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At age 63 I still have my heroes.  Howard Zinn, Studs Terkel and Gerald Bracey were three people who influenced me as a person and as an educator, and all three died within the last 14 months. They were national treasures who proved every day of their lives that one can continue to maintain a passion for social justice. Age does not have to be an excuse for cynicism.

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Studs Terkel died on October 31, 2008. I felt like I had lost a close personal friend. I read Terkel’s Hard Times back in the early 70s and immediately liked his style of oral history. I was finishing my Masters in History and beginning my career in education. Terkel  provided a forum for the everyday people who actually had lived history so they could relate their experiences. He told history the way it should be told. Terkel made it come alive. That’s what I wanted it to be for my students.

Then early in the 1980s I came upon The People’s History of the United States. It was the answer to the "court history"  ... the "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" version of history that we have in our schools. In one volume there was an alternative version of history that could be incorporated into my lesson plans.

In his autobiography, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train,  Zinn wrote:

From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than 'objectivity'; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it.

I had always tried to teach in the manner that Zinn advocated, and he validated my methodology. In my classes, I put my inclinations right up front. I never claimed to be an objective observer without a viewpoint. No teacher is ... though many claim to be. Those who claim to be totally objective are lying or fooling themselves. I was open about my viewpoints. Did I push my viewpoint? No. Did I introduce alternate explanations outside of what I called "Court history"? Absolutely. My classroom never presented a sanitized version of history. Columbus had faults. So did Washington, Jefferson, Grant, and Wilson, and so did my heroes Emma Goldman, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy and Eugene Debs. We learned about Native American viewpoints. We learned about labor history as well as corporate history. And we learned about the ordinary people that populated Studs Terkel’s books.

In my classes, I encouraged kids to think, and Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn were my mentors.  In middle school and high school, kids are finding out who they are. In my classroom, kids could express themselves as long as it was on topic and respectful. Interesting enough, the kids who garnered the most respect from their peers were the ones who could articulate their points well. Many times a "geeky" student was accorded a new-found respect in my classroom for her/his ability to challenge conventional wisdom and the textbook, as well as the teacher ... especially the teacher. If Zinn and Terkel taught me anything it was to allow the kids to question authority ... all authority, even mine.

Another aging agitator, Gerald Bracey, who died in October of last year, provided additional inspiration when I became an administrator seven years ago. I discovered Bracey back in the early 90s while investigating the Sandia Report, a government funded study which was quashed by the Bush I administration because it found that public education was actually performing rather well.

Bracey was an outspoken proponent of public education who, with acerbic wit, took on the critics, privatizers, and the union-bashers, whom he referred to as the Educational Deformers, including President Obama's Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Were Bracey still around, he would be battling Duncan, who continues the war on public education with his Race to the Top (aka NCLB, Part III).

I shall continue the battle in my small way at the local level, and honor the memory of Bracey, Zinn and Terkel. They remind me of what is possible. They demonstrate the importance of courage and ideals. They inspire.

Tonight I am lifting a glass of fine Michigan brewed amber ale in memory of those three gentlemen. Like them, I wish to maintain my idealism as I grow older, and never sit around and grouse about the old days and whine about the youngster generation. These three men gave me hope for my own old age.

Originally posted to Don't Panic on Thu Jan 28, 2010 at 07:27 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (19+ / 0-)

    Excess ain't rebellion. You're drinking what they're selling. - Cake

    by slatsg on Thu Jan 28, 2010 at 07:27:51 PM PST

    •  Tipped & rec'd. I enjoyed this, thanks! (6+ / 0-)

      How fortunate for your students to be guided by such an exceptional teacher, one willing to take his own guidance from some of the best.

