Sunday, November 29, 2009

Howard Zinn: Democratic Education

Z-Magazine: From a World Without Borders
Interviewed by David Barsamian


To me, a democratic education means many things: it means what you learn in the classroom and what you learn outside the classroom. It means not only the content of what you learn, but also the atmosphere in which you learn it and the relationship between teacher and student. All of these elements of education can be democratic or undemocratic.

Students as citizens in a democracy have the right to determine their lives and to play a role in society. A democratic education should give students the kind of information that will enable them to have power of their own in society. What that means is to give students the kind of education that suggests to the students that historically there have been many ways in which ordinary people can play a part in making history, in the development of their society. An education that gives the student examples in history of where people have shown their power in reshaping not only their own lives, but also in how society works.

In the relationship between the student and the teacher there is democracy. The student has a right to challenge the teacher, to express ideas of his or her own. That education is an interchange between the experiences of the teacher, which may be far greater than the student in certain ways, and the experiences of the student, since every student has a unique life experience. So the free inquiry in the classroom, a spirit of equality in the classroom, is part of a democratic education.

It was very important to make it clear to my students that I didn't know everything, that I was not born with the knowledge that I'm imparting to them, that knowledge is acquired and in ways in which the student can acquire also.


Skepticism is one of the most important qualities that you can encourage. It arises from having students realize that what has been seen as holy is not holy, what has been revered is not necessarily to be revered. That the acts of the nation which have been romanticized and idealized, those deserve to be scrutinized and looked at critically.

I remember that a friend of mine was teaching his kids in middle school to be skeptical of what they had learned about Columbus as the great hero and liberator, expander of civilization. One of his students said to him, "Well, if I have been so misled about Columbus, I wonder now what else have I been misled about?" So that is education in skepticism.


As a teacher, I'm not interested in just reproducing class after class of graduates who will get out, become successful, and take their obedient places in the slots that society has prepared for them. What we must do--whether we teach or write or make films--is educate a new generation to do this very modest thing: change the world. (15)

Zinn, Howard. "Stories Hollywood Never Tells." The Sun #343 (July 2004): 12-15.

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