Zinn is ‘In’ Again

Academic Freedom, Censorship

By: Pat Peters

The latest controversy over Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, brought on by proposed legislation from Arkansas State Rep. Kim Hendren, is at an end. The bill died in committee, so Zinn — and everything by or about him — is still allowed (by state law anyway) in Arkansas public school curricula.

Howard Zinn speaking at Marlboro College
Photo credit: Flickr, Jared and Corin

It is heartening that, in response to their pleas for help, more than 700 Arkansas teachers and school librarians received free copies of Zinn’s books from the Zinn Education Project. Donations to support the project came in from across the nation. Ironically, at least some of the educators who received copies of Zinn’s works might never have included him in their studies of American history had this bill not called attention to him.

The crux of the political backlash over Zinn and his works is his basic philosophy of writing: He wanted to tell the stories of the people who are often overlooked, those who lost the battles or suffered because of political decisions, the disenfranchised and downtrodden. But politicians want to focus our teaching of American history on the bright and shiny glories of capitalism and the melting pot myth of immigration and all the other things that “make America great,” while ignoring such things as the suffering of African slaves, the ignominy of the Trail of Tears, the pacifists of World War II and the Vietnam era, and so much more.

The children’s literature textbooks that I use when teaching future teachers and librarians emphasize the value to our children and teens of reading multiple perspectives, of hearing the stories of history from all those involved.

“History never has a single side to its story, and children’s literature in the form of historical fiction (and historical nonfiction) is a good way to introduce children to a variety of perspectives…Different perspectives foster critical thinking about the story of ourselves—which requires students to operate on the highest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive learning. It involves examining conflicting viewpoints and making personal judgments” (Tunnell et al. 156-157).

The understanding gained from this kind of reading helps our students develop perspective, empathy and a willingness to consider gray areas. Critical thinking is at the root of education, and educators have a responsibility to teach their students not what to think, but how to think. A person with strong critical thinking skills will be able to use what they know to understand and form a reasonable opinion based on new information.

Thank you, Rep. Hendren, for reminding us all that hearing multiple sides of a story gives us the best foundation for thinking and learning.

Work Cited:  Tunnell, Michael O., et al. Children’s Literature Briefly. Sixth Edition. Pearson, 2016.

Patricia PetersPat Peters is director of the Decatur Public Library, Decatur, Texas. In her spare time, she is an adjunct professor of Library Science for Texas Woman’s University, having taught both graduate and undergraduate Children’s Literature and Youth Programming. Pat is the 2016-17 chair of the Texas Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee. Pat and her husband Jeff live in Denton, Texas. Pat can sometimes be found @PatriciaP628.

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