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.
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.