Teaching Against War, for Humanity

By Bill Bigelow

Wars? What wars? On the eve of the U.S. midterm elections, WikiLeaks released the largest cache of classified war documents in history, covering years of U.S. conduct in Iraq. And, as Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman pointed out, “It barely warranted a mention on the agenda-setting Sunday talk shows.” As columnist Gary Younge commented in The Nation, “The American people, it seems, are bored with war. Like a reality show that’s gone on too long, it ceases to shock, shame, or even interest.”

Zinn Education Project screen shot

Regrettably, the school curriculum mirrors this lack of curiosity about the impact of U.S. military intervention thousands of miles from home. One of the most widely used high school global studies texts, McDougal Littell’s Modern World History, includes a propagandistic two pages on the Iraq War. The textbook includes no mention of the massive antiwar protests that preceded the U.S. invasion. The result of the war, according to McDougal Littell: “With the help of U.S. officials, Iraqis began rebuilding their nation.” The book gives George W. Bush the last words: “Free nations will press on to victory.”

The production of teaching materials in the United States is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few multinational corporations, none with any interest in equipping students with the skills to critically consider issues of war and militarism. Thus, in schools as on the news, wars are either absent or lied about. Sparked by a conversation between the late historian-activist Howard Zinn and a former Zinn student-turned-philanthropist/activist, William Holtzman, the Zinn Education Project created a website, www.zinnedproject.org, to offer teachers materials to counter the dull and conservative fare that is the norm in school classrooms.

The free site offers dozens of classroom-tested people’s history teaching activities that attempt to fill some of the shameful gaps in the corporate-produced curriculum materials. For example, one of the biggest silences in the official curriculum is the impact of social movements—including antiwar movements—in U.S. history. Instead of learning that greater equality and social justice have resulted only when people fought for it, the corporate textbooks credit the genius of great leaders, or worse, the unfolding of free- market economics.

By contrast, Zinn Education Project materials describe how teachers engage students in a “people’s pedagogy” of role-plays, simulations, and imaginative writing activities that place students in the position of organizers, rebels, and peacemakers throughout history. One activity puts students in the role of historical “unsung heroes”—people like Jeanette Rankin, the only U.S. congressperson to vote against U.S. entry into both World War I and World War II; Henry David Thoreau, who coined the term “civil disobedience,” defending his decision to resist taxation to support the U.S. war against Mexico; Fred Korematsu, who resisted President Roosevelt’s order that all people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast during World War II be incarcerated; and Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper who helped organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and represented the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic convention.

In one of the essays included at the Zinn Education Project website, Howard Zinn remembers his own U.S. history class: “I recall how the classroom map (labeled ‘Western Expansion’) presented the march across the continent as a natural, almost biological phenomenon.” For example, the official curriculum described the brutal war against Mexico that resulted in the theft of half that country with antiseptic simplicity as the “Mexican Cession.”

Zinn concludes this essay on “Humanity or Empire” with hopeful questions:

Have not the justifications for empire, embedded in our culture, assaulting our good sense—that war is necessary for security, that expansion is fundamental to civilization—begun to lose their hold on our minds? Have we reached a point in history where we are ready to embrace a new way of living in the world, expanding not our military power, but our humanity?

The answers to these questions depend in part on the efforts of peace and justice activists and teachers of conscience working for—and demanding—a curriculum that asks hard questions about war and militarism, and that alerts students to the power of movements for justice. At this dangerous moment in world history, activists need to look not just to the streets but also to our schools.

bill [at] rethinkingschools [dot] org (Bill Bigelow )is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and co-director of the online Zinn Education Project.