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Joel Shatzky

Joel Shatzky

Posted: January 30, 2010 03:34 PM

Educating for Democracy: Howard Zinn and His Lessons for Today

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Since there already is a very eloquent tribute to Howard Zinn in today's Huffington Post, I would like to look at his achievement in writing The People's History of the United States as it applies to a recent hearing at Brooklyn Tech prior to the vote to close twenty New York City public schools.

In an afterward to the twentieth anniversary edition of The People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn wrote:

"What we learn about the past does not give us absolute truth about the present, but it may cause us to look deeper than the glib statements made by political leaders and the 'experts' quoted in the press."

Zinn was writing for educated readers; those who would be able to "look deeper than the glib statements" that seem today, as much as ever, to dominate politics. However, the educational system we now have, especially the way it is presently being run in NYC, does not seem to encourage its students to "look deeper" about the society we now live in. For what was on display at the Brooklyn Tech hearing is an example of a failure to "look deeper," not by citizens trying to exercise their Constitutional rights to address their grievances, but those that are supposed to serve them: in this instance the Panel of Education Policy Board.


Zinn maintained his optimism that "the people's voice" would and must be heard, but when "the people's voice" is ignored as flagrantly as what I saw at the hearing last Tuesday, then I think had he seen it himself, even he might have been discouraged.

I realize that strong passions and political rhetoric are often used as a substitute for thoughtful discussion during such meetings. I also realize, from my own experience as a political activist in the 1960's and 70's, that extravagant and insulting remarks are often made in the heat of frustration and anger as evidenced by many of the 300 plus speakers at the hearing.

But in the middle of the rhetoric were thoughtful and well-researched questions concerning the way in which the twenty schools slated for closing were being evaluated. That any logical discussion of the questions many of the speakers raised should have been forthcoming from the board seemed to me to be the least it could have done as a courtesy to those who spoke. But in the five hours that I attended the meeting, not once did I hear any response from the PEP panel except to remind the speakers that "their time is running out."

I would like to believe that in a democracy, those who have been given the power to determine the fates of thousands of young learners would listen and actually allow themselves to be enlightened by what was told them. That they would have asked questions for clarification about points that were made and requested documentation of the speakers' claims on being unjustly treated. That they would have considered a postponement of their decisions until they had time to deliberate the issues raised by the speakers. In short, that they would have acted as models of a democratic society, not ignored it.

That they sat in almost complete silence when the evidence for them to reconsider was being presented and then most of them voted in support of closing the schools without giving themselves time for further deliberation makes a mockery of the democratic process. That Howard Zinn died at about the same time that these "hearings" in which no one listened took place is another of the tragic ironies of what is clearly becoming educational colonialism under the Bloomberg administration.