Actress Marisa Tomei
Hollywood celebrities and education gurus have teamed together to distribute to schools across the country a dramatic new curriculum that casts American history as an epic march of victims seeking to shrug off the shackles of the warmongering, racist, capitalist, imperialist United States.
The History Channel’s airing of the “The People Speak” last night marks the public coming-out party of a movement that has been in place since last year to teach America’s schoolchildren a “social justice” brand of history that rails against war, oppression, capitalism and popular patriotism.
The television special featuring performances by Matt Damon, Benjamin Bratt, Marisa Tomei, Don Cheadle, Bruce Springsteen and others condemns the nation’s past of oppression by the wealthy, powerful and imperialist and instead trumpets the voices of America’s labor unions, minorities and protesters of various stripes.
The accompanying curriculum guide for schools that show “The People Speak” in classrooms, for example, highlights an 1852 reading from abolitionist Frederick Douglass:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer;
a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the
year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the
constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted
liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling
vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your
denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of
liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns,
your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade
and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception,
impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which
would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the
earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the
people of the United States, at this very hour.
The program and discussion guide is the most ambitious resource among many offered to America’s schools by the Zinn Education Project, a collaboration of Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change, as part of a push to encourage history instruction based on educator Howard Zinn’s 1980 tome exposing the abuses of America’s past, “A People’s History of the United States.”
The project states its goal is to “introduce students to a more accurate, complex and engaging understanding of United States history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula. … Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States’ emphasizes the role of working people, women, people of color and organized social movements in shaping history. Students learn that history is made not by a few heroic individuals, but instead by people’s choices and actions, thereby also learning that their own choices and actions matter.”
The History Channel, furthermore, touts “The People Speak” as a program that “gives voice to those who spoke up for social change throughout U.S. history, forging a nation from the bottom up with their insistence on equality and justice. … ‘The People Speak’ illustrates the relevance of these passionate historical moments to our society today and reminds us never to take liberty for granted.”
The celebrities featured in “The People Speak” claim the stories of bold protesters and oppressed minorities and workers are “inspiring,” while Zinn himself has stated that casting history as a people’s movement toward change offers hope.
Critics of the Zinn Project, however, warn that the curriculum is more about pushing Zinn’s admitted pacifist and socialist agenda on the next generation.
Michelle Malkin blasts “The People Speak” as an effort to promote “Marxist academic Howard Zinn’s capitalism-bashing, America-dissing, grievance-mongering history textbook, ‘A People’s History of the United States.’ … Zinn’s work is a self-proclaimed ‘biased account’ of American history that rails against white oppressors, the free market and the military.”
The first two pages of Zinn’s book demonstrate why Malkin and other critics might judge “A People’s History of the United States” as inherently socialist propaganda:
“These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like the Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable … for their hospitality, their belief in sharing,” Zinn writes. “These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.”
“The information that Columbus wanted most was: where is the gold?” Zinn writes, before pointing out, of 1492 Spain, “its population, mostly poor peasants, worked for the nobility, who were two percent of the population and owned 95 percent of the land.”
The curriculum accompanying Zinn’s book also contains questions and activities that recast American history in a victim vs. oppressor light:
“In one article included at the Zinn Education Project website, I describe how I introduce my classes to the problematic notion of Columbus’ ‘discovery of America,’” writes Bill Bigelow, curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and author of an article the project recommends reading to understand its goals, “A People’s History, A People’s Pedagogy.”
“I steal a student’s purse,” Bigelow continues. “I do everything I can to get students to agree with me that ‘Nomika’s’ purse is in fact my purse: I demonstrate that I control it; I take items out and claim them (Nomika has been alerted in advance, but other students don’t know that), and I insist that it is my purse.
“When I lose this argument with the class, I offer to ‘recast the act of purse acquisition,’ and tell students that I didn’t steal Nomika’s purse, I discovered it. Now it’s mine, right?” he explains.
He continues: “‘So,’ I ask them, ‘if I didn’t discover Nomika’s purse, then why do some people say that Columbus discovered America? What are some other terms that we could use to describe his actions?’ He stole America; he took it; he ripped it off; he invaded it.
“In a five- or ten-minute simulation,” Bigelow concludes, “students can begin to see what Howard Zinn argues throughout his work: that how we frame the past invariably takes sides. And when we use terms like ‘discovery’ – or even the seemingly more neutral
‘encounter’ – our language sides with the ones who came out on top.”
