects the lives of those in classrooms—teachers, students, community members. By shifting focus to those who are often marginalized, Howard Zinn rejected the notion of objective history, taking as his academic raison d’etre the omission of resistance in conventional social studies education. Beyond an appeal to intellectual ethics, in social studies instruction one could offer this as a critical step in the content knowledge of teachers as well as a move towards theorizing the role of history within multiple ways of knowing. To that end, Woyshner (2002) offered that redefining political engagement and citizenship itself might be a part of restructuring the history curriculum. In addition to the inclusion of the historical struggles of women, she suggests that working the distinction between public and private spheres remains a continuing project for critical educators. Therefore, Zinn’s life and work could be used to not only supplement content knowledge but get at the important questions concerning our own identities as citizens, teachers, scholars, and activists.

Citizenship itself, as a concept in both education and society at large, remains difficult to definitively nail down. Tyson (2003) offered that social studies might serve to bridge the “troubled waters” of the meaning of citizenship in a society still plagued by the issues of racism and inequity; one cannot help but think that Howard Zinn would concur. For him, engaged citizenship held a prominent place in the goals of education; as the debate on educational reform continues to become more polarized with increasing attacks on teachers, it is vital that educators understand their role in the development of critical skills of citizenship. As more critical approaches to education have developed, one common project has been to re-articulate of the role of the teacher. Freire (1998) suggests that teachers are cultural workers, embracing constant intellectual rigor and the stimulation of epistemological curiosity, of the capacity to love, of creativity, of scientific competence and the rejection of scientific reductionism . . . [and] the capacity to fight for freedom, without which the teaching task becomes meaningless. (p. 4)

Similarly, Giroux (1988) boldly suggested that teachers not only be seen as public intellectuals, but that they should also act as such. Furthermore, and perhaps more significantly, as intellectuals in a contested world, teachers should continue to pursue a language of possibility. Howard Zinn, as seen in his numerous texts, embodied this call in fearlessly embracing such a language of possibility. Thus the goal for educators might be to offer this life as an exemplar of the engaged intellectual and citizen of the world while promoting hope through conscious building.

For educators, Howard Zinn’s work resonates in fundamentally pedagogical ways with the notion of “consciousness” holding an important place in both teaching and curricular terms. Longtime friend Noam Chomsky (2010), described Zinn’s most famous text, A People’s History of the United States (1999), as “a book that literally changed the consciousness of a generation.” Zinn and Arnove’s (2004), Voices of a People’s History contained significant expansion on the quotations from the now-famous text. Possibly written specifically for educators, this work is a wealth of primary documents which exists in the hopes of “awaken[ing] a great consciousness of class conflict, racial injustice, sexual inequality, and national arrogance” (Zinn and Arnove 2004, 28). While some in social education argue against “presentism,” applying the values of today on the past, Zinn points to the long history of rebellion, resistance, and refusals throughout our history that often escapes our own historical consciousness. Positioning this concern around the exclusions of curriculum and the need to reflect on historical refusal and resistance, he points us to the ethical concerns inherent in social education. Zinn’s work, both in text and as model, brings those ethics of our work to the fore.

To fully understand and appreciate Zinn’s work, it would be negligent to ignore the controversy. Filled with examples of civil disobedience, resistance, and protest from the 1960’s through the end of his life, some may balk at the proposal that “this life” is appropriate for study. While the images of the Civil Rights Movement and even the Vietnam anti-war movement are common curricula for today’s college students, the leap to the contemporary struggles against the War in Iraq and global capital might prove inflammatory. This indeed — in the spirit of Giroux and Freire — might be called risky pedagogy (Dimitriadis and Kamberelis 2006, 148) but perhaps it would serve as an object lesson for resistance beyond the written word; in other words, Zinn’s feet follow his prayers.

This leads us to think about how scholars and educators might transform their role in the classroom to activists in resisting larger systems of privilege and oppression. Lisa Carey (2001) rightly argued that notions of the “good citizen” in most social education discourse center on obedience as power-laden conceptions of race, gender, sexuality, ability, and class are normalized. By contrast, the “refusals of citizenship” — the interrogation of dominant discourses of both subjectivity and identity formation — hold possibility for thinking and acting differently in relation to power, identity, and resistance. Key to her argument, and ostensibly the one offered by Zinn and the authors represented here, is the sliding signification of postmodern identity formation — in her case whiteness, in a broader sense for our purposes, activist, citizen, teacher, scholar, or university professor. A transformative potential lies in the exploration of identity formation that refuses the apparent neutrality of social construction. As the frontrunner of this type of work in history, Zinn’s life — both as scholar and activist — embodies not only an engaged citizenship but its refusals as well.

