Category Archives: Teaching

Howard Zinn (1922-2010)


Howard Zinn, historian who challenged status quo, dies at 87

By Mark Feeney and Bryan Marquard, Globe Staff

Howard Zinn, the Boston University historian and political activist who was an early opponent of US involvement in Vietnam and whose books, such as “A People’s History of the United States,” inspired young and old to rethink the way textbooks present the American experience, died today in Santa Monica, Calif, where he was traveling. He was 87.

His daughter, Myla Kabat-Zinn of Lexington, said he suffered a heart attack.

“He’s made an amazing contribution to American intellectual and moral culture,” Noam Chomsky, the left-wing activist and MIT professor, said tonight. “He’s changed the conscience of America in a highly constructive way. I really can’t think of anyone I can compare him to in this respect.”

Howard Zinn Chomsky added that Dr. Zinn’s writings “simply changed perspective and understanding for a whole generation. He opened up approaches to history that were novel and highly significant. Both by his actions, and his writings for 50 years, he played a powerful role in helping and in many ways inspiring the Civil rights movement and the anti-war movement.”

For Dr. Zinn, activism was a natural extension of the revisionist brand of history he taught. “A People’s History of the United States” (1980), his best-known book, had for its heroes not the Founding Fathers — many of them slaveholders and deeply attached to the status quo, as Dr. Zinn was quick to point out — but rather the farmers of Shays’ Rebellion and union organizers of the 1930s.

As he wrote in his autobiography, “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train” (1994), “From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than ‘objectivity’; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.”

Certainly, it was a recipe for rancor between Dr. Zinn and John Silber, former president of Boston University. Dr. Zinn, a leading critic of Silber, twice helped lead faculty votes to oust the BU president, who in turn once accused Dr. Zinn of arson (a charge he quickly retracted) and cited him as a prime example of teachers “who poison the well of academe.”

Dr. Zinn was a cochairman of the strike committee when BU professors walked out in 1979. After the strike was settled, he and four colleagues were charged with violating their contract when they refused to cross a picket line of striking secretaries. The charges against “the BU Five” were soon dropped.

In 1997, Dr. Zinn slipped into popular culture when his writing made a cameo appearance in the film “Good Will Hunting.” The title character, played by Matt Damon, lauds “A People’s History” and urges Robin Williams’s character to read it. Damon, who co-wrote the script, was a neighbor of the Zinns growing up.

“Howard had a great mind and was one of the great voices in the American political life,” Ben Affleck, also a family friend growing up and Damon’s co-star in “Good Will Hunting,” said in a statement. “He taught me how valuable — how necessary — dissent was to democracy and to America itself. He taught that history was made by the everyman, not the elites. I was lucky enough to know him personally and I will carry with me what I learned from him — and try to impart it to my own children — in his memory.”

Damon was later involved in a television version of the book, “The People Speak,” which ran on the History Channel in 2009, and he narrated a 2004 biographical documentary, “Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.”

“Howard had a genius for the shape of public morality and for articulating the great alternative vision of peace as more than a dream,” said James Carroll a columnist for the Globe’s opinion pages whose friendship with Dr. Zinn dates to when Carroll was a Catholic chaplain at BU. “But above all, he had a genius for the practical meaning of love. That is what drew legions of the young to him and what made the wide circle of his friends so constantly amazed and grateful.”

Dr. Zinn was born in New York City on Aug. 24, 1922, the son of Jewish immigrants, Edward Zinn, a waiter, and Jennie (Rabinowitz) Zinn, a housewife. He attended New York public schools and was working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard when he met Roslyn Shechter.

“She was working as a secretary,” Dr. Zinn said in an interview with the Globe nearly two years ago. “We were both working in the same neighborhood, but we didn’t know each other. A mutual friend asked me to deliver something to her. She opened the door, I saw her, and that was it.”

He joined the Army Air Corps, and they courted through the mail before marrying in October 1944 while he was on his first furlough. She died in 2008.

During World War II, he served as a bombardier, was awarded the Air Medal, and attained the rank of second lieutenant.

