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Commentary & Opinion

Michael Meeropol: In Praise Of Teachers Who Resist Censorship

How many readers have heard of the Zinn Education Project?  I am chagrined to report that though it has been doing its good work for over ten years, I just learned of its existence when I came across an announcement of actions, Saturday, June 12.   That day there were demonstrations in over 30 states by teachers and their supporters in opposition to dangerous censorship legislation being considered by numerous state legislatures.

[For the Zinn Education Project, check out their website at https://www.zinnedproject.org]

At the website, they have a section which describes the various laws being proposed in 15 states (with more probably on the way).  It can be accessed at here.   Find a report on the various actions taken by teachers and their allies around the country on June 12  here.]

The Zinn Education Project together with Black Lives Matter and Rethinking Teaching jointly organized the various activities on June 12.   Following the links to the organizational sponsors, I came upon the Zinn Education Project’s website.   Of course, I knew of and greatly admired Howard Zinn’s best-selling A People’s History of the United States.   Originally published in 1980, it has sold over 3 million copies.   For over 20 years, Zinn expanded the book in subsequent editions to discuss numerous issues that had arisen between 1980 and 2000.  In addition, in 2004 Zinn and Anthony Arnove published a collection of more than 200 primary source documents entitled Voices of a People’s History of the United States, which is available both as a book and as a CD of dramatic readings

The original book has also stimulated spin-offs.   The Wikipedia page for the book lists eight separate titles which elaborate on some of the themes of Zinn’s original.   One example is a book entitled A People’s History of the Supreme Court.    It has also inspired books with the same first four words about other parts of the world --- for example, A People’s History of Australia.  

Because that book and later the Zinn Education Project refuse to consider history as an exclusively joyous celebration of all the wonderful things about America, the book was subject to strong attacks by establishment figures.  Zinn was a tenured member of the Government Department at Boston University where the right-wing President John Silber routinely attacked him.  (When Silber ran for Governor of Massachusetts against a fairly conservative Republican, William Weld, all the liberals and leftists of Massachusetts (myself and all my friends included) deserted the Democratic Party and went out of our way to vote for Weld --- despite many of Weld’s policies with which we strongly disagreed.  Many of us told ourselves that Silber was a fascist.). 

One anecdote involved a historian from New Jersey, Norman Markowitz.  He said that he once participated in a doctoral exam of one of Zinn’s students at BU.  When Silber discovered that Zinn was on the examining committee, he refused to okay 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 more years.   Boston University students were the losers but the rest of us benefited from new expanded editions of A People’s History … and the various off-shoots.

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 merely catalogues of the negative things in our country’s history.  The book and project also celebrate ordinary people who fought the good fight --- abolitionists, white and black before the Civil War – union organizers --- the anti-imperialists who opposed the annexation of the Phillipines in 1899 --- women who fought for voting rights  --- fighters in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, --- the antiwar activists who ultimately forced US withdrawal 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 in 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 was able to achieve great progress.   There is no abolition of slavery without the abolitionists.   There would be no 14th and 15th amendment to the Constitution without the struggles of newly freed slaves and their white allies in Congress.   Women marched and demonstrated and engaged in hunger strikes which ultimately bore fruit in the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Most of the laws being considered by various state legislatures specifically target the New York Times’ 1619 Project – 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.   The 1619 Project calls attention to the centrality of race and racism to American History --- from the 3/5 clause and fugitive slave act within 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 emphases of the1619 project and the Zinn Education Project are apparently so dangerous they must be banned from curricula in schools.  Teachers who teach the forbidden topics will be subject to fines and school districts will be subject to the denial of 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 coming of Jim Crow, the violent suppression of labor union organizing, atrocities in the Philipines after 1898 and other “unknown” aspects of US history will now be a crime.

I hope readers understand how contrary to the basic principle of all education this is.   Education at its most basic level is teaching students to solve problems, think for themselves and communicate their thoughts effectively.  Exposure to ideas and arguments, even those that are false and dangerous, is essential.  How would any person know if an assertion or argument is wrong or dangerous if they are never exposed to them?   Teaching the 1619 project and materials from the Zinn Education Project involves reading the materials and then DISCUSSING THEM.   If these arguments are so wrong-headed as the various State Legislators seem to think, then a full airing in classrooms around the country is the best way to respond.   Banning them will not stop students from being exposed to them.  The whole idea that you can “protect” students from dangerous ideas by barring those ideas from the classroom is ridiculous.

Lots of white Americans don’t like to hear about the racism that was a centerpiece of our nation’s founding and growth.   I have had experiences in the classroom 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 disadvantages for people of color do not stem from the acts of individual racists but from the differential opportunities built into the system --- differential opportunities that have accumulated over generations as a result of policies related to education, job opportunities, accumulation of wealth, etc. --- people translate that in their minds into a personal assault on all white people.   But of course, individual white folks can be perfectly fair and non-prejudicial in their personal interactions with black and other Americans of color and still benefit 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 one example that has recently hit the news, the recently passed Rescue Plan included $5 billion in relief to black and other farmers of color who had been subject to decades of discriminatory policies by the Department of Agriculture.   In 1910, 14 percent of U.S. farmers were Black, in 2012 this number had fallen to less than 2 percent.   A federal program established in 1961 to help farmers was administered locally and the local officials made sure that black farmers (particularly in the South) got virtually none of that money.

In an ironic twist, 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 EXTRA MONEY to white farmers --- money that should have been more fairly distributed to ALL farmers.   This history is the kind of information that will be banned by the 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 US not the sanitized version preferred by too many state legislators is just beginning.   I urge everyone reading this to check out the Zinn Education Project’s website.  I also urge people to find out how they can support teachers all over the country who have promised to defy the laws in states that attempt to ban all critical teaching of US history.   I think a massive national defense fund for such teachers is in order and I commend those teachers who have already promised to risk the fines or worse by teaching the truth about American history.

Ignorance is not bliss --- It is, in fact, dangerous!

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus 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: Activist vs. Austerity Policies

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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