Apart from the video, we share a number of quotes here from the same speech he gave shortly after Barack Obama’s election, in November 2008. Zinn gave a talk to several hundred teachers at the National Council for the Social Studies annual conference in Houston. He reminded his audience that the point of learning was not simply to memorize facts, but to imbue students with a desire to change the world. “A modest little aim,” Zinn told them. At a moment of increasing tension within academia, Howard Zinn is an intellectual to go to for guidance.
´But I don’t think we teach in order to prepare people for exams. In order simply for them become quote successful and make their way in society and become sort of another little cog in society’s machinery. Not that we want our students to starve, yes of course, everybody has to make a living and so on. But it seems to me that people who teach social studies want something more than that. They want it that young people should come out of their classes, I think, you know, imbued with desire to change the world. A modest little aim, right? That’s what we want.
But I can’t think of anything more important we can do in education than to get students to challenge these fundamental premises which keep us inside a certain box. We want people to think outside of that, because if they don’t things will never change. If they don’t think outside that box, if they don’t challenge the premises, then we’ll go on as we have been going on, and then we’ll have the kind of world that we have had so far, which is not good enough, right? A world of war and hunger and disease and inequality and racism and sexism. We want to move away from that and so we have to re-examine these premises.
On the Agents of Social Change
We’ve never had our injustices rectified from the top, from the president or Congress, or the Supreme Court, no matter what we learned in junior high school about how we have three branches of government, and we have checks and balances, and what a lovely system. No. The changes, important changes that we’ve had in history, have not come from those three branches of government. They have reacted to social movements. Lincoln and Congress reacted to the anti-slavery movement. Congress and the president reacted to the labor movement. Roosevelt, FDR, reacted to the strikes and the tenants’ movements, and the unemployed councils, and so on. In the civil rights years Johnson and Kennedy, they were not saviors. They reacted to all those people, black people and some white people in the south who demonstrated and protested and went to jail, and some that were killed.
That’s what they, then got the Civil Rights Act of ‘64 and the Voting Rights act of ‘65. No saviors from the top, [that had never done], always taken, peoples’ movement. And therefore it’s important, and I think for instance in teaching, to get away from the traditional heroes, there’s another mindset issue. The mindset about who are our heroes.