Schivone: Last year was the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The phrase "teaching and education" is specifically written in the preamble. What other principles are important in relation to today’s world and how teaching and education can assist in pursuing social justice?
Zinn: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a very important document which lays out an agenda for the world which has largely been ignored. The Universal Declaration calls for certain basic rights that human beings everywhere should have. Everybody should have the right to a job, to health, to housing, to an education. There are huge numbers of people in the world who do not have these things. Not only in Africa and Asia and Latin America and the Middle East, but even here in the United States.
I think it’s very important for teachers to bring it to the attention of young people; to have young people see the gap between the promise and the reality. I think it’s always good in teaching to talk about the promises that are made and the gap between that promise and what’s going on. And therefore suggest in varying degrees of persuasion that that gap should be filled. It’s true of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it’s true of the Declaration of Independence—it was true of the 14th and 15th Amendments until black people in the South protested and gathered and created a movement to fulfill what was promised in those amendments.
At Spelman, an elite all-black school for women, what was the dynamic between you and your students?
I moved to Atlanta with my family in 1956 and stayed there for seven years. Many of the students had never been in a classroom with a white teacher before. So this was something new to them and I think it’s fair to say that initially there was a kind of suspicion, a standoffishness, a curiosity. You know, "What is this white person doing here?" After all, I was a minority on this largely black faculty and with a totally black student body. So, yes, at first there was a kind of shyness and silence. But very soon, I think, we developed a great rapport. I think the reason for this is that they realized I was on their side. They could see that I was getting involved in things that were going on, that I cared about problems they faced, that I was interested in the whole issue of racial discrimination and segregation. And so they saw me as an ally.
We began to explore the boundaries of racial segregation, carrying out little campaigns such as working on the desegregation of the Atlanta Public Library, going to the state legislature and sitting in the part where black people were not supposed to sit. In other words, we were involved together in some of the campaigns that went on in Atlanta. Then the sit-ins began to spread from Greensboro, North Carolina to other cities in the South, including Atlanta.
I was a supporter of the students. I also began to write about what I was seeing in the South and was invited to join the executive committee of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
The experience was a very important one in terms of teaching because I was not just teaching in the classroom, I was teaching outside the classroom. Students are interested in what a teacher does, how a teacher behaves, what kind of human being a teacher is. If a teacher doesn’t do anything outside the classroom, well, this is not a good example for students. If the teacher is involved in the social struggles of the time, that’s a very important statement. It says that education’s not just what you learn in books; education’s what you get when you are involved in the movements that swirl around you in your time. To me this has always been very important for the teacher to have a life outside the classroom, for the teacher being involved, and for the students to see that.
You get a very intense education when you’re involved in a social struggle. You learn about forces that are out there. You learn about the police. You learn about the politicians. You learn about the law. You learn about the courts. You probably learn about what it is like to be in jail. So that kind of education cannot be matched by anything that you learn from books. Although, what you learn from books then becomes more vivid and more interesting when you have experiences that connect with what you are reading in those books.
Martin Luther King Jr., in his historic 1967 speech "Beyond Vietnam," said, "Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, [people] do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world." Why do you think this is so often a very uneasy thing for many of us to do?
Well, for a number of reasons. One, because there are risks and dangers that come from the society outside. You may be risking going to jail, you may be risking getting beaten up by police. And then there’s a risk of being looked upon—even by some of your colleagues or from some of your fellow students or fellow teachers—as someone who is not doing the right thing. I remember there was a professor at Atlanta University who was very critical of his students leaving class and going downtown to picket. If you’re a student you face the risk that what you’re doing will be looked upon unfavorably by your teachers or by the college administration.
And because there’s always a tendency, as Dr. King said in his speech, to conform—not to raise your voices, not to be noticed, not to be conspicuous. It takes some courage to put yourself out in front and become visible as a dissident—as a "troublemaker." So there are all sorts of forces operating in favor of conformity, in favor of silence. Of course, that’s what King was trying to break out for himself. He was saying that he had been silent on the war in Vietnam and now he wanted to break that silence. And there had been pressures. Other Civil Rights leaders had said to him, "No, you mustn’t speak out about the Vietnam War; you’ll hurt our cause." Finally, in 1967, King said, "No, I must break my silence; I must resist these forces that want me to remain outside the battle; I must speak out"—which is, of course, what he did in the dramatic speech in 1967.
You published A People’s History of the United States in 1980 to immediate acclaim and with wide appeal to young and older audiences, academic and non-academic. It has sold over a million copies to date, and also inspired new creative waves of topics and projects in multiple areas, such as Dave Zirin’s new book, A People’s History of Sports. Why do you think the idea of people’s history is so appealing to so many audiences?
