PROFESSOR ZINN – SORRY I MISSED YOU IN GOV. 101

                                             

Several weeks ago, my wife and I were invited to see a little baby, who had recently become a new member of our family.  When we arrived, several people at the baby-gathering were huddled in animated conversation.  I barely had my coat off  when I overhead the name, “Howard Zinn.”   I was instantly dumbfounded that a discussion about Howard Zinn was taking place – in a modest home in a small community in the middle of central Illinois.  Yes, he had just recently died, but I did not think that anyone from my neck of the woods would take note of that sad event, nor did I believe that he would inspire any discussion.  What was going on here?  Apparently, an amazing book of his was being discussed

I perked up and stopped the conversation a little cold when I interrupted to say that I had known Howard Zinn.  Actually, I was stretching it a bit.   I met Howard Zinn a long time ago, only had a few conversations with him, usually in the company of Professor Robert McShea. my mentor.   Nevertheless,  I felt that I had developed a kinship with him.   Over the past several years I had rediscovered and had come to fully appreciate, indeed revere, Howard Zinn.  However, that had not always been so.

When I arrived at Boston University as a freshman in the fall of 1968,  it was the largest private university in the United States.   It was a long way from my home  of Tremont, Illinois, and it felt eerie at first.   I had never before visited Boston, yet it was to be my home for the next 4 years.  I didn’t know anyone there and felt like I had been spun out of a bottle.  I was somewhat frightened by the dramatic change of environment in my life, but I relished the opportunity to see where I fit in.  What better place to be than in the Athens of America with such a diverse and enlivening atmosphere.   The Boston area boasted a whopping 250,000 college students, and I was one of them!

Shortly before my arrival at BU, I decided that I would  declare a major in “political science.”  I had more than a passing  interest in politics and law, and hoped to eventually establish a career in one or the other.   That would be a long way off though.  My immediate task at hand was to plan my course schedule.   I enjoyed spending day after day browsing through the college catalog, mapping out all the different possibilities.  I had plenty of time to do so.  Freshmen were required to arrive one week ahead of the rest of the student body for orientation purposes.     It was a long week.  Classes, though, did eventually began, and I thought I was ready.  The first course of my college career was to be a political science requisite entitled, Government 101.

As I quickly discovered, Gov 101 was the most popular course at BU.  When I walked into class for the first time, I was shocked to see a mass of students in the largest lecture hall at the school.  As I plopped into my seat near the back of the auditorium, I asked a nearby student how many students were in this course.  He replied, “1,200 – and that’s just this section!”  There were 1,050 people in my hometown. 

The big question that Gov 101 students asked each other was, “Did you get Levin or Zinn?”  The course  was taught in two separate sections by two professors, Murray Levin and Howard Zinn.  Murray Levin was the most popular.  He was a cigar-chomping, rotund, balding entertainer, who loved an audience, any audience.    Levin had a particular interest in Massachusetts politics, and required reading for his course included, The Compleat Politician: Political strategy in Massachusetts, which he published in the early 1960’s.   Howard Zinn was also very popular, known to be a fierce advocate for students but, more intriguing, renowned as a firebrand radical.   He presented as a gangly, long-striding, frenetic sort —  always on-the-move.  By reputation, he never hesitated to immediately get actively involved if he thought the issue was important.   Nonetheless, in 1968, I don’t think that many students on campus were aware that in 1965 he had organized the first public anti-Vietnam War rally in the United States.   There were only about 100 people on the Boston Common during that first rally, and Zinn was in later years fond of noting  that  important events in history usually start quite small.  Things happened quickly after that first rally,  however. In 1969, Zinn and Dr. Daniel Ellsberg led an anti-war protest of over 100,000 people on the Boston Common.  Both Zinn and Ellsberg were singled out as leaders, badly beaten, and arrested.  By then, everyone in Boston knew who Zinn was.

But back to the fall of 1968.   It was pure chance that I was placed in Levin’s rather than Zinn’s section.  Students were allowed to transfer between the sections at first if they had a preference, and many did.   I was happy to be in the comfort of good-ole Murray.  An additional plus was that his graduate assistants were known to be fairly forgiving graders.  Zinn’s reputation as a radical, on the other hand,  put me on edge from the beginning, and I was happy that I could keep my distance from him.  He was not just an academic, he was a political activist, who was not afraid of the streets.  Not only was I afraid of the streets, I was afraid of the sidewalks.  In fact, I was afraid that I would get lost on the MBTA.  Zinn just didn’t seem to be my kind of guy. 

At the end of my first semester, I ended Murray Levin’s course with an uninspired B.  Maybe I didn’t like Massachusetts politics.  Maybe I just didn’t know what I was doing. Maybe I should have gone for Zinn’s section from the beginning.  Maybe I should have switched majors.  Actually, I did switch majors, but just slightly.  Four years later in 1972, I graduated with a major in “Political Science and Philosophy.”  