When implemented in the classroom, including those teaching teachers, Zinn offers a celebration of the democratic nature of education while valuing students’ voices, raising consciousness, and encouraging active participation in social change. In what could be considered pedagogy of resistance, students are given the opportunity to understand the critical reality of their personal stories as they explore history. This leads to a more formal resistance against dominant ideology and promotes systematic and institutional change towards social justice. As educators, Zinn suggests it our duty to model and encourage true democratic citizenship, which includes the capacity to link personal experiences with the broader historical, social, political, and economic forces in order to understand and transform them (Appadurai 2006).

Within a democratic classroom teachers are able to draw from the knowledge and experiences of students, constructing together culturally relevant curriculum and pedagogy (Ladson-Billings 1995). In turn teachers play a significant role in facilitating possibility, building consciousness, and promoting hope while students are empowered and encouraged to find success. Academic success is too often based in a subtractive model of schooling where students are thought to find success by exchanging their “deficit” culture for the culture of education (Valenzuela 1999). However, as students understand their personal stories, social positions, and ability to resist, the cycle of disinvestment of human capital can be broken allowing for healthy identity development — for themselves and their communities.

While we look to Zinn as a model in the development of our own identities as citizens, teachers, scholars, and activists, it would be remiss to not encourage the movement past our reliance on a Zinn-type figure as the narrator for the voices of the marginalized. Nothing should be taken away from Zinn’s work; however, it remains important to change the way we listen to members of our communities as we look to write a different kind of “her-story.” A redefined citizenship demands that we listen to, cherish, and uphold the stories of those who continue to live in the margins. As inequality and injustice continues to run rampant in society today, understanding the often-untold stories in history and the present not only promotes change, but encourages healing. Paulo Freire (2004) reminds us that in the process of oppression, it is both the oppressed and the oppressors who have been dehumanized. Therefore, the critical project of history includes working through the forces of oppression with those on society’s margins for, “It is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors” (Freire 2004, 56). As we continue to define “this work we do,” Howard Zinn has provided an opportunity for advancement towards such freedom as we redefine citizenship in working against social injustice.

The special edition of the International Journal of Social Education provides opportunity to further explore the influences of Howard Zinn in social education. The theme for this special edition came about after scholars presented and discussed perspectives on the important influences of Howard Zinn to education, history, and citizenship at the 2010 Midwest Peace and Justice Summit in Indianapolis, Indiana. The collection begins with a variety of essays concerning the personal influence of Zinn to each of the different scholars from diverse academic disciplines. Nathalia Jaramillo explores Zinn’s life experiences and philosophy through his various roles as a historian, activist, and teacher. Jason Kelly’s essay takes us back to an important act of academic resistance in Zinn’s life where he encouraged his colleagues and the field in general to trade notions of objectivity for responsible citizenship. John McKivigan reflects on his initial encounter with Zinn’s work as he was influenced by his unique combination of scholarship and activism. Michael Snodgrass’s essay brings critical insight to Zinn’s radical stance as one that should be seen as common citizenry. Debbie Sonu discusses the notion of disobedience through Zinn’s life and work while analyzing the political and ideological system of globalization.

Following the essays, Sheri Leafgren’s article reflects on personal teaching experiences as she explores Zinn’s influence on ideas regarding the complexities and consequences of classroom disobedience. Aaron Cooley’s article discusses why dissent, democracy, and education are vital to reviving progressive discourse and activism. Todd Price explores his own encounters with Zinn as teacher, activist, and filmmaker marking how the scholar influenced his perceptions of history and a politics of resistance. Finally, Tony Whitson’s article uses critique by and of Zinn to explore the ways in which notions of American exceptionalism, human progress, and history itself are employed by contemporary, conservative influences on education.

Indeed, as the epigraph states, we are not born critical. Zinn’s work and the efforts of those that work in the same tradition ultimately point us to how we might both learn to be critical and teach others in critical ways. Our students deserve an opportunity to formulate their own truth, one that might challenge the histories we tell ourselves, seek out the voices on the margin, and commit to working against the social reproduction of inequality. Fostering new forms of engaged citizenship begins with this critical exploration as we encourage our students and communities within we work to find their voices and use them, both individually and collectively. It is the hope of the editors that this collection helps to continue the conversation on the work we do as scholars, as teachers, as activists, and as citizens. Most importantly, we wish to encourage the notions of hope and possibility in social change through this reflection of what we have come to know as the spirit of Howard Zinn.

Read chapters from “The Life and Work of Howard Zinn” here: International Journal of Social Education: Special Issue on Howard Zinn