Thursday, January 28, 2010

R.I.P. Howard Zinn, 1922-2010

We lost a great activist and educator today.
Howard Zinn passed away after having lived a very full life, and after sharing extremely important thoughts on the telling of history.
Howard's work goes well beyond being a provocative professor at Boston University. Every visitor to this site should click the following link and spend as much time on his site as you can, http://
Picking up a book or two won't hurt either...
I'm most aware of Howard's teaching's from his monumental book, A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present. Howard's basic premise is that history has been written by those with and in positions of power. Makes sense, doesn't it? I don't recall ever being taught that the US was founded on the genocide of Indigenous people, and that the US economy was built by the forced labor of African slaves. I was taught there were cowboys and Indians, and slavery was a "backwards" time in the US.
Howard's view, which to me resonates the deepest, is to tell the story from the bottom -up, as opposed to the top-down. A radical departure from common means of telling history, crafting policy, etc. this simple yet completely radical idea can and should be put into action in as many diverse ways as possible, so that standpoint and perspectives are not continually as skewed as they have been for hundreds (or thousands) of years.
Just think about it: what if the perspective of someone without health care for their family was able to dictate policy as opposed to a politician that has more coverage then they could ever factually use? Therein lies the message that perspectives, narratives, and stories are all very different when told from diverse perspectives; a slave story will be different from a slave owners story, a Native Americans story will be different from a white settlers, and an investment banker/hedge funder/insurance salesman/wall-street executive's story will be very different from a working class family's story. A houselesss persons story will be very different from one who has never gone without food and shelter for a night.
These are some of the contributions Howard Zinn made-to help us think about others perspectives as opposed to just our own. Worthy thoughts and beliefs to continue to learn from and absorb. Thanks for your lessons Howard, messages that promote a world of peace, justice, healing and sustainability.


  1. Buy this book!

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Here's an email I just recieved that goes well with the post:

    Dear Rethinking Schools friends,

    As many of you know, Howard Zinn died of a heart attack on Wednesday in California. His passing is an enormous loss for everyone who cares about justice and equality. Historian, professor, lecturer, playwright, and most recently a filmmaker, Howard Zinn was many things. But above all, he was an activist -- a socialist, a pacifist, an antiracist, who never strayed from his conviction that humanity was capable of making this a much better world.

    Throughout his long life, Howard Zinn had seen enough of the world's horrors that it would have been understandable had he become a cynic. But if there is one word that should be forever associated with him, it's hope.

    When George Bush launched his endless war on terror after 9/11, Rethinking Schools looked for a quote that could sum up our belief that it was not ridiculous to still be hopeful. We turned to the final paragraphs of Howard Zinn's autobiography, "You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train":

    "To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

    "What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places -- and there are so many -- where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

    "And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory."

    Howard Zinn lived a politically engaged life of joy and solidarity. His life was indeed a marvelous victory.

    Bill Bigelow
    for the Rethinking Schools staff and editors

    P.S. Last week, I interviewed Howard Zinn for the Zinn Education Project, posing questions that we had collected from teachers around the country. To listen to the interview, go to

    and click on the "Authors on Air" icon.

    Also, check out Rethinking Schools: