Losing Our Favorite Teacher

By Bill Bigelow

On learning of the sudden death of Howard Zinn at 87, friend and fellow social justice activist Fred Branfman wrote, “I have met many political people in my lifetime. Howard was by far the most honest, human, open, kind, generous, gracious, sweetest, humorous, and charming of them.” Throughout Rethinking Schools’ relationship with Howard Zinn, which began with the publication of Rethinking Columbus in 1991 and culminated recently with the Zinn Education Project, these are exactly the qualities that we experienced. Howard granted us numerous interviews, allowed us to use his writing in the magazine and other publications, wrote kind blurbs for our books, put us in contact with funders and other activists — and in countless ways showed us how deeply he respected teachers and believed in the power of education. We will miss his wisdom, his courage, his humanity, his friendship.

After Howard’s death, writer Naomi Klein said, “We just lost our favorite teacher.” We agree. Zinn’s most influential work, A People’s History of the United States, was a gift to teachers everywhere — an eloquent anti-textbook that pointed the way to an approach to the past that was at once angry, passionate, and hopeful. Corporate textbooks delete all fundamental criticism of war, empire, and a profit-first economic system. They erase the impact of social movements and make it appear that events march inexorably forward without the influence of ordinary people. Zinn wanted none of that. He insisted that our history has been a long struggle for justice, and that anything decent and democratic in today’s society exists because people fought for it. Zinn highlighted those who challenged injustice — and focused on the achievements of activism and dissent. (“Civil disobedience is not a problem,” he liked to say. “The problem is civil obedience.”) In short, Howard recognized and celebrated the best in us.