After the war, Dr. Zinn worked at a series of menial jobs until entering New York University on the GI Bill as a 27-year-old freshman. He worked nights in a warehouse loading trucks to support his studies. He received his bachelor’s degree from NYU, followed by master’s and doctoral degrees in history from Columbia University.

Dr. Zinn was an instructor at Upsala College and lecturer at Brooklyn College before joining the faculty of Spelman College in Atlanta, in 1956. He served at the historically black women’s institution as chairman of the history department. Among his students were novelist Alice Walker, who called him “the best teacher I ever had,” and Marian Wright Edelman, future head of the Children’s Defense Fund.

During this time, Dr. Zinn became active in the civil rights movement. He served on the executive committee of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the most aggressive civil rights organization of the time, and participated in numerous demonstrations.

Dr. Zinn became an associate professor of political science at BU in 1964 and was named full professor in 1966.

The focus of his activism became the Vietnam War. Dr. Zinn spoke at many rallies and teach-ins and drew national attention when he and the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, another leading antiwar activist, went to Hanoi in 1968 to receive three prisoners released by the North Vietnamese.

Dr. Zinn’s involvement in the antiwar movement led to his publishing two books: “Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal” (1967) and “Disobedience and Democracy” (1968). He had previously published “LaGuardia in Congress” (1959), which had won the American Historical Association’s Albert J. Beveridge Prize; “SNCC: The New Abolitionists” (1964); “The Southern Mystique” (1964); and “New Deal Thought” (1966).

He also was the author of “The Politics of History” (1970); “Postwar America” (1973); “Justice in Everyday Life” (1974); and “Declarations of Independence” (1990).

In 1988, Dr. Zinn took early retirement to concentrate on speaking and writing. The latter activity included writing for the stage. Dr. Zinn had two plays produced: “Emma,” about the anarchist leader Emma Goldman, and “Daughter of Venus.”

On his last day at BU, Dr. Zinn ended class 30 minutes early so he could join a picket line and urged the 500 students attending his lecture to come along. A hundred did.

“Howard was an old and very close friend,” Chomsky said. “He was a person of real courage and integrity, warmth and humor. He was just a remarkable person.”

Carroll called Dr. Zinn “simply one of the greatest Americans of our time. He will not be replaced — or soon forgotten. How we loved him back.”

In addition to his daughter, Dr. Zinn leaves a son, Jeff of Wellfleet; three granddaughters; and two grandsons.

Funeral plans were not available.

Other articles: Howard Zinn Dies at 87, How Zinn Made Our Lives Better,, A Memory of Howard Zinn, Historian Howard Zinn Dead

Race: The Power of an Illusion

Power_of_an_IllusionWhat is ‘race’? What is ‘culture’?  These are basic questions central to the identity of many Americans and citizens of the world.  This powerful PBS documentary examines the scientific reality concerning race – that there is no genetic basis for race.  It also explores the development of the concept of race in America.  Finally, it explores how institutions and policies gives advantages and privileges to some and not others.

For my new students, what are some of your thoughts on what we’ve learned here in class so far?  Please feel free to post below your thoughts, and thanks.

Welcome to Multicultural Studies

diversity02_transparentThis course offers students the opportunity to examine important themes in America’s pluralistic democracy, question and analyze the relationship between these issues and diverse cultural groups, and to make decisions and take action on multicultural issues affecting themselves and others. This course does not offer simply a history of dominant or minority cultural groups. It engages students directly by introducing questions on topics such as political power, cultural identity, civil rights and gender equality. The course’s objectives specifically are to:

