Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Young People's History of the United States

I've had a lot of people ask me lately about what I use to teach history (see my previous post for my full curriculum) and I love telling people about Howard Zinn. You may have heard of his 'adult' book A People's History of the United States as it was mentioned in the movie Good Will Hunting, after watching the movie, I read the book - and was totally wow'ed! So many of my fellow homeschoolers are proud of the fact that we are trying to raise independent thinkers - those who have the intelligence and courage to not follow the status quo but can come up with non-violent, intelligent solutions to a problem. Plus, I know many homeschoolers who daily question their government. One thing I love about Howard Zinn's books are they teach you how to question your government without starting an anti-government commune in the hills. Instead, it's an honest look at the successes and mistakes our forefathers made when establishing our great nation - not to make us hate our nation, but instead to help us to not repeat the mistakes of the past. How better to help the nation we all love, then to be honest about it's histories so we can make educated decisions about it's future?

 Here's an excerpt from his introduction:

"Ever since my book A People's History of the United States was published twenty-five years ago, parents and teachers have been asking me about an edition that would be attractive to youngsters. Over the years, some people have asked me: 'Do you think that your history, which is radically different than the usual histories of the United States, is suitable for young people? Won't it create disillusionment with our country? Is it right to be so critical of the government's policies? Is it right to take down the traditional heroes of the nation, like Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt? Isn't it unpatriotic to emphasize slavery and racism, the massacres of Indians, the exploitation of working people, the ruthless expansion of the United States at the expense of the Indians and people in other countries?' I wonder why some people think it is all right for adults to hear such a radical, critical point of view, but not teenagers or sub-teenagers. Do they think that young people are not able to deal with such matters? It seems to me it is wrong to treat young readers as if they are not mature enough to look at their nation's policies honestly. Yes, it's a matter of being honest. Just as we must, as individuals, be honest about our own failures in order to correct them, it seems to me we must do the same when evaluating our national policies.
 Patriotism, in my view, does not mean unquestioning acceptance of whatever the government does. To go along with whatever your government does is not characteristic of democracy. I remember in my own early education we were taught that it was a sign of a totalitarian state, of a dictatorship, when people did not question what their government did. If you live in a democratic state, it means you have the right to criticize your government's policies. The basic principles of democracy are laid out in the Declaration of Independence, which was adopted in 1776 to explain why the colonies were no longer willing to accept British rule. The Declaration makes it clear that governments are not holy, not beyond criticism, because they are artificial creations, set up by the people to protect the equal rights of everyone to 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' And when governments do not fulfill this obligation, the Declaration says that 'it is the right of the people to alter or abolish the government.' And, if it is the right of the people to 'alter or abolish' the government, then surely it is their right to criticize it.
 I am not worried about disillusioning your people by pointing to the flaws in the traditional heroes. We should be able to tell the truth about people whom we have been taught to look upon as heroes, but who really don't deserve that admiration. Why should we think it heroic to do as Columbus did, arrive in this hemisphere and carry on a rampage of violence, in order to find gold? Why should we think it heroic for Andrew Jackson to drive Indians out of their land? Why should we think of Theodore Roosevelt as a hero because he fought in the Spanish-American War, driving Spain our of Cuba, but also paving the way for the United States to take control of Cuba?
 Yes, we all need heroes, people to admire, to see as examples of how human beings should live. But I prefer to see Bartolome' de Las Casas as a hero, for exposing Columbus' violent behavior against the Indians he encountered in the Bahamas. I prefer to see the Cherokee Indians as heroes, for resisting their removal from the lands on which they lived. To me, it is Mark Twain who is a hero, because he denounced President Theodore Roosevelt after Roosevelt had praised an American general who had massacred hundreds of people in the Philippines. I consider Helen Keller a hero because she protested against President Woodrow Wilson's decision to send young Americans into the slaughterhouse of the First World War.
  My point of view, which is critical of war, racism, and economic injustice, carries over to the situation we face in the United States today."

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