On March 2, 2017, the Arkansas Times revealed that Republican State Rep. Kim Hendren had introduced a bill intended to outlaw the teaching of “books or any other material authored by or concerning Howard Zinn” in Arkansas public schools. Zinn, a historian who passed away in 2010, is best known for his work, A People’s History of the United States, which tells the American narrative from the perspective of the historically downtrodden, those swept under the rug in the myth of “American exceptionalism.”
It is understandable, then, why a politician like Hendren would desire to limit student access to Zinn’s work in Arkansas schools. The historian’s ideas are, after all, intended to challenge precisely the orthodoxies that the Republican Party (in particular) wants to maintain. Hendren also isn’t the first to respond to Zinn’s work with the will to censor. In 2010, then-Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels attempted to ban Zinn’s works from classrooms, claiming that young people were being “force-fed a totally false version of our history.” And in 2011, Zinn’s books were removed from Tucson, Arizona, classrooms as part of a ban on a Mexican-American studies curriculum. What is surprising, however, is Hendren’s statement to Reason Magazine that the bill is intended so schools spend equal time teaching opposing political viewpoints so students are not “indoctrinated” into one point of view. The irony abounds. Regardless, the story speaks precisely to why we have the First Amendment, so that those in power are prevented from shutting down dissenting viewpoints.
The works of Howard Zinn are bestsellers, with over 2 million copies sold, and have surely inspired countless discussions around the country and the world. The Library Journal describes A People’s History as “a brilliant and moving history of the American people from the point of view of those … whose plight has been largely omitted from most histories” and a New York Times book review calls it “required reading.” The historian and his work are referenced in important pieces of popular culture like “The Sopranos,” “The Simpsons” and Good Will Hunting. A documentary adaptation of Zinn’s landmark work, called The People Speak, features dramatic readings from celebrities, including Danny Glover and Sean Penn and musical performances by Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Zinn himself is part of the fabric of US culture, and for good reason: He amplified a largely unheard perspective into the landscape of US historical understanding and consciousness. Regardless of whether one agrees or not with the conclusions Zinn draws, his work is an important part of any thorough and intellectually healthy history curriculum in the United States.
As the Zinn Education Project, an organization that promotes the teaching of Zinn’s work in middle and high schools, explains:
The empowering potential of studying U.S. history is often lost in a textbook-driven trivial pursuit of names and dates. People’s History materials and pedagogy emphasize 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.
To limit access to Zinn’s work is thus an insult to the intellectual freedom and development of Arkansas students.
Hendren, confusingly, even seems to acknowledge the issues with his proposal, stating in his interview with Reason Magazine that his goal is not necessarily for the bill to be passed but rather “to start a conversation.” Perhaps for unintended reasons, Hendren has succeeded. But then it’s worth asking what he intended for the conversation to be about. If he were truly interested in sparking conversation about the alleged harms or “indoctrinating” power of Zinn’s book, he would respect the intelligence of Arkansas students and make the book (and their criticisms) available so they can be discussed and the students can come to those conclusions for themselves. Given the nature of his bill, it would appear the conversation he really wants to have is whether politicians should, in fact, have the power to expunge curricula of books they don’t like.
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Jas Chana is the communications director for the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), a nonprofit dedicated to defending intellectual freedom and the right to read. Twitter: @ncacensorship.