[This essay is part of the ZNet Classics series. Three times a week we will re-post an article that we think is of timeless importance. This one was first published May, 2006.]
Howard Zinn, professor emeritus at Boston University, is perhaps this country’s premier radical historian. He was an active figure in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s. Today, he speaks all over the country to large and enthusiastic audiences. His book, A People’s History of the U.S. continues to sell in huge numbers. His latest work is Original Zinn .
BARSAMIAN: Politicians use history as a kind of mystical element or device. We often hear that the U.S. is called on by history to do certain things in the world.
ZINN: History is always a good entity to call on if you are hesitant to call on God because they both play the same role. They are both abstractions, they both are actually meaningless until you invest them with meaning. I’ve noticed that President Bush calls on God a lot. I think he’s hesitant to call on history because I think the word history throws him. He’s not quite sure what to do with it, but he’s more familiar with God.
Political leaders, I guess, suppose that the population is as mystified by the word history as they are by the word God and that they will accept whatever interpretation of history is given to them. So political leaders feel free to declare that history is on their side and the way is open for them to use it in whatever manner they want.
Donald Macedo, in the introduction to On Democratic Education , mentions the Tom Paxton song, “What Did You Learn in School Today?” He quotes a couple of the lyrics.”I learned that Washington never told a lie/I learned that soldiers seldom die/I learned that everybody’s free.” What does a democratic education mean to you?
To me, a democratic education means many things: it means what you learn in the classroom and what you learn outside the classroom. It means not only the content of what you learn, but also the atmosphere in which you learn it and the relationship between teacher and student. All of these elements of education can be democratic or undemocratic.
Students as citizens in a democracy have the right to determine their lives and to play a role in society. A democratic education should give students the kind of information that will enable them to have power of their own in society. What that means is to give students the kind of education that suggests to the students that historically there have been many ways in which ordinary people can play a part in making history, in the development of their society. An education that gives the student examples in history of where people have shown their power in reshaping not only their own lives, but also in how society works.
In the relationship between the student and the teacher there is democracy. The student has a right to challenge the teacher, to express ideas of his or her own. That education is an interchange between the experiences of the teacher, which may be far greater than the student in certain ways, and the experiences of the student, since every student has a unique life experience. So the free inquiry in the classroom, a spirit of equality in the classroom, is part of a democratic education.
It was very important to make it clear to my students that I didn’t know everything, that I was not born with the knowledge that I’m imparting to them, that knowledge is acquired and in ways in which the student can acquire also.
How do you as a teacher foster that sense of questioning and skepticism and how do you avoid its going over to cynicism?
Skepticism is one of the most important qualities that you can encourage. It arises from having students realize that what has been seen as holy is not holy, what has been revered is not necessarily to be revered. That the acts of the nation which have been romanticized and idealized, those deserve to be scrutinized and looked at critically.
I remember that a friend of mine was teaching his kids in middle school to be skeptical of what they had learned about Columbus as the great hero and liberator, expander of civilization. One of his students said to him, “Well, if I have been so misled about Columbus, I wonder now what else have I been misled about?” So that is education in skepticism.
When you taught at Spelman College, and later at Boston University, you were teaching kids just coming out of high school. They come with a lot of baggage, a lot of embedded ideas. How difficult was it for you to reach them?
In the case of teaching at Spelman College, my students were African American and I was one of a few white teachers. For most of my students I was the first white teacher they had ever encountered.
I tried to have them realize that my values and ideas were different from those of the white-supremacist society they had grown up in, that I believed in the equality of human beings, and that I took the claims of democracy seriously, not only to try to break down the barrier between us by what I said in the classroom, but by how I behaved toward them, by not indicating that their education had been poor, which it very often was, by not making them feel that they were coming into this classroom handicapped.
Also by showing them that outside the classroom I was involved in the social struggle that related to their lives. When they decided to participate in this struggle and go to Atlanta and try to desegregate the public library or when they decided to follow the example of the four students in Greensboro, North Carolina and sit in, I was with them, I was supporting them, I was helping them, I was walking on picket lines with them, I was engaging in demonstrations with them, I was sitting in with them. More than anything, I tried to create an atmosphere of democracy in our relationship.
You’ve been a lifelong reader from the time when as a kid you found Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar in the street with the first few pages torn out. Later, your parents got you the complete collection of Charles Dickens’s novels. What’s the value of reading?
I don’t know if my experience agrees with the experience of other people—I have talked to people, young people especially, who would say to me, “This book changed my life.” I remember sitting in a cafeteria in Hawaii across from a student at the University of Hawaii and she had a copy of The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Since Alice Walker had been my student at Spelman, I didn’t immediately say, “That’s my student.” I sort of cautiously said, “Oh, you’re reading The Color Purple . What do you think of it?” The student said, “This book changed my life.” And that startled me, a book that changed your life.
And also, I must say, in all modesty, that I have run into a number of students who have read A People’s History of the United States , and who’ve said, in ways that I first did not believe but I’m almost beginning to believe now, “You know, your book changed my life.”
