Interview by David Barsamian, originally published in The Progressive, July 1997. Excerpted from The Historic Unfulfilled Promise.
Q: Do you miss teaching?
Zinn: I miss the classroom and the encounter with students. But I’m not completely divorced from that situation, because now that I’m not teaching in a formal way, I do go around the country and speak to groups of young people, and do a kind of teaching. I love to speak to high school students. As a result, I don’t miss teaching as much as I might have if I simply retired from teaching and played tennis.
Q: Why do you think so many of your colleagues want to just busy themselves with their scholarship and churn out papers and attend conferences? I’m not saying that doesn’t have any value. But when it comes to being “out there,” to being engaged with what’s happening in the streets, in society, they don’t feel it’s appropriate.
Zinn: In our society, there’s a powerful drive for safety and security. Everybody is vulnerable because we are all part of a hierarchy of power. Unless we’re at the very, very top, unless we’re billionaires, unless we’re the president of the United States, unless we’re the boss, and very few of us are bosses, we are somewhere on some lower rung in the hierarchy of power. If somebody has power over us, somebody has the power to fire us, to withhold a raise, to punish us in some way.
Here in this rich country, so prideful of the economic system, the most clear-cut thing you can say is that everybody is insecure. Everybody is nervous. Even if you’re doing well, you’re nervous. Something will happen to you. In fact, the people who are doing fairly well, the middle class, are more nervous than the people at the bottom, who know what to expect. The academic world has its own special culture of conformity and being professional. Being professional means not being committed.
It’s unprofessional to be a teacher who goes out on picket lines, or who invites students out on picket lines, unprofessional to be a teacher who says to students, “Look, instead of giving you a final exam of multiple choice questions asking you who was president during the Mexican War, your assignment is to go out into the community and work with some organization that you believe in and then do a report on that.”
And you will stand out. You will stick out if the stuff you write is not written for scholarly journals but is written for everybody. Certainly the stuff written for scholarly journals is deliberately written in such a way that very few people can read it. So if you write stuff that an ordinary person can read, you’re suspect. They’ll say you’re not a scholar, you’re a journalist. Or you’re not a scholar, you’re a propagandist, because you have a point of view. Of course, scholarly articles have a point of view. They have an agenda. But they may not even know they have an agenda. The agenda is obedience. The agenda is silence. The agenda is safety. The agenda is “Don’t rock the boat.”
Q: Some years ago, speaking to a gathering of university presidents, John Silber, the chancellor of Boston University, talked darkly about those teachers who “poison the well of academe.” His two chief examples? Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.
Zinn: I guess Silber thinks that there is some kind of pure well, then along come people like Chomsky and me and ruin it. That is the kind of accusation now being made in a larger sense about education by the right wing in this country, who claim that education was wonderful before the multiculturalists came in, before we had feminist studies and black studies and Native American studies and Chicano studies. The well was pure before students had to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X alongside Thomas Hardy, before they were given I, Rigoberta Menchú alongside Tolstoy and Rousseau.
But it was not a very pure well. It was pure only in the sense of the racial purity that was so talked about during the fascist years—a well that I would argue was itself poisonous. It perpetuated an education that left out large numbers of the world’s people.
Q: Here’s an easy one: How does social change happen?
Zinn: Thanks, David. I can deal with that in thirty seconds. You think I know? What I try to do is look at historical situations and extrapolate. You see change happening when there has been an accumulation of grievance until it reaches a boiling point. Then something happens. What happened in the South in the 1950s and 1960s? It’s not that suddenly black people were put back into slavery. It’s not as if there was some precipitating thing that suddenly pushed them back. They were, as the Southern white ruling class was eager to say, making progress. It was glacial progress, extremely slow. But they were making progress. But the ideal in the minds of the black people was “We have to be equal. We have to be treated as equals.” The progress that was being made in the South was far from that. The recognition of that gap—between what should be and what is—existed for a long time but waited for a moment when a spark would be lit.
You never know what spark is going to really result in a conflagration. After all, before the Montgomery Bus Boycott there had been other boycotts. Before the sit-ins of the 1960s, there had been sit-ins in sixteen different cities between 1955 and 1960 that nobody paid any attention to and that did not ignite a movement.
But then in Greensboro, on February 1, 1960, these four college kids sit in, and everything goes haywire. Then things are never the same.
I think this is an encouragement to people who do things not knowing whether they will result in anything. You do things again and again, and nothing happens. You have to do things, do things, do things; you have to light that match, light that match, light that match, not knowing how often it’s going to sputter and go out and at what point it’s going to take hold. That’s what happened in the civil-rights movement, and that’s what happens in other movements. Things take a long time. It requires patience, but not a passive patience—the patience of activism.
When I was in South Africa in 1982, it was very, very interesting. We know about books being banned; there, people were banned. They couldn’t speak. They couldn’t go here or there. The secret police were everywhere. Just before I arrived at the University of Capetown, the secret police of South Africa had broken into the offices of the student newspaper at the University of Capetown and made off with all of their stuff. It was the kind of thing that happened all the time. There was an atmosphere of terror. You would think, perhaps, that nothing is going to happen here. But having come from that experience in the South, I was aware that underneath the surface of total control things were simmering; things were going on. I didn’t know when it would break through, but we saw it break through not long ago. Suddenly Mandela comes out of Robben Island and becomes president of the new South Africa.
We should be encouraged by historical examples of social change, by how surprising changes take place suddenly, when you least expect it, not because of a miracle from on high, but because people have labored patiently for a long time. When people get discouraged because they do something and nothing happens, they should really understand that the only way things will happen is if people get over the notion that they must see immediate success. If they get over that notion and persist, then they will see things happen before they even realize it.
The Progressive • July 1997