April 5, 2011
“He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.”
It seems appropriate to begin with those famous words by George Orwell, because to me they explain the importance of the life and work of Howard Zinn, best known for his A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. That work was far from his only significant historical writing, nor did his productivity end when it was published in 1980.
His life and his work offered a different way of perceiving our history, one that was far more critical than traditional American histories, and thus far more honest. The Zinn Education Project is the result of someone who wishes to remain anonymous, who after seeing the biographical film on Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, wanted to get Zinn’s work more widely known and more widely used. Zinn, whose lectures he had attended while at Boston U in the 1970s, put him touch with Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change (two organizations all progressives should support), and the Zinn Education Project is the result.
. . . It is one reason that when his work (done with Anthony Arnove) Voices of a People’s History of the United States, an anthology of sources on people who spoke up against social injustice and for social change, was turned into a documentary film called simply The People Speak, not only did Zinn participate, but so did the likes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Morgan Freeman, Danny Glover, Don Cheadle, Eddie Vedder, Pink, Viggo Mortensen, and many more. Joining Zinn and Arnove in producing the film were Matt Damon and Josh Brolin.
. . . Part of what is wrong in America is how ignorant we are of our own history. That is clear when we see the efforts by current Republicans to trash unions -too many people remain unaware of how much of what we value is the result of those who committed themselves to unions. After all, how much labor history is there in most schools? I know that in Maryland, the testable content for the government exam required for graduation (but thankfully not after this year) includes nothing on items dealing with labor, not the NLRB, not Davis Bacon, not even the odious Taft-Hartley Act. Of King, we get a white-washed image, with people forgetting how radical he was, and that he died on April 4, 1968, while in Memphis to help black sanitation workers achieve labor rights. Or might I remind people that if Helen Keller is mentioned, students are never taught that she was an ardent socialist, and why. Do they learn that Eugene Debs received almost 6% of the popular vote in 1912, an election in which the sitting president William Howard Taft receive less than 4 times as many votes? People learn about the 3-way race, with the votes Teddy Roosevelt won helping to elect Woodrow Wilson. Do they even hear about Debs? Doubtful.
. . . [Howard Zinn] wanted to wrest control of the past away from those who did not less know or understand the entire truth of our nation. It is up to those of us in the present to continue his task of reclaiming the full past, lest we surrender the future to those who do not value the ordinary people, who fear and despise the collective action – of unions, of the civil rights movement, of the anti-war movement, of the women’s rights movement, of the movements for the rights of all who have been oppressed and left out.
If we are going to keep the promise of this nation from being lost to those who would impose a narrow view of what it should be, we have many tasks to take on. Certainly winning elections is a major part. But so is how we educate our children. So is reaching out to adults who did not have the opportunity to truly learn our history and help them connect.
You can help in this task in many ways. You can support the Zinn Educational Project.