Howard Zinn: “education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time”

24 August 1922—Howard Zinn was born. His life and career spanned the twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first. It is his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, for me, that speaks to the enduring power of Zinn’s metaphor, particularly for teachers.

Historically and currently, teacher remain under the demand that their teaching—and even their lives—remain neutral, not political. University professors—such as Zinn—also face disciplinary and public expectations of objectivity, dispassion—their work as public intellectuals either shunned or unrecognized.

In that context, K-12 education and university education suffer the same ultimate failure found in journalism, a flawed pursuit of objectivity, the faux-neutral pose of representing both sides.

So on the day of Zinn’s birth, it continues to be important not only to read and listen to Zinn, but also to act on Zinn, for it is action, after all, that Zinn lived and called for.

“When I became a teacher,” Zinn explains in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, “I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences”:

I have often wondered how so many teachers manage to spend a year with a group of students and never reveal who they are, what kind of live they have led, where their ides come from, what they believe in, or what they want for themselves, for their students, and for the world.

Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?

Concealment is a political act, and in the face of the tragedy surrounding the police shooting of Michael Brown, the educational response has been exactly that, concealment. But as poet Adrienne Rich has confronted:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.

Instead of striking the masked political poses of neutrality, objectivity, and dispassion, Zinn called for transparency:

In my teaching I never concealed my political views: my detestation of war and militarism, my anger at racial inequality, my belief in democratic socialism, in a rational and just distribution of the world’s wealth. I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth.

Having taught in rural Southern public schools for 18 years and then 13 more years in higher education, I can attest that Zinn’s argument is challenged only because of the positions he holds and not because he took positions. You see, in K-12 classrooms, especially in history classes, textbooks, curriculum, and teachers always represented positions by framing as neutral the mainstream perspectives found among them all: a blind allegiance to capitalism, representing the U.S. as a righteous military victor, whitewashing every struggle in the country’s history, celebrating the wealthy and powerful while turning a blind eye to their many sins.

It has never been that our classrooms are neutral, as Zinn confronts, but that our classrooms have been passive passengers on the moving train of social and cultural indoctrination, the sort of indoctrination that benefits the few who have wealth and power built on their privilege at the expense of the many—workers, racial minorities, women, children, and the impoverished.

As Zinn recognized:

This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order.

And although written well before the current education reform movement built on accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing, Zinn’s memoir has identified the Orwellian reality of that movement: Those decrying the status quo are those in service of the status quo. Education reform is the pursuit of maintaining, not reforming.

This call for teaching as activism was join by Zinn’s disciplinary challenge as well:

History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history—while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance—might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.

Here, Zinn recognizes both the power of disciplinary knowledge and the concurrent danger of codified disciplinary knowledge (prescriptive standards, curriculum). Zinn’s confrontation, then, speaks to the foundational principles expressed by critical scholar Kincheloe:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.

These critical principles replace the dissembling of neutrality in the classroom, as Kincheloe explains:

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….

In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner.

“Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom,” Kincheloe concludes. Teaching and history as activism, for Zinn, were moral imperatives, and thus:

From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.

Zinn, activist, radical, speaks to us now, the “us” of any classroom, the “us” charged with the learning and lives of any child:

From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than “objectivity”; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.

Today on the date of Zinn’s birth, I argue, it is a recipe we must follow.

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