Michael Meeropol: Praise for teachers who resist censorship
How many readers have heard of the Zinn Education Project? I’m sorry to report that although it has been doing its good job for over ten years, I just learned of its existence when I came across a stock ad on Saturday June 12th. On that day, there were protests in more than 30 states by teachers and their supporters in opposition to dangerous censorship legislation being considered by many state legislatures.
[For the Zinn Education Project, check out their website at https://www.zinnedproject.org]
On the website, they have a section that describes the various laws proposed in 15 states (with most likely pending). It is accessible here. Find here an account of the various actions carried out by teachers and their allies across the country on June 12.]
The Zinn Education Project, together with Black Lives Matter and Rethinking Teaching, jointly organized the various activities on June 12th. Following the links to the organization’s sponsors, I came across the Zinn Education Project website. Of course, I was very familiar with and admired Howard Zinn’s best-selling book, A People’s History of the United States. Originally published in 1980, it has sold over 3 million copies. For over 20 years, Zinn developed the book in subsequent editions to discuss many issues that had arisen between 1980 and 2000. Additionally, in 2004, Zinn and Anthony Arnove published a collection of over 200 primary source documents titled Voices of a People’s History of the United States, which is available in both book and CD form of dramatic readings
The original book also spurred spinoffs. The book’s Wikipedia page lists eight separate titles that expand on some of the themes of Zinn’s original. One example is a book called A People’s History of the Supreme Court. It has also inspired books with the same first four words on other parts of the world — for example, A People’s History of Australia.
Because this book and later the Zinn Education Project refuse to view history as an exclusively joyful celebration of all of America’s wonders, the book has come under heavy attack from establishment figures. Zinn was a full member of the government department at Boston University, where right-wing President John Silber regularly attacked him. (When Silber ran for governor of Massachusetts against a fairly conservative Republican William Weld, all Massachusetts liberals and leftists (myself and all my friends included) deserted the Democratic Party and went out of their way to vote for Weld — despite many of Weld’s policies that we strongly disagreed with. Many of us thought Silber was a fascist.).
One anecdote involved New Jersey historian Norman Markowitz. He said he had previously taken a doctoral exam for one of Zinn’s students at the BU. When Silber found out that Zinn was on the review board, he refused to accept Markowitz’s travel expenses. In a more disgusting action, Silber froze Zinn’s salary. Zinn retired from Boston University in 1988, but continued to write and lecture for almost 20 years. The students at Boston University were the losers, but the rest of us benefited from the new expanded editions of A People’s History… and the various ramifications.
The Zinn Education Project was formed to create a series of workshops and written materials that would help teachers who want to teach the REAL history of the United States — warts and all. But Zinn’s book and the materials created by the project are not simply catalogs of negative things in our country’s history. The book and the project also celebrate the ordinary people who fought the good fight — the abolitionists, white and black before the civil war – the union organizers — the anti-imperialists who opposed the annexation of the Philippines. in 1899 — the women who fought for the right to vote — the fighters of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, — the anti-war activists who ultimately forced the United States to withdraw from Vietnam. There is much to celebrate in American history and Zinn and the project made sure to bring that information to their readers.
What the right-wingers of the country cannot stand is BOTH the truth about American history and the celebration of ordinary people who stood up to the powerful and ultimately made great strides. There is no abolition of slavery without abolitionists. There would be no 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution without the struggles of the newly freed slaves and their white allies in Congress. Women marched, demonstrated and went on hunger strikes which finally paid off with the passage of the 19th Amendment.
Most of the laws considered by various state legislatures specifically target the New York Times Project 1619 – an effort to remind Americans that when the Declaration of Independence was written, most of the men who signed it believed that only WHITE men were created equal. . Bill 1619 draws attention to the centrality of race and racism in American history — from Clause 3/5 and the Fugitive Slave Act in the Constitution to the thwarting of the 14th and 15th Amendments by the Jim Crow South. One (in Missouri) explicitly attacks the Zinn Education Project.