Zinn himself explains his approach, “I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the
slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican War as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by the black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America.”
A new approach to patriotism
While critics have alleged Zinn’s education plan tears down America and its famous founders, a lesson plan titled “Unsung Heroes” begins with an essay by Zinn defending his philosophy of education.
Zinn writes, “A high-school student recently confronted me: ‘I read in your book “A People’s History of the United States” about the massacres of Indians, the long history of racism, the persistence of poverty in the richest country in the world, the senseless wars. How can I keep from being thoroughly alienated and depressed?’
“It’s a question I’ve heard many times before,” Zinn writes. “Another question often put to me by students is: ‘Don’t we need our national idols? You are taking down all our national heroes – the Founding Fathers, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy.’ Granted, it is good to have historical figures we can admire and emulate. But why hold up as models the 55 rich white men who drafted the Constitution as a way of establishing a government that would protect the interests of their class – slaveholders, merchants, bondholders, land speculators?”
Curriculum writer Bill Bigelow further explains of the popular perception of what it means to be patriotic, “There is a lot of ‘us,’ and ‘we,’ and ‘our,’ as if the texts are trying to dissolve race, class and gender realities into the melting pot of ‘the nation.’”
But Bigelow rejects the idea of identifying America as one, solid union.
“A people’s history and pedagogy ought to allow students to recognize that ‘we’ were not necessarily the ones stealing land, dropping bombs or breaking strikes,” he concludes. “‘We’ were
ending slavery, fighting for women’s rights, organizing unions, marching against wars, and trying
to create a society premised on the Golden Rule.”
His point is crystallized in a lesson plan he created for the Zinn Project about the Pledge of Allegiance called “One Country! One Language! One Flag!”
The plan points out that the lesson’s title was actually a chant that followed the original Pledge – written in 1892 – as schoolchildren saluted with an extended arm, palm downward. The traditional gesture was replaced by a hand to the heart, the lesson points out, after Germany’s Nazis began using the same salute to shout “Heil Hitler!” in the 1930s.
“It seems to me that teachers ought to know something about the history of the Pledge before we ask our students to repeat it,” Bigelow writes. “How has it been used, and by whom? Why not lead kids in the original Pledge to the Flag, including the ‘One Language!’ chant and the Nazi-like salute, and then lead a discussion about the politics of the Pledge.”
The curriculum itself instructs students: “Read over the original words of the Pledge. In 1892, who did and did not have liberty and justice in the United States? (In the 1880s in the South, over 100 African Americans were lynched yearly; segregation was the norm and would soon be ratified by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson. Women could not vote. In the previous 50 years, Mexicans had been stripped of land and property in what had been their country. Discrimination and violence against Chinese immigrants had grown increasingly severe. In the summer of 1892, 8,000 Pennsylvania National Guardsmen had helped Henry Clay Frick break the union at the Carnegie Steel Co. in Homestead, Pa.) How about in the 1920s, when the Pledge was introduced more widely into the schools?”
The spread of the Zinn Educational Project
According to a Zinn Educational Project report, in April 2008, with support from an anonymous donor, ZEP partnered with 32 organizations to offer 31,000 teachers and teacher educators free packets for instilling the “people’s history” in schools across the country.
The ZEP reports it quickly received requests for its available 4,000 free packets, nearly half of which were sent to schools in California, New York and Illinois.
A graphic illustrating where ZEP sent the packets is below:
The ZEP website boasts many of the teachers have begun implementing the curriculum and has published the following testimonials:
“These resources are an asset,” reportedly responded Meaghan Martin, an elementary-school teacher in Manassas, Va. “We are always looking for ways to offer students a critical perspective. The unsung-heroes unit is outstanding! I have tailored it to meet the needs of my 2nd graders when we study American biographies.”
Lara Emerling, a middle-school teacher in Baltimore, Md., reportedly replied, “Knowing that resources like the Zinn Education Project exist make me feel so hopeful about the network of people who are engaged in this kind of dialogue with their students. I am a young, white female living in Baltimore and teaching at an all-black middle school. These resources are so valuable to me personally and to the relationships being built between the students and the faculty. Thank you to everyone involved in keeping this collaboration evolving!”
Zinn himself has testified of his hope that the project will continue to spread.
“We’re dreamers,” writes Zinn. “We want it all. We want a peaceful world. We want an egalitarian world. We don’t want war. We don’t want capitalism. We want a decent society.”