      I was a peripheral visionary. I could see the future, but only way off to the side. ~ Steven Wright

      by Bugsby on Thu Jan 28, 2010 at 07:56:40 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I opened this diary so I wouldn't lose it, (0+ / 0-)

      and have finally gotten to read it. Thanks so much! I pulled a quote from it that I really liked, about kids valuing the ability to articulate an argument. I teach biology, and this is an essential skill, not so much b/c there is controversy about, say, what sorts of molecules pass through a membrane freely (especially at the Bio 1 level), but b/c even to explain something that is well known, one must be able to describe the facts clearly and be able to connect them logically. Students are astonished when I tell them that skill in essay writing may be more of an advantage than their skill in chemistry.

      Yet another food diary... What two people have for dinner: My 365 Dinners

      by pixxer on Sat Feb 06, 2010 at 07:49:49 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  All three stood against the fierce (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    slatsg, hikerbiker, wolfie1818

    winds of the establishment (pick any establishment you prefer).

    •  For me it's often a rather quixotic endeavor ... (0+ / 0-)

      Inveighing against the establishment while being a part of it ... at the administrative level too.

      Excess ain't rebellion. You're drinking what they're selling. - Cake

      by slatsg on Thu Jan 28, 2010 at 08:05:01 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Very nice tribute. (5+ / 0-)

    Thank you.

    "Politics is not left, right or center ... It's about improving people's lives." -Paul Wellstone

    by maggiejean on Thu Jan 28, 2010 at 07:54:35 PM PST

  •  I've read, and been influenced by, all three. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    slatsg, ActivistGuy, Ebby

    I didn't know that Bracey had died, sad to hear. I have one of his books, The War Against America's Public Schools: Privatizing Schools, Commercializing Education. Seems like a lot of people on this site don't really understand the issue doesn't it ?

  •  Very nice diary. We need our heroes and mentors (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    slatsg, aliasalias, IamLorax

    I'm not familiar with Bracey, but will look for his writing.  Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn, however, were such teachers and models for me -- I'm really feeling a loss at a time when we seem to need their voices more than ever.

    Did you see this tribute to Howard Zinn by Henry Giroux?

    •  Thanks. I just read it (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      The line from Zinn's last note struck me:

      I recall that Sartre, close to death, was asked: 'What do you regret?' He answered: 'I wasn't radical enough.'"

      It is is something I think about from time to time. Have I done enough? Have I become too comfortable and complacent?

      I think Dr. Zinn did his part, though I'm sure he probably believed he could have done more.

      Excess ain't rebellion. You're drinking what they're selling. - Cake

      by slatsg on Thu Jan 28, 2010 at 08:33:28 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Wonderful tribute link - thanks! (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      slatsg, Ebby

      I cried when I heard Howard Zinn died.  It's a sad day for my family.  We will miss his voice in this country.

      You can't choose sides on a round planet.

      by IamLorax on Thu Jan 28, 2010 at 08:35:20 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks Slats (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    You know I share your affection for Studs and Zinn, and it's rough to see them going. I don't know exactly how to phrase this, but to me it feels like McCarthyism created a gap, a discontinuity, in the American left.  As the last great voices who were around and active before McCarthyism leaves us, it becomes ever more difficult to reach and connect with that earlier heritage.  And what happens to a people and a cause without a connection to our own history?

    This is my first introduction to Bracey.  Is there something by him you would recommend that would be a good general introduction to his thinking and overall views?

    If those in charge of our society...can dominate our ideas...They will not need soldiers patrolling the streets. We will control ourselves. ~ H. Zinn

    by ActivistGuy on Thu Jan 28, 2010 at 08:16:21 PM PST

    •  Thank you my friend (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ActivistGuy, bnasley

      I would suggest the book mentioned by Azazello below,  The War Against America's Public Schools: Privatizing Schools, Commercializing Education.

      The Bracey Report on the state of education was put out each year for 18 years and I always read them. He wrote for HuffPost and he had a site of his own. I would start by googling Gerald Bracey and just pick and choose.You really can't go wrong.

      Your take on McCarthyism is interesting though Zinn really started to make his mark after the hysteria. But I get your point.

