PROFILES IN EDUCATION:
Chronicling Lives from Spelman College to Boston U.
Although historian Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States has sold more than a million copies since its first appearance in 1980—bringing progressive history into classrooms and living rooms across the nation—the retired Boston University professor admits to having had far more modest aims when he started writing the seven hundred page volume in the 1970s: He'd merely wanted to write the story of people who had been left out of traditional histories. "A People's History came out of my experiences in the South during the 1960s," recalls the eighty-one year old Zinn, "combined with my awareness of what was being omitted from traditional histories that I had studied in school." While teaching at Atlanta's Spelman College, a school for African-American women, Zinn participated in Civil Rights marches and protests from Selma, Alabama to Albany, Georgia—and was disturbed that the extraordinary efforts of the ordinary people involved in ÔThe Movement' were not being adequately recorded. "I imagined that the future histories would probably tell about the Montgomery bus boycott and the sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina," says Zinn, "but they would not tell about the desegregation of the Atlanta public library...or Dick Gregory's speech in Selma on Freedom Day 1963...or the beating and arrest of young civil rights workers before the eyes of FBI agents and attorneys for the Department of Justice." That was when he set out with his tape recorder to preserve the voices of the struggle for African-American equality, a project that eventually developed into his grassroots history of the nation. Yet chatting with the unassuming, soft-spoken Zinn in the borrowed offices of the Harvard Trade Union Program—surrounded by posters honoring union organizers and Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer—one realizes that Zinn's masterpiece originated in his own working class roots.
"I grew up in the slums of Brooklyn," says Zinn. "This was in Brownsville, in East New York. Thomas Jefferson High School wasn't much of an experience for me educationally. I wasn't particularly interested in the classes." Yet the school was unusual for a working class neighborhood in that its principal, a poet named Elias Lieberman, had established a creative writing program. In his teens, Zinn did a considerable amount of reading and writing on his own—penning one-page book reviews on each volume he consumed. So began a lifetime of extracurricular learning. "From high school, of course, I didn't go to college," Zinn explains. "In my world, kids didn't go to college at the age of eighteen. They went to work. And I went to work at the Brooklyn Naval Yard as a ship fitter's apprentice." Along with three other young workers at the shipyard, Zinn sought to organize those workers who were excluded from craft unions such as the American Federation of Labor. At the same time, the four men met weekly to continue their educations—reading Marx and Engels, Upton Sinclair and Jack London. "I've always thought that the most effective college education comes outside of the classroom," Zinn notes. "I was in the shipyard for three years and I was educated about work, and about class, and you might say I developed a kind of class consciousness." He also credits his service as a bombardier in Europe during World War II as a crucial moment in his political development. "It was part of my moral education," says Zinn. "After the war, when I reflected on my missions, and when I read John Hersey's accounts of talking to survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I began to think about the war, about my participation in the war, in a way I hadn't been thinking while in the Air Force." He says that he learned the important lesson that "you rarely think while you're in the military" but "just do your duty...without thinking about the moral implications" of your actions. Zinn later gained national prominence for his criticism of American military involvement in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf.
After "knocking around in various bad jobs"—digging ditches, waiting tables, working in a brewery—Zinn followed the GI Bill to New York University. Yet his undergraduate education was decidedly untraditional. "I was an older student, I was a ex-GI, I had a family," he explains. "I didn't hang around." He admits that he hardly attended classes. "If it was a choice between going to class and going to the library, I went to the library, because I found that I learned more from one hour in the library than from one hour in class." He cites an independent study in labor history as the most transforming academic experience of his undergraduate years. "There was no labor history at the time," he reflects. "There were no courses in labor history...and there was nothing in my textbooks about labor movements." Soon Zinn stumbled upon a relatively obscure book by a poet named Samuel Yellen that recounted crucial moments in the struggle of American workers—the railroad strikes of 1877, the Lawrence textile strike of 1912, and the San Francisco longshoremen's strike of 1934. "None of this had ever appeared in any of my classes, in any of my history books," explains Zinn. "I wanted to know: Why aren't they telling me about this?" While studying at NYU, Zinn also worked the "four to twelve shift" loading trucks and continued his union activism. Later, he wrote a master's thesis at Columbia University on the Colorado coal strikes of 1914. Among his teachers at Columbia—where he later penned a doctoral dissertation on Fiorello LaGuardia—were legendary figures Harry Carman, James Shenton, Henry Steele Commager, William Leuchtenberg and David Donald. Zinn recalls Donald, a southerner, speaking with tears in his eyes of the anti-slavery movement. "That impressed me enormously," Zinn recollects. "It was rare to find teachers with tears in their eyes.... you might say he influenced me in the sense of seeing how important it was for a teacher to be emotionally involved in a subject and not simply detached."
Zinn brought a similar passion to his own teaching career at Spelman. When Zinn first arrived at the all Black college, he was stunned to find that they offered no courses in African-American history. Instead, history majors were required to enroll in a yearlong course on the history of England. "I remember coming into my first class," says Zinn, "and seeing on the blackboard what had been left over by the previous teacher. It was this genealogical chart of the Stuarts and the Tudors. These young black women were expected to learn about the monarchs of England, the difference between Charles I and Charles II, but not anything about Black history." During his time in Atlanta, Zinn warmly recalls living on campus and—although a white northerner—essentially becoming part of the Black community. He taught Constitutional law at the height of the Civil Rights struggle and advised students who wished to protest against segregation along Atlanta's exclusive Peachtree Street. Zinn recalls that "reading Constitutional law...was especially revealing because what you could see [was] the huge gap between what the law said and what the reality was." He had to warn students that while their right to protest was constitutionally protected "theoretically"—the Supreme Court decisions were very clear on the right to distribute leaflets on the public street—"the reality was that the policemen's clubs were going to be more important than the Supreme Court's decision in Marsh vs. Alabama." He carried the lessons from these
experiences to his teaching at Spelman and later at Boston University: "I discovered that if you go back and forth from the arena of social struggle to the classroom, your motivation for learning is enormous. It's very powerful motivation when you're looking at the law to see if people's rights are being violated."
Zinn believes that teaching and activism should go hand in hand. "It enhances your teaching if students know that you are active outside of class—if you've had experiences that you can relate to the students, if you are as personal as possible in the classroom. The self-professed secret to Zinn's teaching success—and his classes at Boston University often drew four hundred students—was to "let students know you're a human being." He says he didn't try to indoctrinate students, but rather informed them up-front about where he stood politically. "I never sought objectivity or neutrality in teaching," he explains. "I never thought that was desirable or even possible...at the same time, I made clear to my students that I was advocating—that I wasn't pretending to give them the final word, but that they were going to get from me a point-of-view." Yet in three decades of teaching, he never flunked a student. "I was not going to let that be a possible obstacle to free speech in the classroom."
Mark Twain once said that a man should never let his schooling get in the way of his education. One comes away from a two-hour chat with Howard Zinn feeling similarly forewarned. "The best learning takes place outside of schools," the veteran educator insists. His advice to students and teachers, after a career in the academy and on the picket lines, is disarmingly simple: "The most important thing you can do with your education is to be a more active and wiser citizen.... your profession should always come second to what you think and what you feel as a human being." If you're true to yourself and your own values, the message goes, success and admiration will follow. The remarkable story of Howard Zinn's rise from the streets of Brooklyn to household fame provides a powerful case in favor of such consistency and commitment.#