Interview by Felisa Tibbitts, director of Human Rights Education Associates
As a member of the editorial board of Amnesty International-USA’s “Fourth R” magazine, HREA’s Director Felisa Tibbitts recently interviewed historian Howard Zinn. He spoke about the interdependent relationship between education and activism – sharing his years of experience as an educator, author, and outspoken advocate for peace and human rights. Professor Zinn’s seminal A People’s History of the United States sold over one million copies worldwide. The book illustrates that the struggle for labour laws, women’s rights and racial equality were conducted at the grassroots level in the face of fierce resistance. Over time, the language of his activism for peace, nonviolent civil disobedience and social and political reform has increasingly and more expressly used the language of human rights. Recognising labour rights, civil rights and women’s rights efforts as part of a larger human rights movement allows us to see the interdependence and interrelatedness of human rights.
Historically, how do you think schools have served as a catalyst for social change and furthering the human rights movement?
Zinn: I think it works both ways. Students who learn in school about what is going on in the world are motivated to do something about it, to act on what they have learned. When I say it goes both ways, when you have students become active in human rights and feel that human rights has touched them personally, then they are likely to come back into the classroom and have the curriculum reflect their own consciousness.
When students study human rights-related themes and issues, how does it translate into change in the larger society? What can we do in the classroom to nurture activists?
Zinn: What we can do in the classroom is to teach history and to teach history in a certain way, one that departs from the traditional approach where students learn certain facts and reproduce these facts on paper. That kind of history does not lead to action but passivity, based on an idea that students take their obedient place in the classroom. A different history is one that emphasises human rights, which emphasises problems that people have had in this country and other parts of the world, and the resistance that people have put up in their lives.
What is your advice for administrators and policy makers? How can we best encourage change in schools as well as in the larger society?
Zinn: The energy has to come from below – from teachers and students. I think it”s most likely to happen if students demand it, and if teachers begin to teach this way. Teachers, not just as individuals but knowing that other teachers are also doing this. If they are active enough, then it can change the attitudes of principals in schools and school boards.
The full interview can be found in the Winter 2005 issue of Amnesty International-USA’s “Fourth R” magazine.
Published at the Human Rights Education Association • January 5, 2005