By Michael Corcoran
February 2, 2010

The late historian Howard Zinn brought a new approach to college history departments—and youth activism—around the country.


Historian Howard Zinn, who died last week at the age of 87. (Flickr/Douglas Brown)

Too often, the world seems impossible to change. The obstacles too grave, solutions too hard to come by, apathy and ignorance too prevalent. These moments of dejection have plagued progressives for generations.

“I start from the supposition that the world is topsy-turvy,” said the iconic historian Howard Zinn in a 1970 speech. “[T]hat things are all wrong, that the wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are out of jail, that the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power.” Surely, similar sentiments could be expressed by any progressive-minded individual at any time in recent history. Such is life in a world filled with injustice: prospects for healthcare reform dimming, the Supreme Court handing democracy over to corporations, young people going bankrupt because they choose to go to college.

But what made Howard Zinn—the famous historian and activist who died last week of a heart attack at age 87—so unique was his unceasing faith that regular people can and should strive to make the world a better place.

"I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that we should not give up the game before all the cards have been played," Zinn wrote in a 2004 essay, “The Optimism of Uncertainty.” "The metaphor is deliberate; life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world."

Zinn’s optimism touched people of many stripes, but his largest impact may well have been on college campuses, where his 1980 book, A People’s History of the United States, along with his speeches and essays, motivated countless students to think critically and fight for a better society. Zinn recognized the importance of young people in building a better society, dedicating his 2005 book, Voices of a People’s History of the United States, to "the rebel voices of a coming generation."

“He changed the conscience of a generation,” writes MIT professor Noam Chomsky, a friend of Zinn's, in an e-mail to Campus Progress. "It's hard even to imagine how many young people's lives were touched, and how deeply, by his achievements, which will leave a permanent stamp on how history is understood and how a decent life should be lived."

Stephen Maher, a graduate student at American University (AU) in Washington, D.C., is one of the students whose life was changed by Zinn's work.

"Zinn is one of a very small group of people that really opened my eyes, woke me up and convinced me that I had to act with all the force I could muster to promote justice, [and] end oppression and violence," says Maher, who studies U.S. foreign policy at AU's School of International Service. "[H]e remained someone who served as a guide through what are certainly some of the darkest times in US history and showed me that through my role as a scholar, intellectual, and academic, it is possible to make a difference and right wrongs."

Zinn, who grew up during the Great Depression and served in the Air Force during World War II, not only preached action, but engaged in it—often at great risk to his own security and stature. He was dismissed from his first academic job at Spelman College in Atlanta in 1963, after seven years of engaging in civil disobedience in the civil rights struggle and challenging the college's leadership. At Boston University he often irked the university's president with his anti-war actions, even before he earned tenure.

"His primary concern was the countless small actions of unknown people that lie at the roots of those great moments that enter the historical record,” Chomsky writes, “a record that will be profoundly misleading and seriously disempowering if torn from its roots. His life had the same focus … until the very end."

After the Vietnam War ended, Zinn turned his focus from anti-war activism to writing A People's History, a transformative history of America told from the perspectives of slaves, Native Americans, woman and unionists, not presidents and generals. The book has since sold millions of copies and become required reading in many college history programs.

Eric Foner, a history professor at Columbia University, reviewed A People's History for The New York Times when it first came out. He said that while Zinn's historical work warrants both praise and criticism ("we need to study presidents as well as regular people," he wrote), there is no doubt that it sparked in many nascent scholars an interest in history.

"I find this very admirable, and a lot of these students have gone on to do important work," Foner says. "That, I think, is his lasting legacy."

James Carroll, an author and scholar-in-residence at Suffolk University, first met Zinn more than 40 years ago, when he was a chaplain at Boston University, where Zinn taught history. He says Zinn 's appeal to young people was, in large part, a product of his humble demeanor and unique approach.

“Most radicals attack the hierarchy of the class system, but they do it by affirming the hierarchy of morality—they put themselves at the top, and they put their antagonists at the bottom," says Carroll, who published a column about Zinn in The Boston Globe on Monday. "Howard Zinn was not interested in ranking people or in ranking himself—not socially, economically, or morally … That is why he was so influential, especially with young people."

It remains to be seen how much influence Zinn's message and work will have in the coming generations. But, as Zinn himself acknowledged, the fight for social change will continue to fall on the shoulders of young people.

"I keep encountering people who, in spite of all the evidence of terrible things happening everywhere, give me hope," Zinn once wrote, "especially young people, in whom the future rests."

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