03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The People Spoke and They Need to Speak Again

As a social studies teacher, a political activist, and a historian, I am a big fan of Howard Zinn, and I very much enjoyed watching The People Speak on the History Channel Sunday night. Well-known and not so well-known actors read speeches, letters, and other primary source documents from the history of the United States. There were also photo montages and songs. It was not great theater or television, but it was a wonderful teaching tool. I have been using many of these documents in my social studies classes for the past four decades. They show aspects of United States history that are either ignored or minimized in most traditional textbooks and curricula. In the near future I hope we see secondary school students across the country participate in similar readers. Our schools, and our country, very much need it.

Currently, I have pre-service teachers in my social studies methods classes use Voices of a People's History as a resource book when preparing lessons and units. I will now recommend that they have schools purchase copies of The People Speak and that they themselves sign up for the resources available from the Zinn Education Project ( I am pleased that an article I wrote about high school students tracing the history of slavery in New York City is included (Please note I did not get paid).

The strength of The People Speak and the Zinn Education Project is that they present the ideas and actions of people who have essentially been written out of standard historical reporting because they were critical of social inequality and injustice in the United States. Even people like Mark Twain, Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein, and Helen Keller who are included have been sanitized so that their critique of capitalist injustice and opposition to imperialist war are erased from their legacy.

The movements the people presented in The People Speak were affiliated with, labor, abolition, suffragette, populist, socialist, civil rights, feminist, anti-war, gay rights, and immigrant rights, transformed the United States, expanded democracy, and helped this country develop into a much more equal society. At a time when the country faces double-digit unemployment and is involved in two unpopular wars, we need many more people like them. Hopefully learning about their words and actions will involve a new generation of young people in social activism and help create a new generation of people struggling for social change.

Promotion of The People Speak and the Zinn Education Project has unleashed a wave of assault by right-wing bloggers. One critic charged, "Left-wing celebrities have teamed up with one of America's most radical historians to take control of the classroom in the name of 'social justice.' Parents, beware: This Hollywood-backed Marxist education project may be coming to a school near you." Another was outraged because the Zinn Education Project "is dedicated to reflecting badly upon anyone white, particularly white Americans," and especially the founding fathers.

My response is that if the standard version of U.S. history is so fragile that it cannot stand up to reexamination and criticism, then it is not a very accurate version of the nation's past and should be rewritten. There was slavery in the United States, and there were signers of the Declaration of Independence who were slaveholders and slave traders. Women were denied the right to vote in the United States for over a century. Capitalism has failed to provide full employment in many periods in the past and today when the official unemployment rate is over 10 percent. The United States was and continues to be an imperialist power in the eyes of most of the people of the world.

In the past I was accused of being a "social predator" online for encouraging teachers to engage students in social activism projects. It is pretty well established that we learn best by doing, not by hearing. If we want students to become active citizens in a democratic society as adults, which is a professed goal of most state social studies standards, they must learn to practice democracy. This only has meaning when students have the freedom to both express their ideas and to act on them.

The United States is supposed to be a democratic society, yet democracy is generally defined very narrowly. We have the freedom to speak and write, as long as no one is listening. We have the freedom to be involved in political decision making, as long as we limit our involvement to occasional voting. We have freedom of choice, but only when we go to the shopping mall. We have freedom to provide food, shelter, and health care for our families, as long as we have enough money to pay the bills.

The People Speak and the Zinn Education Project introduce us to people who struggled for a broader view of democracy. Their messages need to be disseminated widely. Perhaps a twenty-first century Paul Revere will get on his electronic horse and ride through the Internet proclaiming a new social movement; a 21st Century Betsy Ross can design a new banner for our campaign; and a 21st Century Martin Luther King can take us back to the mountaintop.