Howard Zinn, A Public Intellectual Who Mattered
by Henry Giroux
In 1977 I took my first job in higher education at Boston University. One reason I went there was because Howard Zinn was teaching there at the time. As a high school teacher, Howard's book, "Vietnam: the Logic of Withdrawal," published in 1968, had a profound effect on me. Not only was it infused with a passion and sense of commitment that I admired as a high school teacher and tried to internalize as part of my own pedagogy, but it captured something about the passion, sense of commitment and respect for solidarity that came out of Howard's working-class background. It offered me a language, history and politics that allowed me to engage critically and articulate my opposition to the war that was raging at the time.
I grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, and rarely met or read any working-class intellectuals. After reading James Baldwin, hearing William Kunstler and Stanley Aronowitz give talks, I caught a glimpse of what it meant to occupy such a fragile, contradictory and often scorned location. But reading Howard gave me the theoretical tools to understand more clearly how the mix of biography, cultural capital and class location could be finely honed into a viable and laudable politics.
Later, as I got to know Howard personally, I was able to fill in the details about his working-class background and his intellectual development. We had grown up in similar neighborhoods, shared a similar cultural capital and we both probably learned more from the streets than we had ever learned in formal schooling. There was something about Howard's fearlessness, his courage, his willingness to risk not just his academic position, but also his life, that marked him as special - untainted by the often corrupting privileges of class entitlement.
Before I arrived in Boston to begin teaching at Boston University, Howard was a mythic figure for me and I was anxious to meet him in real life. How I first encountered him was perfectly suited to the myth. While walking to my first class, as I was nearing the university, filled with the trepidation of teaching a classroom of students, I caught my first glimpse of Howard. He was standing on a box with a bullhorn in front of the Martin Luther King memorial giving a talk calling for opposition to Silber's attempt to undermine any democratic or progressive function of the university. The image so perfectly matched my own understanding of Howard that I remember thinking to myself, this has to be the perfect introduction to such a heroic figure.
Soon afterwards, I wrote him a note and rather sheepishly asked if we could meet. He got back to me in a day; we went out to lunch soon afterwards, and a friendship developed that lasted over 30 years. While teaching at Boston University, I often accompanied Howard when he went to high schools to talk about his published work or his plays. I sat in on many of his lectures and even taught one of his graduate courses. He loved talking to students and they were equally attracted to him. His pedagogy was dynamic, directive, focused, laced with humor and always open to dialog and interpretation. He was a magnificent teacher, who shredded all notions of the classroom as a place that was as uninteresting as it was often irrelevant to larger social concerns. He urged his students not just to learn from history, but to use it as a resource to sharpen their intellectual prowess and hone their civic responsibilities.
Howard refused to separate what he taught in the university classroom, or any forum for that matter, from the most important problems and issues facing the larger society. But he never demanded that students follow his own actions; he simply provided a model of what a combination of knowledge, teaching and social commitment meant. Central to Howard's pedagogy was the belief that teaching students how to critically understand a text or any other form of knowledge was not enough. They also had to engage such knowledge as part of a broader engagement with matters of civic agency and social responsibility. How they did that was up to them, but, most importantly, they had to link what they learned to a self-reflective understanding of their own responsibility as engaged individuals and social actors.
He offered students a range of options. He wasn't interested in molding students in the manner of Pygmalion, but in giving them the widest possible set of choices and knowledge necessary for them to view what they learned as an act of freedom and empowerment. There is a certain poetry in his pedagogical style and scholarship and it is captured in his belief that one can take a position without standing still. He captured this sentiment well in a comment he made in his autobiography, "You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train." He wrote:
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.
In fact, Howard was under constant attack by John Silber, then president of Boston University, because of his scholarship and teaching. One expression of that attack took the form of freezing Howard's salary for years.
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