How should history be taught?
Most historians writing about the historic events of the last year in the United States would likely concentrate on the election of the first black president, Barack Obama, and the conditions that led to his victory. Not Howard Zinn.
The longtime historian and social activist said he would instead focus on “people who are still struggling,” those who eat only with food stamps and those forced out of their homes because they couldn’t pay their mortgages.
He would, he said, talk to GIs fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those who have already returned home, rather than on generals and politicians. “You get a very different view of war from talking to the ordinary GI than when you talk to the generals,” he said.
Zinn’s approach to history--getting the view of ordinary citizens--was on display last night in a film documentary that premiered on The History Channel and that will be released on a DVD.
Called “The People Speak,” it is based on Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” and “Voices of a People’s History of the United States,” which Zinn co-authored with co-executive producer Anthony Arnove. A live version has been touring college campuses for some time.
“The People Speak” features dramatic performances that chronicle the history of the Unite States through stories taken from documents, letters, diaries and other sources that show how ordinary citizens helped turn history.
Actors including Matt Damon (one of the co-producers), Marisa Tomei, Josh Brolin and Don Cheadle perform against music by Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder and others.
The goal, Zinn said, is to inspire young people to become “more interested in history and to become more active citizens.”
The way history is taught in most classrooms, he said, would not compel anyone to understand how the actions of ordinary people actually matter in a democracy.
“There are two problems,” he said. “....One is that it is too often boring. And second it is too often told from the point of view from the top, of presidents, Congresses, Supreme Courts, generals and industrialists.”
He said, for example, that he remembers learning about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad when he was young.
“It was an exciting story, but you’re not told that thousands of Irish workers and Chinese works put that railroad together, died in large numbers in the heat and the sickness of the time. You’re not told about the working people who made this country the economic miracle that it is.... And women have been too often left out of our history.”
Zinn’s work inspires great passion--in people who believe he is an unrivaled truth teller, and in people who think that he is unfairly critical of the U.S. government and that he romanticizes the oppressed.
I asked him about his favorite stories in “The People Speak.” The first that he mentioned:
A young black woman is reminiscing about growing up in the segregated South. She talks about how she looks longingly at a playground that is only for whites. When she gets to school she refuses to sing “The Star Spangled Banner.”
“When she is asked why,” Zinn said, “she says, ‘It talks about the land of the free and this isn’t the land of free and the home of the brave when I can’t swing on the swing in this white-only park.’ ....That’s a very daring thing to do, to be so independent. It’s that independence of spirit that we are trying to portray.”
I’m curious how many of you have read Zinn’s books in history class, how many teachers use it as an alternative text, and how you think history should be taught in public schools. Let me hear from you here in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org
| December 14, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories: History | Tags: teaching history
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