Reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the Unted States was a life-changing experience for me -- and I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't read it until I was 44 years old, in 2003. Although readers here assume because of my fondness for the radical '60s that I emerged from the womb carrying a picture of Chairman Mao, the truth is that I was a bland center-left voters and a pretty "balanced" journalist in the '90s, until the Iraq War, the Patriot Act and everything that came with it arrived after 2001. Reading Zinn helped me understand what went wrong, and how everyday people could fight to get things right.
That's while I was thrilled to learn (through a conservative Twiitter follower, go figure...) that there was a push to teach A People's History in Philadelphia public schools. In fact, the City Council passed a non-binding resolution this morning urging the school district to make the book required reading. Here's an excerpt from the resolution as it was introduced by Jim Kenney and Jannie Blackwell:
Resolution calling upon the Philadelphia School District to make Howard Zinn’s best-selling book “A People’s History of the United States” a required part of the high school U.S. history curriculum as Philadelphia City Council recognizes the need to expose students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of United States history than is typically found in traditional textbooks that often ignore the influence that people of color, women, and the working-class had in shaping our nation’s history.
Zinn takes the established view of American history and doesn't re-write the facts -- he just stands it on its head. They say that "history is written by the winners" and 95 percent of the time that's true. But Zinn retells the last 500 years -- the book starts with an epic and harshly critical look at Christopher Columbus -- from the perspective of the marginalized...the working poor, the draftees, the slaves, once-disenfranchised women and minorities, and the native Americans who were here when Europeans arrived. And while it's a story of struggle, it also ends with a lot of uplift, as all of these groups won rights they were long denied.
Today, if anyone needs to fight for their rights and for respect, it is the children of the Philadelphia school system, marginalized by their alleged leaders and by a corrupt system of corporate "reform." Introducing Zinn -- to the extent that teachers take note of this resolution -- would be a great way to gain critical thinking skills and help them to question authority in the way that all good citizens should question authority from time to time. A lot of conservatives are frothing at the mouth today over the Zinn conversation because -- regardless of what they say -- thousands of young Philadelphians thinking critically is the last thing they want.
Their blind opposition only makes me value Zinn today more than ever.