As I was finishing up Howard Zinn's autobiography, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, I found this paragraph, and it glowed:
Over the years I have made many visits to prisoners, including a day spent in Block Nine, the maximum-security cell block of the notorious Walpole prison in Massachusetts. I have taught classes in several prisons. I am convinced that imprisonment is a way of pretending to solve the problems of crime. It does nothing for the victims of crime, but perpetuates the idea of retribution, thus maintaining the endless cycle of violence in our culture. It is a cruel and useless substitute for the elimination of those conditions—poverty, unemployment, homelessness, desperation, racism, greed—which are at the root of most punished crime. The crimes of the rich and powerful go mostly unpunished (150).
Coming, as it does, at the end of Chapter 11, and with only four short chapters left in the book, the paragraph moves the American prison system to the hub, to the roundhouse, of the problems that sicken and diminish us, both as a culture and as a nation: poverty, unemployment, homelessness, desperation, racism, greed.
Prison reform, of course, is an old and venerable item on the social-reform docket. And with the arrival of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow (2012), our notion of systemic racison expanded exponentially, and with a sense of urgency too. Zinn would have loved this book. His work in prisons, years before Alexander's book, and his time spent there as an imprisoned activist and teacher, showed him what many like him—white, hyper-educated— already knew, but had not seen first-hand: that prisons are an index to the American Book of Shame.
Zinn looks to prisons, then, not to ogle or other those who have committed the worst, most sensationalistic crimes, but to understand how our culture generated the conditions that gave rise to those crimes. Zinn did not seek to excuse these offenders, nor to free them, but to understand the forces that shaped them, and to begin the work that would lead from such understanding to meaningful reform.
Zinn did much of that work in his classrooms. He did what he could, and as I tell my students, that's a worthy epitaph for all of us.
Reading the autobiography, I realized that Zinn and activists like him, who grew up poor, but whose hard work and intelligence were duly rewarded, found ways to work productively with the opportunities extended to him. Never mind that Zinn's activism seemed almost genetic it lay so deeply within him, and never mind that few of us will approach his unique combination of activism, writing, and classroom instruction. One of Zinn's most useful gifts to us, however, lies in his open and evolving life, and in how he managed the various ingredients of that life, often in the public arena, to his and to his students' advantage.
Zinn never commented on the truth that smolders just below everything he did, but his life bore constant witness to it: privilege is pernicious when it insulates the privileged from the human suffering that, at times, they have been complicit in creating.
Remember: at any time after he left Spelman College, his first teaching job, he could have disappeared into the ivy jungle. But he didn't. Zinn found a way to use his career, or to recast it, so that while he did his job—teaching, writing—he saw to it that these duties developed his compassion. And this compassion led to his own brand of activism.
His life, in fact, seems to have embodied a very simple, class-room based formula: "If I learn more about Subject A in the classroom, then I will be better able to help solve Problem B in the world. And it works the other way around too: as I learn more about Problem B, Problem B will then help shape the contours of Subject A, which will then shape the curriculum that I choose to study and teach."
It's not a new idea. "Knowledge," Booker T. Washington stated flatly, "must be harnessed to the things of real life."
This is a very difficult model to enact, particularly in the humanities, because it trades on one of the most troublesome saws in humanistic education: make it relevant!
But as hesitant as I am to base Shakespeare's worth on his relevancy at any given moment in our country's history, I am equally certain, as I read Zinn, that we make ourselves responsible members of the community only by bringing our teaching and our education directly into a fruitful conjunction with the society it serves.
And so for those of us who admire Zinn and are inclined to attempt a small portion of what he did, we might as well begin to judge our ourselves, and our teaching, by how well we reconstruct that bridge between the so-called monuments of history, literature, art, and music and the lives that we all lead, day in and day out.
What we learn and what we use—we shouldn't restrict the former because the latter seems not to require it. We should model our lives, in fact, on the vast resources, the most innovative articulations of living, that the past has left to us. And just what are those "innovative articulations?"
We get to judge, and we get to make the case for our selections. And rendering those judgments and making those cases ought to be a large part of what we do in the classroom.
Look very carefully at the leaders of any benevolent social movement—from Christ to Aung Sang Suu Kyi, Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama—and you will see a similar model of efficiency. Wisdom traditions transformed powerfully into paths of reform—that's a powerful model.
From the teacher's perspective, it sounds like this: What we choose to teach will directly impact the world around us, but that world, which we define according to its most pressing needs, must directly impact and expand what we choose to teach. And so that world must also redefine what we teach; and re-evaluate it.
And we must teach our students how to redefine and re-evaluate these materials for themselves.
It's a process, this birth and sustenance of a responsible citizen.
A final note. Zinn was always an unapologetic cheerleader for social movements and, more specifically, for the energy that rises from them. Here he is in an earlier chapter called, "The Last Teach-In," describing that energy:
While we were an embattled minority, it was thrilling to imagine that the beautiful humanity of so many of the people we encountered in the movement (forgetting its dogmatists, its bureaucrats, the power-seekers, the humorless ones) represented the future. It seemed there could be some day a world of just such people, the kind you work with, share everything with, have fun with, trust with your life (122).
That is the energy that we all bring to the causes that engage us, or that we should bring to them, from gun-violence prevention to racial justice to climate change. And to all the vast areas that lie between them, around them, and embedded within them.
But lest we forget, Zinn reminds us: it is this powerful energy that always unites us, even when our chapter titles and our reform groups go by different names and demand different terms of allegiance. Nowadays, much social reform depends on shunning the universalism and idealism that at times characterized the work that Zinn and others from his generation undertook, both in the Civil Rights and the anti-war movements of the Sixties.
There is nothing wrong with revealing the hidden biases and power-grabs that get smuggled in under the idealist banner. Anybody can build a Trojan horse, and many of us have unwittingly done so. And older activists must realize that the process of self-definition, of defining one's group in contrast to other groups, initiates all lasting reform movements.
But I also learned this from Zinn: these movements, as unlike each other as they are, feed off a particular, unique, and common human energy.
It is a social energy, according to Zinn, a "thrilling" social energy that you "work with, share everything with . . . [and] trust with your life."
Once we lose this sense of shared work, however widely separated are the fields that host our work, we lose one of our strongest assets.