Former Chair of Social Studies Department
Cambridge Rindge and Latin School
“You wanna read a really good American History book? Read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. I will knock your socks off!” -Will Hunting (Matt Damon), “Good Will Hunting”
The world famous historian, retired BU professor, playwright, poet, novelist, and “radical” peace and civil rights activist, died Jan. 26th, the same day President Obama delivered his State of the Union message. Howie was 87, active until the day he died, struck down by a massive heart attack. His famous history book, The People’s History of the United States, has sold well over 2 million copies, and counting. Last Dec. 11th, “The People Speak,” produced in part by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (’88 and ’90) appeared on the History Channel. Before moving to Cambridge in the mid-70’s, Matt Damon grew up next door to the Zinns. Both households equally sharing progressive politics, they became life long “family.” September ’81, Kyle Damon, Matty’s older brother, enrolled in my US History class. It was Kyle’s freshmen year, my “rookie” year at The Pilot, the very first year “A People’s History” appeared. This was pure serendipity, all to the delight of their mom. Soon after I was invited over for dinner with the Zinn’s. The rest is history.
Howard Zinn’s history book A People’s History of The United States, has a compelling connection with CRLS. Rindge was one of the very first US urban high schools to allow teachers to use the controversial revisionists history book. I was one of the very first history teachers allowed to teach Zinn’s revisionist history in an American public high school. The year was 1981, less than a year after the book appeared. I taught 20-some years at The Pilot School, the progressive alternative school program housed in CRLS. I taught extensively from “The Peoples’ History” for the next two decades.
I submit there is a direct correlation between the introduction of Zinn’s book and the extraordinary awakening of student leadership in Cambridge Rindge and Latin during the 80’s and lasted until early 90’s. The change in the political activism in the school was palpable. Student leaders angered by US indifference to the Apartheid in South Africa, drove out all Coca-Cola dispenser machines from CRLS when they learned the corporation lied about their divestment policy. Students’ response to the California jury’s acquittal of the LAPD’s beating of Rodney King was to organize with teachers and alumni to produce their own revisionist multicultural curriculum writing project (Onesimus), dedicated to combat racial, gender and class prejudice and stereotypes in our schools. When a former CRLS student was senselessly murdered outside a housing project, students established Students Against Violence and For Equality (SAVE). When local educators, parents and civic leaders feared the worst– a rampaging AIDS epidemic, youth peer leaders organized a condom distributions program in our school’s Teen Health Clinic, one of the very first such projects in any public school in America. Student activists also helped establish Project 10 East, the second in-school support youth program for GTLB community in the country, another first! I actively joined my students in their endeavors.
Howie died promoting his latest project, “The People Speak.” He wanted it to inspire students to find their voice and take courage to fight for social justice and human rights. How will we be able to get this curriculum into our public schools?