      And what happens to a people and a cause without a connection to our own history?

      Great question. It might explain the lack of an effective program on the part of the left and our disorganization. That's worth a diary in itself.

      Excess ain't rebellion. You're drinking what they're selling. - Cake

      by slatsg on Thu Jan 28, 2010 at 08:49:57 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks for writing this diary - Peace n/t (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    slatsg, hikerbiker

    You can't choose sides on a round planet.

    by IamLorax on Thu Jan 28, 2010 at 08:40:16 PM PST

  •  On the mark, slatsg. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    slatsg, Izzzy

    Visionaries--with 20/20 vision.

    The future: a riddle inside an enigma wrapped in a search engine.

    by Ignacio Magaloni on Fri Jan 29, 2010 at 09:20:12 PM PST

  •  I'm glad this was rescued... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    slatsg, ybruti

    ...or I would've missed this wonderful tribute.  I'm only sorry it's too late to tip and recommend, but thanks for the good read.

  •  Reading Zinn Now (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Alternating entertainment reading with history reading to atone for spending my younger years in an apathetic daze with regards to current events and American history.

    Returned from a ski trip and my wife told me the sad news.  RIP

    •  I would suggest James W. Loewen's (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Lies My Teacher Told Me.

      A main idea of Loewen is that history is interesting, but by santitizing it and turning it in to a fairy tale, schools manage to take the life out subject and make it boring.

      He is right. There is no controversy. We may have made a few minor errors but it's all good and evrything turned out great in the end.

      When I was young it was even worse. Slaves were happy and contented. Now it is acknowledged that it wasn't such a nifty experience, but nonetheless right prevailed and all was neatly taken care of ... well except for the millions of Africans who died in the middle passage, and the 600,000 who died in the Civil War, and the disenfranchisement of the African-American population after Reconstruction, and those pesky KKK guys and  ....

      What's worse, students for the most part aren't encouraged to think. These history courses provide the all the answers. Issues are usually presnted in an either/or, good/bad scenario. No wonder Americans hink in a binary "You're either for us or against us" mentality. Kids don't even see two sides to a question, let alone the multiple facets impacting an event.

      At any rate, enjoy your reading and thanks for the comment.

      Excess ain't rebellion. You're drinking what they're selling. - Cake

      by slatsg on Sun Jan 31, 2010 at 12:58:27 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Teaching History (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    You sound like my kind of history teacher. I invite you to take a look at:

    Back in the 70's, Prentice-Hall invited me to write a secondary-level history text that "will appeal to the most sophisticated 5% of the market."

    This I attempted to do. The reviews were excellent; the sales terrible.

    The URL above links to material drawn from that book. It's free -- free to download, free to use.

    I invite questions.

    Marion Brady

    •  Thanks for the comment (0+ / 0-)

      And thanks for the link.

      You have some interesting ideas.

      I quite agree with you regarding Arne Duncan's Race to the Top. NCLB, Part III, IMO.

      I believe that true reform will have to be incremental, not so much because of resistance from educators, but because of the mindset of parents.

      This is not a criticism of parents. It's just that they are familiar with the system as it is. They know the rules of the game. They know what their children need to do to succeed within the existing system. Changing the parameters of the process brings an uncertainty. They know that their child has one chance and they don't want to mess that up. What happens if they go along with some reform and it doesn't work? It is similar to NIMBY, except it could be labeled NWMC (Not with my child). So the public will say they are in favor of innovative reforms, only they want other people's children to go first.

      A look at the Charter Schools makes my point. They are hardly the laboratories of innovation promised by their proponents. Many, if not most, have a rather conservative approach to education.

      Again thanks for the links. I have tagged your website and will be visiting it again.

      Excess ain't rebellion. You're drinking what they're selling. - Cake

      by slatsg on Sun Jan 31, 2010 at 01:20:02 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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