Thank You, Howard Zinn


Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.

The last week of January 2010 marked important watersheds in recent American history.  The nation’s first African-American president delivered his initial State of the Union message to Congress following a political season in which his poll numbers have declined and his legislative agenda stalled.  The speech, alongside a televised debate with House Republicans, seemed to mark the return of a more activist President Obama willing to fight for health care reform, tighter regulation of the nation’s financial institutions, and promote job creation.  The President even publicly challenged the Supreme Court for its decision to remove, in the name of free speech, restrictions upon corporate campaign contributions.  It remains to be seen whether Obama’s rhetoric will be translated into action, but his stirring speech of January 27th overshadowed the deaths of two significant writers whose careers mark contradictory approaches to the promise of American life.  J. D. Salinger and Howard Zinn represent, respectively, alienation and activism.  It is the activism and vision of Zinn that is required to achieve the goals of domestic reform and peace envisioned by Barack Obama in his 2008 presidential campaign.  Unfortunately, we seem as a nation to have fallen into the trap of alienation embraced by Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye (1951).

Salinger’s death received more media attention than that of Zinn because generations of students have had the novel assigned to them in high school and university English classes.  Salinger’s fiction captured the post World War II mood of youthful alienation from the “affluent society” and consensus; culminating in the 1960s with what sociologist Theodore Roszak termed the making of a youth counterculture opposed to an increasingly technocratic society.  This alienation represents a strain of rebellion in the 1960s which sometimes resulted in hedonistic excesses of individualism.  On the other hand, Howard Zinn as a young scholar, teacher, and activist sought to move this sense of alienation in a more positive and communitarian direction that would restore the promise of American life to all citizens.  While Zinn’s influential People’s History of the United States, initially published in 1980 but periodically updated, sold over a million copes and has been adopted as a text in many history courses, it lacks the immediate cultural identification of Salinger’s work.  To create a better world, however, Zinn’s history of the role played by immigrants, the working class, Native Americans, Latino/as, Blacks, Asians, labor unions, peace and civil rights activists, civil libertarians, and reformers in the making of America deserves more attention than the whining of Holden Caulfield.

I never knew Howard Zinn personally, although it was a pleasure to hear him speak at numerous historical conferences.  Zinn’s writing, activism, and life story resonated with me and influenced my teaching of history; creating a sense of intimacy with a stranger.  Although Zinn was of an earlier generation, growing up in an urban working-class environment during the Great Depression and World War II, his story remained relevant to me during the 1960s.  Like Zinn, I grew up in a family without books.  My father worked as a sharecropper and repairman for the railroad.  He dropped out of school to work during the Depression and was barely literate, although my mother attended high school.  Our family was poor, and as a young man I worked in the cotton fields of West Texas.  We benefited from some of the social programs and work training available with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

World War II and the GI Bill were crucial in shaping Zinn’s world view and educational opportunities.  Although I did not serve in the military, my life was changed by the Vietnam War.  I never considered attending college until my father remarked one day that he had heard that “you didn’t have to go to Vietnam if you went to one of them there colleges.”  To avoid the growing carnage in Southeast Asia, I enrolled at a regional state university that was forgiving in its admission standards.

I discovered a new world of books that pushed me in the direction of studying history in order to better understand the social and economic forces which made life so difficult for my family and other working-class people.  But it wasn’t enough to simply study these problems.  It was imperative to become involved with student organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society as well as electoral politics.  My belief that scholarship combined with activism offered a means through which to help bring about a more just society led me to pursue a doctorate in history.

While my teaching career led me into independent education at the secondary level rather than the university and my social activism hardly equates with the contributions made by Zinn in the civil rights and antiwar movements, I have tried to follow the example set by Zinn.  I use a more conventional text for my American history classes than A People’s History of the United States in order to provide some balance to my teaching which employs Zinn’s approach of considering American history from the bottom up.

It is my experience that Zinn provides a valuable framework for depicting a more inclusive picture of American history for my students as well as presenting a model of how everyday American have struggled to create a more just and equitable society.  It is not necessary to abandon hope and adopt the cynicism of Holden Caulfield or the negativity of Congressional Republicans.  Let us hope that Barack Obama recovers the democratic vision and fighting spirit that inspired so many Americans during the Presidential campaign.  Howard Zinn’s life and work offer a rich legacy which Mr. Obama might consider as he confronts the growing power of corporations on the home front and contemplates expanding America’s military mission abroad.

It is unfortunate that news of Howard Zinn’s passing was somewhat drowned out by domestic politics and the death of J. D. Salinger.  Zinn offers a democratic vision of American history that should serve as a guide for politicians, teachers, students, and citizens.  Zinn may be dead, but his example and work are still with us and guide me in my classroom everyday.  Thank you, Howard Zinn.

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