There are books that have changed my life. I think reading Dickens changed my life. Reading Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath changed my life. Reading Upton Sinclair, yes, changed my life.
Today there are debates about the canon and what books are being taught and what topics. There are charges that campuses are run by leftists, by Marxist professors. Is this issue more acute now or does it ebb and flow?
There has always been conflict in the educational world. There has always been scrutiny of what young people learn—scrutiny of their textbooks and teachers—for the simple reason that education has always been dangerous to the establishment, and therefore, the risk that is taken when young people go into the classroom is a risk that the people in charge of the status quo want to watch very carefully. I remember that in 1950, during the McCarthy period, Harold Velde, the congressperson from Illinois, later to become chair of HUAC, opposed a proposal to fund mobile library units to go into rural areas because, he said, “Educating Americans through the means of the library service could bring about a change of their political attitude quicker than any other method. The basis of communism and socialistic influence is education of the people.” While I don’t think it’s quite literally true, I think it is true that education has dangerous possibilities, always has had, and therefore it is guarded very carefully. Attempts to control it have always existed.
Is this a more intense attempt to control the education of young people than we have had in the past? I think that may be so, for one reason. The stakes for the U.S. are higher than they ever were before. With the U.S. seeking to extend its power into more areas of the world, there is an enormous amount at stake for the establishment in bringing up a generation of young people who will accept what the U.S. government does and not be critical of it.
The economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said that the paradox of the U.S. was “private wealth and public squalor.” There is a story on page 16 in the New York Times describing how in John Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas, California where they’re facing record deficits. The town is closing the three public libraries, including those named for Steinbeck and one for Cesar Chavez.
It’s interesting that that item appeared on page 16. It should have appeared on page 1 because it might have alerted more people to what is a horrifying development today. What is happening in Salinas, California, should be a wake-up call.
But this attack on libraries, on schools, is it part of a pattern of undermining the commons?
Let me interject my own personal note because I grew up in a cockroach-infested tenement in New York and we had no books in our house. I would go to a library in East New York on the corner of Stone and Sutter. I still remember that library. That was my refuge. It was a wonderful eye-opener and mind-opener for me.
But your question is a larger one. And that is, what is happening to the public commons? That is what Galbraith pointed to when he wrote The Affluent Society . What has been really one of the terrible consequences of the militarization of the country is the starving of the public sector, education, libraries, health, housing. This is why people become socialists. People become socialists in the way that I became a socialist when I read Upton Sinclair and when I read Karl Marx.
There are lots of distortions and misrepresentations attached to Marx. Should people be reading Marx today?
Yes, but I wouldn’t advise them to immediately plunge into Volume II or III of Das Kapital , maybe not even Volume I, which is formidable. But I think The Communist Manifesto , although the title may scare people, is still very much worth reading because what it does is suggest that the capitalist society we have today is not eternal. The Communist Manifesto presents an historical view of the world in which we live. It shows you that societies have evolved from one form to another, one social system to another, from primitive communal societies to feudal societies to capitalist societies. That capitalist society has only come into being in the last few hundreds years and it came into being as a result of the failure of feudal society to deal with the change in technology which was inexorably happening—the commercialization, industrialization, new tools and implements. Capitalist society was able to deal with this new technology and to enhance it enormously.
But what Marx pointed out—and I think this is a very important insight—is that capitalist society, while it’s developed the economy in an impressive way, nevertheless did not distribute the results of this enormous production equitably. So Marx pointed to a fundamental flaw in capitalism, a flaw that should be evident to people today, especially in the U.S. Here is this enormously productive and advanced technological country and yet more than forty-five million people are without health insurance, one out of five children grow up in poverty, and millions of people are homeless and hungry.
I think another thing that would be important is Marx’s view that when you look beneath the surface of political conflicts or cultural conflicts, you find class conflict. That the important question to ask in any situation is, “Who benefits from this, what class benefits from this?” If Americans understood this Marxian concept of class then, when they went to the polls and they had to choose between the Republican and Democratic Party, they would ask, “Which class does this party represent?”
There was a parade in Taos, New Mexico on February 15, 2003. The lead banner read, “No Flag Is Large Enough to Cover the Shame of Killing Innocent People.” That’s a quote from you. How is patriotism being used today?
Patriotism is being used today the way patriotism has always been used and that is to try to encircle everybody in the nation into a common cause, the cause being the support of war and the advance of national power. Patriotism is used to create the illusion of a common interest that everybody in the country has. I just mentioned about the necessity to see society in class terms, to realize that we do not have a common interest in our society, that people have different interests. What patriotism does is to pretend to a common interest. And the flag is the symbol of that common interest. So patriotism plays the same role that certain phrases in our national language play.
The U.S. is the only country in history to use weapons of mass destruction. The year 2005 marked the 60th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That anniversary, incidentally, came amid reports that the U.S. was redesigning atomic weapons that would be sturdier and more reliable and last longer. Where were you when the bombs were dropped and what were your thoughts at the time?