* Reflect the cultural context in which students live as well as the diverse learning styles of students in the classroom.
* Incorporate many interdisciplinary and differentiated instruction lesson strategies into class projects and activities.
* Give students the opportunity to explore and define their own cultural identities and ethnic heritages as well as those of the communities in which they live.
* Explore the stories and experiences of diverse ethnic and cultural groups in American history, tracing their multicultural roots back to their nations of origin and examining their struggles with racism, prejudice, inequality and oppression as well as their successes in creativeexpression, political empowerment and economic improvement.
* Examine the conflict between ideals and realities concerning social justice, economic equality and political freedom.
* Expose students to identifying and questioning ethical values and choices in a multicultural context.
* Support cultural diversity and pluralism in the values, attitudes and behaviors of a multicultural society and help students build decision making and problem solving skills that will help them become active and effective citizens.
* Challenge students to question their own values, attitudes and behaviors by examining the social construction of knowledge as related to multicultural issues.
* Help students learn to interact and coexist in a multicultural society by developing awareness of tolerance, justice, respect and activism.
* Use comparative models of continually changing diverse racial, ethnic and cultural groups to examine and question important political, economic and social issues from many different perspectives.
* Examine issues of class, gender and sexual identity and demonstrate to students the relationships, patterns and lessons to be learned from each by examining history and current events.
* Encourage students to compare political, economic and social relationships of power and authority to those of non-violence and peace.
* Build in students skills of thoughtful inquiry, discussion, critical thinking and problem-solving.

So, this week, we are exploring the origin of ‘race’ and ‘culture’ and their meaning in our lives today. We’ve been drawing a lot of resources from the PBS documentary, Race: The Power of an Illusion. Here’s it’s companion website: There’s a lot of good information and interactive stuff there. Check it out and let me know if you have any questions. I look forward to our class being engaging and educational. See you in class!

Workers Today: Waging a Living

In the effort to learn more about workers and labor 100 years ago, we began this new unit by studying the stories of workers today.  What’s this film about? Here’s it’s description:

If you work hard, you get ahead. That’s the American Dream in a nutshell  no matter what your race, color, creed or economic starting point, hard work will improve your life and increase your children’s opportunities. Yet, this widely held dream is out of reach for an increasing number of working Americans.

One in four American workers more than 30 million people are stuck in jobs that pay less than the federal poverty level for a family of four. (i) Housing costs, to name just one of several essential living expenses, have tripled since 1979, (ii) while real wages for male low-wage workers are actually less than they were 30 years ago. (iii) But the new face of the working poor is overwhelmingly that of a woman struggling to support her children. Only 37 percent of single mothers receive child support, and that support averages just $1,331 per year. (iv) Nearly a quarter of the country’s children now live below the poverty line. (v)

What do these numbers mean in human terms? What is it really like to work full-time and remain poor? Waging a Living provides a sobering answer. Filmed over three years, the documentary offers intimate profiles of four working Americans: Jean Reynolds, Jerry Longoria, Barbara Brooks, and Mary Venittelli as they struggle to lift their families out of poverty.

Good-humored and strong-willed, Jean Reynolds is a 51-year-old certified nursing assistant in Keansburg, N.J., who supports three children, including her cancer-stricken eldest daughter, Bridget, and two of Bridget’s four children. She receives no help from her ex-husband. After 15 years working at the same nursing home, providing care to the infirm and dying, Jean earns the maximum wage the home pays — $11 per hour. Without health insurance, Jean is losing the battle to cover her daughter’s medical bills and her own everyday household expenses. It isn’t the life she was born into, and Jean grieves that she can’t give her children what her parents gave her. Ironically, Jean leads a successful drive for wage increases that do not ultimately benefit her; she’s already at “the max.” So when she is forced to take emergency custody of Bridget’s two other children, her situation becomes dire. Evicted from her home, with seven dependents in tow, Jean desperately turns to public assistance for the first time in her life and receives emergency aid. As grateful as she is, Jean knows all too well that the reprieve is only temporary.

Jerry Longoria is a 42-year-old security guard, whose $12 hourly wage barely covers the basics, including a tiny room in an SRO hotel in a blighted San Francisco neighborhood. A recovering alcoholic and drug addict, now four years sober, Jerry is nothing if not a dreamer. He dreams of finding better work, meeting someone special and finding a decent place to live. Although he manages to make child support payments every month, his fondest dream is to see his children in North Carolina after a nine-year absence. Jerry also jumps into union activism, speaking at rallies and meetings in support of a successful campaign for regular, yet modest, pay increases and health benefits for the city’s security guards. With remarkable discipline, Jerry saves enough money to travel cross-country for a warm reunion with his children, but when he returns home, he loses his job after an argument with his boss. He finds another job, but at lower pay, and laments that it will take eight years just to get back to the salary he used to earn.