[In case there are any questions about the pro-slavery nature of the Constitution, check out Article IV Section 2 where we find these words: “No Person held to Service or Labor in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such service or Labor, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labor may be due.” The drafters were careful not to use the word “slave” or “slavery” but referred to such people as those “held to Service or Labor.” But everyone knew what they were talking about.]
The accents of Project 1619 and the Zinn Education Project are apparently so dangerous that they must be banned from school curricula. Teachers who teach prohibited subjects will be subject to fines and school districts will be denied state funding.
[There is also an effort to ban the teaching of “Critical Race Theory.” This opposition would be comical if it weren’t so tragic. Members of State Legislatures have been on television UNABLE to even explain or define what “Critical Race Theory” actually is. I would bet that 90 percent of the citizens getting up at school board meetings demanding that their children (in elementary or high school no less) not be “subjected to Critical Race Theory” haven’t a clue what it is. In fact, it originated in Law Schools as an effort to explain how race-neutral laws could in the end produce disproportionate impacts on people of color because of previous structural discrimination. Here is a relatively good short discussion of it: Singer, Alan, “Looking at History Through a Critical Race Theory Lens,” available here. ]
WOW — so teaching high school students about structural racism, the defeat of Reconstruction and the arrival of Jim Crow, the violent crackdown on union organizing, the atrocities in the Philippines after 1898 and other “unknown” aspects of the history of the United States will henceforth be a crime.
I hope readers will understand how this is against the basic principle of all education. Education at its most basic level teaches students to solve problems, think for themselves, and communicate their thoughts effectively. Exposure to ideas and arguments, even false and dangerous ones, is essential. How would a person know if a statement or argument is false or dangerous if it is never made? Teaching Project 1619 and the Zinn Education Project materials involves reading the materials and then DISCUSSING THEM. If these arguments are so mistaken as various state lawmakers seem to think, then full dissemination in classrooms across the country is the best answer. Banning them will not prevent students from being exposed to them. The very idea that you can “protect” students from dangerous ideas by excluding them from the classroom is ludicrous.
Many white Americans don’t like to hear about the racism that was central to the founding and growth of our nation. I have had classroom experiences over the years where studying racism has led many of my (white) students to take it personally. When the discussion turns to what is called “structural racism,” where the disadvantage for people of color does not arise from the acts of individual racists but from the differential opportunities built into the system — differential opportunities that have accumulated in the system. over generations as a result of policies related to education, employment opportunities, wealth accumulation, etc. — people translate this in their minds to a personal assault on all white people. But of course, whites can be perfectly fair and non-prejudicial in their personal interactions with blacks and other Americans of color while still benefiting from the historical legacy of racist oppression. Events that happened 100 years ago, 50 years ago, 20 years ago have repercussions to this day.
To take an example that recently hit the headlines, the recently adopted bailout provided $ 5 billion in aid to black farmers and other farmers of color who had been subjected to decades of discriminatory policies by the Department of Justice. ‘Agriculture. In 1910, 14 percent of American farmers were black, by 2012 that number had fallen to less than 2 percent. A federal program established in 1961 to help farmers was administered locally, and local authorities ensured that black farmers (especially in the South) received virtually none of this money.
Ironically, white farmers are now complaining that by appropriating money to rectify decades of discrimination, the US government is discriminating against them. But decades of discrimination had directed the ADDITIONAL MONEY to white farmers — money that should have been distributed more fairly to ALL farmers. This story is the kind of information that will be prohibited by laws making their way through state legislatures.
[For details on this issue. ]
The battle to defend the right of teachers to teach the “real” history of the United States and not the sanitized version preferred by too many state lawmakers is just beginning. I urge anyone reading this to check out the Zinn Education Project website. I also urge people to find out how they can support teachers across the country who have pledged to defy the laws of states that attempt to ban all critical teaching of US history. I think a massive national defense fund for these teachers is in order and I applaud teachers who have already promised to risk fines or worse by teaching the truth about American history.
Ignorance is not happiness — It is, in fact, dangerous!
Michael Meeropol is Emeritus Professor of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author with Howard and Paul Sherman of the recently published second edition of Principles of macroeconomics: militant policies versus austerity policies
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