“A People’s History of the United States” Puts Everything Into Perspective

When I was in grammar and high school (both Catholic) our history and social studies books were pretty sanitized. I didn’t understand that then, but I do now. I learned about Betsy Ross, who sewed the first American flag. Frankly, I can’t remember reading about many other women who played a vital role in our nation’s history. What we learned about the Suffragette Movement barely scratched the surface. Did you know that women first met to demand their equality back in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York? And did you know that it was Frederick Douglass, our most prominent African-American abolitionist, who seconded Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s motion for female suffrage?

Today, I have a daughter who is a freshman in high school. I can tell you from going through her text books that things haven’t improved much. She knows a lot about women in history, but that’s because she spends time on the web looking up information, not because it is taught in a classroom setting. Come to think of it, why isn’t women’s history taught as a matter of routine in the classroom?

Several years ago, I discovered Howard Zinn, a historian, playwright and activist. Since then, I’ve read every article he has written, and I fell in love with A People’s History of the United States. Zinn’s book tells the history of the United States using the voices and experiences of people who are omitted from the history we learn in school. His detractors, mostly conservatives, call him a Marxist because the sanitized version of American history is not the history Howard Zinn teaches. So, who is Howard Zinn?

Zinn was the son of immigrant parents who grew up in a working-class home in Brooklyn, New York. He became a shipyard worker at the age of 18 and he served the United States flying bomber missions during World War II. It was this experience that made him a pacifist and a student of history. After the war, he received a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University. He then taught at Spelman, becoming active in the civil rights movement. He was fired from Spelman for supporting the student protesters. Zinn then became a professor of Political Science at Boston University and taught there until he retired in 1988. (Does that sound like a Marxist to you?)

 A call for changing school curriculum

Although Howard Zinn died in January, 2010, his legacy lives on. There’s a movement afoot to bring A People’s History of the United States into the classroom, and it’s time is long overdue. The Zinn Education Project supports and promotes the use of A People’s History in middle and high school classrooms to provide a more complete and engaging history of the United States. The spectacular web site that supports this project offers more than 100 downloadable lessons and articles for use in the classroom. I’ve long been done with school, but I love all of the things I’m finding out myself.

As a nation, we’ve moved our children away from critical thinking and questioning. Our brethren in the GOP have worked to ‘dumb down’ Americans. They spend their days discrediting scientists. James Inhofe (R-OK) recently wrote a book telling us how arrogant we are if we think our actions have contributed to climate change. Only God can change the climate. He’s incensed that his grandchildren are being taught about climate change in school. According to Inhofe, it’s a hoax. Likewise, Rick Santorum is now telling Americans that they should challenge science using Biblical dogma and teachings.

Likewise, we ask our children to accept what they are told about history, without question and without challenge. They are taught that history was shaped by a few heroes, rather than being taught that history was shaped by the experiences, choices and decisions made by many people. What can we learn about the past that will help us make better decisions in the future? Was everything we did in the past necessary? Could pain and suffering have been avoided? Truth is often inconvenient.

Think back to what you learned about Christopher Columbus. What I learned was that he discovered America, the free world. All throughout my school years, I was taught that the Indians were savages who brutally attacked and victimized the white man. I was never taught that the Arawaks ran to greet Columbus and his men, bringing them food, water and gifts. I never learned what Columbus later wrote in his log:

 “They…brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willing traded everything they owned…They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane…They would make fine servants…With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever they want.”

Likewise, think about what you have been taught about the Revolutionary War. I’m sure it was the same as what I learned: That it was a necessary war to end England’s oppression. But there is a different perspective, an untold history. There’s a history that suggests that we could have achieved independence from England without a war. Prior to the famous shots heard around the world, farmers in Western Massachusetts drove the British government out without firing a single shot. They did this by assembling by the thousands around courthouses and colonial offices, and simply taking over. This was a non-violent revolution. The revolution became violent in Lexington and Concord, and it was not the farmers who led the bloody revolution, but the Founding Fathers. As Zinn accurately points out, the farmers were poor. The Founding Fathers were rather rich. So, it’s critical to ask yourself who stood to gain from the Revolutionary War. We take as gospel that wars are fought for righteous reasons. That is rarely the case, and the Revolutionary War was no different.

The truth is that, in the Proclamation of 1763, England had set a line that prevented crossing west into Indian territory, a line that disappeared after the Revolutionary War was won. Colonists were then free to move westward, which they did for the next 100 years. Zinn points out that they caused massacres along the way and obliterated Indian civilization. He also points out that blacks did not benefit from the war. Slavery, which was there before the war, was legitimized after the war because we wrote it into the Constitution.

Zinn points out one of the most critical facts about history:

 “Once a historical event has taken place, it becomes very hard to imagine that you could have achieved a result some other way. When something is happening in history it takes on a certain air of inevitability: This is the only way it could have happened. No.

We are smart in so many ways. Surely, we should be able to understand that in between war and passivity, there are a thousand possibilities.”

 Critical to our future

Our children are America’s future. Imagine if they could learn to look at history critically, with all the facts in front of them. Imagine them being armed with information that will allow them to discuss our history with a clean slate and an open mind. If the Revolutionary War was not necessary, was Operation Desert Storm? Was the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan?

If they can truly learn from America’s past, perhaps our children can help give their children a better future.

Writer’s Note: The information here is just a tiny speck of Howard Zinn’s legacy. I urge you to visit the Zinn Project web site, register and look through the material. Get involved where you live and work to get A People’s History of the United States into the school curriculum.

Categories: American History, Education

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