Barbara Brooks is a 36-year-old single mother of five living in Freeport, N.Y. Her story most graphically illustrates the hazards of what she calls “hustling backwards.” Barbara, raised in abusive and impoverished homes, is poised and determined. In Waging a Living, she’s in a grueling struggle to balance her responsibilities as a mother, full-time worker and student. As a counselor at a juvenile detention facility where she herself was placed as a teenager, she earns $8.25 per hour and relies on a range of government services to make ends meet. Barbara dreams of a better life, which is why she continues her education despite the almost unbearable demands it places on her. The first blow comes when a favorable job evaluation brings her a promotion to $11 per hour, but the additional $450 she earns each month will cost her $600 a month in lost government aid. Though being off government assistance is part of her dream, she is falling behind financially even as she succeeds at work. More determined than ever to find the answer in education, Barbara earns her associate’s degree and gets a $15-an-hour job as a recreational therapist at a nearby nursing home. But, once again, she finds her income gains are wiped out by the elimination of government benefits. Unable to support her family on her new salary, she returns to a grueling work-and-school schedule, this time to earn a bachelor’s degree.

A 41-year-old single mother of three living in southern New Jersey, Mary Venittelli once led a comfortable middle-class life until it was derailed by a bitter divorce. When Mary re-enters the workforce, the only job she finds is a waitress position paying $2.13 per hour plus tips. In her own version of “hustling backwards,” Mary must now hire babysitters who eat up a major portion of her earnings. There are nights she comes home with $30 in tips and owes the sitter $28. Without financial help from her husband while the divorce is being settled, she relies on local food pantries to feed her family, borrows money from friends and runs up $15,000 in credit card debt. She loses her car and is in danger of losing her home. She also sees the impact the situation is having on her children, especially her son Quinn, who begins throwing violent tantrums. At the last possible moment, a divorce settlement and a new relationship help prevent Mary and her kids from joining the ranks of the working homeless. But Mary, having experienced how easily the coin of middle-class life can flip, is determined to rely on herself to secure her future. She returns to school to acquire new computer skills.

“In making Waging a Living, I wanted viewers to understand what it’s like to work hard, play by the rule and still not be able to support a family,” says producer/director Roger Weisberg. “It’s easy to take for granted the janitors and security guards in the offices where we work, the waiters and bus boys in the restaurants where we eat, and the nurses and caregivers in the facilities where we place our children and elderly. I wanted to bring viewers inside the daily grind of the nameless people we encounter every day who struggle to survive from paycheck to paycheck.”

“My goal,” he concludes, “was to get people to take a new look at the prevailing American myth that hard work alone can overcome poverty.”

Waging a Living is a production of Public Policy Productions in association with Thirteen/WNET New York, with funding provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Ford Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

Now on to the podcasts: (iTunes player required – you can download it here)

  • POV: Waging a Living – Beyond the Living Wage – In conjunction with the P.O.V. broadcast of “Waging a Living” on August 29th, this podcast features Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman talking to experts about the nation-wide struggle for a living wage, and the future of the living wage movement.
  • POV: Waging a Living – New York City Poverty – In conjunction with the POV broadcast of “Waging a Living” on August 29th, this podcast features Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman talking with experts about poverty in New York City and the struggle toward a living wage.
  • POV: Waging a Living – Barbara Ehrenreich – In conjunction with the POV broadcast of “Waging a Living” on August 29th, journalist David Brancaccio hosts a special podcast conversation with Barbara Ehrenreich on the state of American workers and wages today.
  • POV: Waging a Living – Howard Zinn and Amy Goodman – In conjunction with the POV broadcast of “Waging a Living” on August 29th, this podcast features historian Howard Zinn talking with Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman about the history of workers’ movements in the United States.
  • POV: Waging a Living – Chicago’s Big Box Ordinance – In conjunction with the broadcast of “Waging a Living”, Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman talks with experts about the passage of the Big Box Ordinance in Chicago, which requirs large retailers to pay their workers $10 an hour with $3 in benefits by 2010.
  • POV: Waging a Living – Filmmaker Interview – Filmmaker Roger Weisberg talks about how he found the people featured in “Waging a Living,” why there is a lack of media coverage of this issue and his use of cinema verite style in the film.