[Howard Zinn raw #18]

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Howard Zinn presents a lecture at St. Michael's College in Burlington, Vermont. He talks about the importance of learning history and asking questions and the failures of "democracy" in the American political system.

0:03 Howard Zinn and audience members mills about before his lecture.

2:25 Zinn tells filmmaker Denis Mueller that he just spoke with the security people about Mueller’s presence. They chat about the film they’re shooting.

5:20 Zinn takes the podium. He finds a pamphlet calling for an end to the sanctions against Iraq.

7:43 Zinn struggles with a faulty microphone. Eventually, the audience is able to hear him.

9:52 “Thanks for inviting me to Burlington… very special place… home of Bernie Sanders, a rare voice in Congress, and I won’t say anything more about Congress.”

10:30 Zinn begins his lecture on the topic of the choices facing students as to what they are going to do with their lives. “To me, the important thing about education and about being a student at whatever point in life you are, is not the question of what profession you will follow, but ‘what kind of citizen will you be?'”

14:20 Zinn talks about his life before going to college, his entry into Columbia University on the GI Bill, and how he never saw the point of higher education as “professional training.”

18:24 Zinn says he grew up class-conscious. He talks about how American culture works to hide and distort class divisions in the United States. Zinn says his awareness of inequality and his hatred of war shaped his attitude and approach toward teaching.

26:48 Zinn says he never wanted to be a neutral teacher. He speaks on the impossibility of maintaining neutrality in light of the events already in progress in the world. Zinn says that being neutral or presenting historical facts as simply neutral is equivalent to collaborating with the status quo. “Every fact which is presented represents a judgement, and the judgement is that this fact is important to present, and a lot of other facts, which are not being presented to you, a judgement is being made that this fact is important and these other facts, which I’m not going to tell you about, are not important.”

30:46 Zinn explains how typical approaches to studying and teaching history are more focused on dates and figures than the important questions. He talks about the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War. He talks about the deceptions and provocations that have gone into justifying American military action throughout history (Gulf of Tonkin). “My point is that there are questions which are important to ask. There are facts which are important because they are brimming over with meaning for things that are happening today, things that may happen tomorrow.”

37:55 Zinn talks about his experiences at Spelman College. He talks about witnessing his students transform from quiet and well-behaved individuals to engaged participants in the fight for civil rights: going into Atlanta, getting arrested.

42:30 Zinn talks about the difficulty of staying informed and involved on the work being done outside of our own communities to achieve social justice. “We live in a very big country, where it’s very easy to not know what is happening in another part of the country, especially when the mass media are controlled by giant conglomerates that give you the same news.”

43:45 Zinn tells the audience about anti-militarization protests that took place in Bath, Maine. He says that when the protesters tried to explain themselves in court, the judge did not allow them to speak about their political motivations, only the act itself and they were imprisoned. Zinn tells how Father Philip Berrigan, one of the protesters, recently had his visiting rights revoked. Zinn explains how “prisons are fascist institutions.” “My point is, I suppose, that there is something that all of us can do beyond learning our lessons and becoming something in some field. And I’m not denying that we have to do that […] but think about devoting some part of your life, not just to making your way in the world, but making things better for the future, for children everywhere, for people in other countries.”

49:43 Zinn says that even in the 1980s, while there wasn’t the cohesion of the Civil Rights movement or Anti-War movement, there was still a lot of protest and political activity being conducted by students. He says they fought against Reagan’s support of brutal regimes in Central America and called for divestment from apartheid South Africa. “If students know what is going on, if they’re aware of what’s going on, and if somebody gives them an opportunity and says, ‘here, here’s an organization, here’s a petition, here’s something to do,’ that students will respond.”

52:20 Zinn critically reflects on the model of democracy he was taught in middle school, which presented the three branches of the federal government and the system of checks and balances as “democracy.” He says that teaching in the South and studying black history made the limits and failures of the American civics-class model of “democracy” abundantly clear. “Every president of the United States from the period after the Civil War to the 1960s […] violated his oath of office, because his oath of office required him to swear by the Constitution of the United States, which said the president shall faithfully see to it that the laws are faithfully executed, and no president had seen to it that the 14th and 15th amendments would be enforced.”

58:05 Zinn says that democracy only came alive when black people of all ages went out and protested, committed civil disobedience, and confronted violence; only after a huge movement for Civil Rights swept across the United States and put the pressure on those in power to make radical choices. He criticizes the field of political science for presenting the same warped, limited notion of “democracy” that leaves out movements that take place outside of formal structures of government. He invokes the labor movement as an example of democracy coming alive.

 

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