I remember it very clearly because I had just returned from flying bombing missions in Europe. The war in Europe was over, but the war in Asia with Japan was still on. We flew back to this country in late July 1945. We were given a 30-day furlough before reporting back for duty with the intention that we would then go to the Pacific and continue in the air war against Japan.
We were there waiting at the bus stop and there was this newsstand and the big headline, “Atomic Bomb Dropped on Hiroshima.” Because the headline was so big, although I didn’t know what an atomic bomb was, I assumed it must be a huge bomb. And my immediate reaction was, well, maybe then I won’t have to go to Japan. Maybe this means the end of the war on Japan. So I was happy.
I began to question the bombing of Hiroshima when I read John Hersey’s book, Hiroshima , which is based on a series of articles he wrote for the New Yorker . He had gone to Hiroshima after the bombing and spoken to survivors. You can imagine what the survivors looked like—people without arms, legs, blinded, their skin something that you couldn’t bear to look at. Hersey spoke to these survivors and wrote down their stories. When I read that, for the first time the effects of bombing on human beings came to me.
I had dropped bombs in Europe, but I had not seen anybody on the ground because when you’re bombing from 30,000 feet, you don’t see anybody, you don’t hear screams, you don’t see blood, you don’t know what’s happening to human beings. When I read John Hersey, it came to me, what bombing did to human beings. That book changed my idea not just about bombing, but it changed my view of war because it made me realize that war now, in our time, in the time of high-level bombing and long-range shelling and death at a distance inevitably means the indiscriminate killing of huge numbers of people and cannot be accepted as a way of solving problems.
You’re sometimes described as an anarchist and/or a democratic socialist. Are you comfortable with those terms? And what do they mean to you?
How comfortable I am with those terms depends on who’s using them. I’m not uncomfortable when you use them. But if somebody is using them who I suspect does not really know what those terms mean, then I feel uncomfortable because I feel they need clarification. After all, the term anarchist to so many people means somebody who throws bombs, who commits terrorist acts, who believes in violence. Oddly enough, the term anarchist has always applied to individuals who have used violence, but not to governments that use violence. Since I do not believe in throwing bombs or terrorism or violence, I don’t want that definition of anarchism to apply to me.
Anarchism is also misrepresented as being a society in which there is no organization, no responsibility, just a kind of chaos, again, not realizing the irony of a world that is very chaotic, but to which the word anarchism is not applied.
Anarchism to me means a society in which you have a democratic organization of society—decision making, the economy—and in which the authority of the capitalist is no longer there, the authority of the police and the courts and all of the instruments of control that we have in modern society, in which they do not operate to control the actions of people, and in which people have a say in their own destinies, in which they’re not forced to choose between two political parties, neither of which represents their interests. So I see anarchism as meaning both political and economic democracy, in the best sense of the term.
I see socialism, which is another term that I would accept comfortably, as meaning not the police state of the Soviet Union. After all, the word socialism has been commandeered by too many people who, in my opinion, are not socialists but totalitarians. To me, socialism means a society that is egalitarian and in which the economy is geared to human needs instead of business profits.
The theme of the World Social Forum, which is held annually, is “Another World Is Possible.” If you were to close your eyes for a moment, what kind of world might you envision?
The world that I envision is one in which national boundaries no longer exist, in which you can move from one country to another with the same ease in which we can move from Massachusetts to Connecticut, a world without passports or visas or immigration quotas. True globalization in the human sense, in which we recognize that the world is one and that human beings everywhere have the same rights.
In a world like that you could not make war because it is your family, just as we are not thinking of making war on an adjoining state or even a far-off state. It would be a world in which the riches of the planet would be distributed in an equitable fashion, where everybody has access to clean water. Yes, that would take some organization to make sure that the riches of the earth are distributed according to human need.
A world in which people are free to speak, a world in which there was a true bill of rights. A world in which people had their fundamental economic needs taken care of would be a world in which people were freer to express themselves because political rights and free speech rights are really dependent on economic status and having fundamental economic needs taken care of.
I think it would be a world in which the boundaries of race and religion and nation would not become causes for antagonism. Even though there would still be cultural differences and still be language differences, there would not be causes for violent action of one against the other.
I think it would be a world in which people would not have to work more than a few hours a day, which is possible with the technology available today. If this technology were not used in the way it is now used, for war and for wasteful activities, people could work three or four hours a day and produce enough to take care of any needs. So it would be a world in which people had more time for music and sports and literature and just living in a human way with others.
You’ve said that you became a teacher for a very modest reason: “I wanted to change the world.” How close have you come to achieving your goal?
All I can say is, I hope that by my writing and speaking and my activity that I have moved at least a few people towards a greater understanding and moved at least a few people towards becoming more active citizens. So I feel that my contribution, along with the contribution of millions of other people, if they continue, and if they are passed on to more and more people, and if our numbers grow, yes, one day we may very well see the kind of world that I envision.
David Barsamian is director of Alternative Radio (www. alternativeradio.org) and author, with Tariq Ali, of Speaking of Empire & Resistance .