30-something years later. . .  while browsing at a local bookstore, I saw a book entitled, “A People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn.  Somewhat stunned, I wondered if the Howard Zinn that I knew had a son by the same name.  No, I looked at the bio blurb, and it was the Howard Zinn of old.  After thinking about it for quite a while, I broke down and bought the book, read it, and was astonished to have discovered a masterpiece .  This book was an unprecedented look at history from a completely different perspective — from the view of the average person, the underdog, and from the people who were on the receiving end of the bully stick.  After reading the book I was saddened that I had not gotten to better know this man when I had the chance.

Howard Zinn lived a courageous life, and  feared no one in the arena  of advocacy for the betterment of all the people.   He was fearless in debate and fearless in action.  I cannot begin to memorialize his life here.  I just never got to know him well enough to do that effort justice.  However, I do want to say that he was a very good man who, at 87, died too young.   He sparkled until the end.  You may want to take some time to see and hear the great man give an interview on April 20, 2001 at the University of California at Berkeley.  I recommend it:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMt7cFFKPeM

Professor Zinn, I wish that I would have had the other section of Gov 101.  I am certain that it would have vastly enriched my life.

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They Paved Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot

As Joni Mitchell has told it, late one evening she flew into Hawaii where she was to perform in an upcoming concert.  When her plane landed at the airport, a taxi took her directly to her ocean side hotel where she immediately went to sleep for the night.  When she woke up the next day and drew back the curtains to take in her view of the ocean, she was startled by an immense parking lot between her hotel and the water.  Her reaction was the same as yours or mine probably would have been, namely, “Why on earth did somebody decide to do this?”  The next thing she did though was something that you and I would not have done or, rather, could not have done.  She immediately sat down in her hotel room and wrote a song.  It was called, “Big Yellow Taxi,” and the first verse is:

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
and a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

 One of my clients and I used to love to talk golf rather than business.  He was a world traveler and played the great game everywhere he went.  His favorite golfing spots were in Scotland.  He convinced me that I should go with his group on the next trip.  He told me  how I would love Turnberry, Gleneagles, Carnoustie, and the Old Course at St. Andrews.  He said, “Mike, you’ve just got to see Scotland – they never tear anything down!”  Unfortunately, his health deteriorated rather suddenly, and we never made the trip.  However, I often think about the  trip that would-have-been — and imagine playing those old golf Scottish golf courses and seeing all of those old, old buildings that they never tore down.

Back in December of 1969, I remember 2 of my fellow college dorm mates returning from a concert.  They were quite excited  to say the least.  They had been to a Joni Mitchell concert at Symphony Hall in Boston.  This was quite an achievement for one of the guys, George, since he rarely left his room, even to attend class.  But he had an exuberant smile  that night, and something closely clutched under his arm.  The two guys quickly gushed that they were lucky enough to persist in meeting Joni and that the experience was indescribable – at least they were having difficulty in describing it.  However, George was able to entangle himself from his own arms and show me his prized possession, a signed album from Joni.  I don’t remember now whether the album was personally inscribed to George, but I have never forgotten what that signature looked like.  It was a very feminine, graceful autograph and it had a sweet touch that I hadn’t seen for a long time.  She had dotted the “i” in Joni with a little circle, the kind of dotted “i” that I hadn’t seen since second grade.  Right away, I  thought Joni Mitchell’s music might be something that I might want try a little more.  I thought maybe I was a little late to the Joni Mitchell parade.  She was already playing Symphony Hall, and I was just discovering her?  Where had I been?   The guys told me that she going to play at some nearby colleges within the next couple of days, namely:  MIT, Brandeis, and maybe Holy Cross.  I really wanted to see her perform but I didn’t seem to have the time.  Maybe later.  I would be content for now listening to an album.

Regrettably, many years later, I have still not seen Joni Mitchell perform, nor have I been to Scotland.  I guess I have been a little too sedentary.  Maybe it’s just been circumstance.  But lately, I’ve started to think about Joni and Scotland a lot more.  You see, since, “Big Yellow Taxi” was written, they’ve torn down a lot of paradise and put up more than a few parking lots.  I have lived in Springfield, Illinois for the past 35 years and they have paved a considerable amount of paradise since I’ve arrived.  Cornfields, chunks of old neighborhoods, historic mansions , you name it – Springfield has done its share of demolishing paradise.  It also has had a inclination to put up paved lots subsequent to the demolitions.

