Teaching Social Justice in the Classroom?


I took the week off to get some things accomplished that I needed to, so my apologies for a lack of posting, but I have been taking daily assessments of the blogosphere and noted a few things which I will comment on now.

There has been some controversy over the History Channel’s upcoming Sunday evening program, The People Speak. Last time I checked the History Channel is a privately own company and can decide what programming it wishes to have. I like most of what the HC airs, so, I’m not going to get all bent out of shape over this. I visited the HC site for The People Speak and the premise seems harmless. I like the idea that Democracy is not a spectator sport and I agree with the spirit of the show.

From what I hear, the actors do a sensational job with their readings from American history, so if the show can engage students to investigate history and determine how bad or good our country has been, and do so from various perspectives, so be it.

So why am I writing this? Well, Howard Zinn is widely used in schools (link is a source) and is gaining momentum in classrooms and now in educational Television. This concerns me as Zinn is being promoted as an expert on American history. He might be an expert on American history, but he is an ideologue who has no interest in objectivity. Does the proliferating use of his propaganda – passed off as historical text – mean culpability on the part of those who use him in the classroom? No, I myself use sections from his book A People’s History of the United States (and here) in my AP Classes. I do not assign the entire book, however, and the reading is used with other texts that one would call “conservative.” My hope is that the students can see both sides of the issues we were dealing with.

So how are Zinn’s teachings and diatribes used in the classroom? Well for some it is about “social justice,” whatever that means!? I did some more research and found some startling things. The People Speak is of course a part of Zinn’s push to radicalize educational instruction. His website is all about promoting his books and ideology. Fine, once again, he can do what he wants. Yes, I said “radicalize” because he has already established himself as an activist and has given up objectivity. He wants social change.

Here are some organizations that are promoting Zinn’s historical theories:

Rethinking Schools Online promotes education from Zinn’s ideological position, which they proclaim proudly that, “most of which first appeared in Rethinking Schools magazine or books — are pegged directly to Zinn’s work.” They pass themselves off as an educational resource. They are part that, but mostly part something else.

They do not promote American values and traditions fairly, but instead focus on developing students as “global citizens.” They can focus on what they want, but there is no attempt at balance or fairness in regard to teaching American history and culture. Also, what do they mean when they say “global citizens”? Not what you think, but what do you really think is their goal here? I have an opinion but will refrain from offering it.

They also promote a guide to teaching “Early Childhood Education.” Just look at the table of contents. Taking each one individually, I would not have a major problem with most, but taken as a whole there is little objectivity and there is no attempt at balance. What is the message here? I’ll leave you to decide. I do note that they are switching the focus on our children at a young age, and frankly, this is nothing short of Zinnism and propaganda. They have an agenda.

Perhaps the most startling organization I found described (as the others) as an educator resource is Teaching For Change.

They are in the business of “building social justice starting in the classroom.” Once again, Howard Zinn’s name (and writings) is all over this site. They seek to provide “teachers and parents with the tools to transform schools into centers of justice where students learn to read, write and change the world.”

So the notion that Zinn’s influence is only used as a counter-point or a harmless teaching device is questionable at best. I am sure there are responsible teachers who use his work as a counterpoint, but I suspect they are few and far between. There are movements within our educational system that have motives beyond teaching history.

The greatest concern are the school teachers themselves, the ones who are taken in by the above (and other) organizations that do not promote higher learning and critical thinking. They are promoting an agenda that is deeply rooted in political and ideological views. How do teachers who use these resources really teach American history? That is the question!

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5 Responses to Teaching Social Justice in the Classroom?

  1. Excellent post Chris. Thanks.


  2. LeAnn Rice says:

    I have read your blog with some interest for quite some time. I am teaching 8th grade US History through 1877 for the first time in my 10 year teaching career. I just wanted to say that this post intrigues me and I find it quite interesting that Zinn’s book is being used in other districts as their main text for teaching American History. We have a textbook that I use quite often, but do not limit myself to only what it states. I try to have the students develop their own points of view and critical thinking skills by using a wide variety of texts, whether primary or secondary. While teaching the main concepts and events of American history, I also intend to encourage students to think critically about what they are reading and to not take everything they read at face value. Thanks for this post. It encourages me that I am following “best practices” by encouraging this in my students rather than having them regurgitate the names, dates, and places.

  3. Chris says:

    LeAnn thank you for posting. It sounds like you are doing a wonderful job teaching your students. Getting young people to think critically is the hardest task. Also, encouraging them to take a stand and defend points of view with logical and informed opinions.


  4. I find a show like this to be one of the LEAST objectionable shows in a long line of recent far-fetched, fictional, and juvenile “History” shows. UFO Hunters, MonsterQuest, Ice Road Truckers anyone? Perhaps Malkin should direct her divisive rhetoric toward those shows instead.

  5. Chris says:

    Jared I will agree with you there, the HC has taken on some strange programming of late.

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