Well, I think that as soon as the idea of a people’s history is presented to them they suddenly recognize that the history they’d been getting in school and in textbooks has been a history that’s foreign to their own interests. It’s a history looked at from the standpoint of the conquerors, of the military heroes, of the presidents, of the political leaders, of the industrialists. It represents the interests of people at the top. The interests of the people at the top are to have people go along with whatever the government does; to have people go to war; to see heroism as military heroism; to see expansion as a good thing. Where we’re gonna do "good things" for other people. We’re gonna "civilize the Fillipinos," we’re gonna bring civilization to Mexico, we’re gonna bring liberation to Cuba, we’re gonna bring democracy to Iraq
When you begin to look at things from the standpoint of the people and not from the standpoint of the conquerors and the imperialists, you realize that you have been deceiving yourself—and you’ve been letting yourself be deceived—into going along with policies that are detrimental to your own interests and detrimental to the interests of a lot of people in the world.
Many organizations like Rethinking Schools, the National Council for the Social Studies, Teaching For Change, etc. are more and more integrating social justice education and encouragement into programs of social studies, history, language arts, mathematics, and other areas of primary, secondary, and higher schooling. Yet some people regard an "activist" component in education as manipulative. How would you explain the necessity of social justice education?
Well, the idea of a social justice education is to involve young people in what’s going on in the world. If what’s going on in the world is not good, that is, if we are going into war after war; if we are in an economic system that discriminates against the poor and against people of color; if we’re in a system where there are a small number of rich people at the top and a lot of other people are struggling for economic security. In a situation like that, to stay out of the social struggle, to teach young people to take their place in society—to become "successful," to get jobs and so on, but not to rock the boat, not to protest, not to join social struggle—well, that’s surrendering to conditions that are abominable. That’s a surrender to war, it’s a surrender to economic injustice, and a surrender to racial injustice, and gender injustice. It’s doing, of course, what the people who run the society want us to do.
The word "change" was used a lot in the course of the 2008 election campaign. If we are going to bring about change, we can’t do it if students are going to learn the same things over and over again, and if students are just going to stick their noses into their books and not look out and around them and see if there’s something they can do in the world. To me, teaching social justice is a necessity. It’s a matter of life and death for large numbers of people because large numbers of people are dying in wars or as a result of sickness and disease that could be cured by a small part of the money allocated to wars and military budgets. It’s a question of, do you want education to be subservient to what is going on and accept it? Or do you want education to be dynamic and to lift people up and take them out into the world and to teach students to be engaged with the world in order to bring about a society we can really be proud of?
What can art and artists tell us about the world in terms of social change? What can anyone accomplish—not just select artists—by engaging in art and education and history?
Artists can play a very important role because art by its nature is so transcendent. Art, at its best, takes us out of the present. Art gives us visions of what a good society may be like. Art gives us insight into the injustices of society. And it does it in a special way, because art gives emotion, passion, vividness to truths that otherwise seem flat and uninteresting. And so music, theater, movies—all of that—can play a very important role in intensifying the feelings that people have about what is going on in the world.
And they can inspire people in the way that, for instance, people in the labor movement were inspired by the songs that were sung in the struggles of working people. And people in the civil rights movement were inspired by the music of the Selma Freedom Chorus or the Freedom Singers in Albany, Georgia. And people in the anti-war movement of the 1960s were lifted up and their energy heightened by listening to Bob Dylan singing "Masters of War," listening to Joan Baez singing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?," and listening to Pete Seeger. The music has always played a very important role in social struggles.
Anarchist anthropologist David Graeber recommends that resistance education inspire "joyful insurgency." A former student of yours at Spelman, Alice Walker, in her book Anything We Love Can Be Saved, wrote that the work of people like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer all "represent activism at its most contagious, because it is always linked to celebration and joy." Dancing, celebration, joy, education, activism. Are these things naturally interwoven with each other? Because activism is sometimes seen as a very serious topic and endeavor.
Yeah. You’re right that very often political activism is seen as a sort of dull, sober affair. But take a look at demonstrations. People have these colorful signs and people have brought art to these demonstrations and people are chanting and singing. And how can we get people to participate in movements unless joy is attached to them? After all, we want not only to create a new world, we want some of the elements of what a new world would be like—that is, the elements of joy and excitement and exhilaration—we want those elements not to be something in the future. We want to have them right now even as we are in the process of changing society.