Springfield, being the State capital, has a requisite number of buildings for conducting official government business.  The State, being the largest employer in Springfield, also has a requirement for parking spaces for its employees.  For reasons too involved and too complex to be discussed here (read entrenched political stuff), parking lots having developed as a big business here.  As a result, the ugly things are all over the place.  Parking lots are not monopolized by governmental employment needs alone, however.  Ubiquitous sitings dot the entire landscape of our community here.  For example, just down the street from my home sits a very large neighborhood movie theater that razed several blocks to build a massive asphalt parking lot.  The problem is that this eyesore has been abandoned for I’m guessing over 10 years, and there sits adjacent to this horrendous vacant shoe-box theater complex, an unused desert of obtrusive, asphalt nothingness.  Not to dwell on just my neighborhood, this sort of urban blight exists all over the city, and the people aren’t quite sure what to do about it.  I know I’m not.

I would like to find some answers though.  I’d like to know where all the urban planners, zoning officials, municipal leaders , planning commissions,  developers, outside corporate interests, and other miscellaneous idiotic bureaucrats are, who planned this urban morass, with which we are now stuck.  I suspect that they are either retired in Gstaad, Palm Springs or, more likely, comatose in Branson.  Wherever they are, no one every seems to step up as accountable.   At this point, I doubt that any of them could care a whit about the mess that we’ve inherited from these community muddleheads.  They got the money, and we got the asphalt.  And in the process, we’ve  lost at a piece of paradise, and we’ve got what we’ve got. 

Totally frustrated, I am going to do what I can.  I am pledging to do what I wanted to do years and years ago.  First, I’m going to Great Britain.  I do not intend to play golf, but I do plan to take in a lot of those old, old buildings.  In fact, I plan to stay for most of my 3 week trip in a university building built around 1265.  I understand that it is a very nice building, continuously occupied now for almost 750 years.  Instead of tearing it down, I understand they intend to keep it up-to-date in perpetuity.  No need to worry, I’ll have a high-speed ethernet connection in my room, although I’m not sure if I’ll have a rainhead shower nozzle or warming bar for my towels.  I’m guessing I will, though.  By the way, almost no parking lots are allowed anywhere near the central part of my destination GB city, which has a population of over 150,000 (larger than Springfield, IL).

Oh yeah, and when I get back home from my trip, I’m going to check out Joni Mitchell.  I don’t think she sings much, if at all, anymore, but I hear she paints.  Maybe I’ll buy a picture of paradise.

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The New Texas School Board Curriculum – Hee, Hee, Hee or No, No, No?

Oh, boy.

The Associated Press reports today, March 13, 2010, that, “A far-right faction of the Texas State Board of Education succeeded Friday in injecting conservative ideals into social studies, history, and economics lessons that will be taught to millions of students for the next decade.”  Apparently, down in Texas, there is a ferocious squabble as to whether students should be taught that Tejanos died at the Alamo alongside Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie.  There are also some prevailing gold bugs down in Lone Star country that want to be assurred that students learn about the decline in the value of the dollar and that they are aware of the history of America’s abandonment of the gold standard.   The history of hip-hop as a cultural movement is to be excluded, while classification of historic periods will remain to be taught as B.C. and A.D.   So, is this something to get worked up about here?  Is there really anything that is newly controversial about school history curriculums that  Texas has revealed to us in “three days of impassioned and acrimonious debate”?

In a word – No.

The late Howard Zinn, former professor of political science at Boston University, former activist, and former historian, said that he learned the same history in elementary school that he learned in high school, that he learned in college, and that he learned in graduate school.  The only difference was that, in graduate school, footnotes were included.  Professor Zinn earned his Ph.D. in history at Columbia University.  What Zinn learned later in his work was that there is really little dispute as to what took place in history.   Fact-checking can easily be used to determine whether something actually occurred.  The real issue with the writing of history is omission.   Zinn argued that what is chosen to be left out of history books is as important as to what is chosen to be included.

While Zinn’s opinion of contextual history was surely not original or unique, he did make a quantum leap.  Seeking to remedy many of the important omissions in American history, as we all learned it in school, he decided to write a book with an emphasis on the omissions.  His wonderful book was, of course, “The People’s History of the United States.”  In that book, one can read about American history, not from the powers-that-be viewpoint, not from the standpoint of the political/economic movers and shakers, not from the dogmatics who had the power and means to determine what our American children would read but, instead, from a completely different perspective.  Zinn made an incredible effort to write history from  minority perspective, from a dispossessed people’s perspective, indeed from the view of largely forgotten and historically invisible peoples.  He wanted to tell their stories, and he was not happy that these stories had been omitted from the teaching curriculum of not only elementary and secondary education, but also, from higher education – indeed from most all widely published sources.  He knew that he, as a professional historian had never learned about this omitted part of history in his education.  It was time, he thought, to shed some light to others on these historical events.

I say, “Let the powers-that-be in Texas re-write the student’s history books as they see fit in their parochial, political and regulatory process. There is really nothing new about these sorts of political squabbles.”  However, I do recommend that, when you deem your children old enough to read an alternative view about American history, encourage them to do so – and start with,”The People’s History of the United States.”  The book will, unfortunately, not likely be introduced into mainstream American curriculums in ours lifetimes, but why not hope?