Howard Zinn taught at Spelman College and Boston University where he had an extraordinary influence on his students’ understanding of history and their role in the world. The “Howard Zinn: Our Favorite Teacher” series highlights Zinn’s lasting impact as a professor.
The unique combination of great self-confidence and greater humility made him an enigma of sorts. Howard Zinn, with salty, tussled hair, always appeared as if he had just come off a West Coast beach. In a lecture of more than 200 students, it seemed he would always look right at you, like an elderly, prophetic Mona Lisa. He would never point, but instead he leaned forward and raised his hand out in front of him, welcoming students into a safe haven for debate, dissent, and intellectual stimulation.
Although Zinn’s lecture rooms were typically filled to the brink, the last-class-before-the-final component pushed the classroom’s modest dimensions to its limits: Students were finding their seats on railings, aisles, floors, and not uncommonly, other students. Thus, it was as good a time as ever for Professor Zinn to tell the class, formally, that this would be his last class. After 31 years of teaching, he announced his retirement, in typical Howard fashion, to his students.
I do not remember much about the actual class, nor would I say I was Professor Zinn’s “best” student. However, on that last day, in that Nickelodeon theater hall, I do remember Howard’s response to one student’s question of what advice he would give us, now that he would be leaving.
“Who am I to give you students advice?” he retorted. “I’m a simple teacher. You know more than I do.”
As frustratingly irrational as it sounded, Howard believed this. Each student had their own life, their own story, their own history. Sure, he was a teacher, but only outwardly. He had only lived one person’s life, and collectively, his students had a lot more to teach him than he could teach them.
Later on in the class, however, Howard conjured up one piece of advice that he deemed necessary. “If nothing else,” he stated tersely, “always question authority. We don’t progress as a society unless we question. Don’t accept what others tell you. Learn for yourself.”
Howard lived by these words, and applied them each day in and out of the classroom. Even as a teacher, a role in which he assumed authority, he welcomed criticism, debate, and dissent. Once someone formed opinion through experience, Howard urged that he/she stand by it, support it with words, and fight for it with action. Howard practice what he preached, and preached exactly that.
At the end of the session, Howard apologetically told us that he could not personally read all 426 of our final papers, and thus he would delegate some of them to the TAs. However, if we had an issue with our grade and wanted to sit down and talk about it with him, he would welcome it warmly. Taking Howard’s advice, I decided to question authority, sit down with Professor Zinn, and challenge my C+. He sat calmly as I pleaded my case, and even more calmly pointed out the deficiencies in my argument.
When all was said and done, he looked at me and asked, “Roger, do you think you deserve a better grade?”
“I would agree with you,” he replied.
In my teaching career, I’ve looked to emphasize the humility that Howard instilled in me. I’ve verified the fact that my students have the ability to teach me just as much as I teach them. And along with the world’s luckiest B-, I can say proudly that I walked away from Howard Zinn with qualities that I still treasure.
Howard Zinn taught at Spelman College and Boston University where he had an extraordinary influence on his students’ understanding of history and their role in the world. This series highlights Zinn’s lasting impact as a professor. Read more stories and submit your own.