Barry’s Blog # 34: Howard Zinn and the Academic Gatekeepers

This week I’ve been doing an email blast, introducing my book (with its wonderful blurb from Howard Zinn) to academics.


Howard Zinn

I’ve received many positive responses, including several requests for review copies.

I’ve also received one or two negative responses, including this one, from a Yale history professor: “Howard Zinn…was a joke in academia, and the self-designation “Regent Press of Berkeley” is a crude attempt to co-opt the prestige of the University of California at Berkeley, with which your press had no institutional connection whatever. Don’t send me any more of your e-mails.”

I’d like to try and unpack this one for you.

First, the easy part: this fellow is probably unaware of how low UC Berkeley has fallen, through administrative salary scandals and constantly rising tuition. Thousands of qualified students can no longer attend UCB. I guess he equates prestige with unattainability. And I hadn’t tried to equate it with my publisher.

More importantly, let’s consider his comment about Howard Zinn, because it tells us a lot about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. His assessment could arise from at least four positions.

1 – Perhaps he feels that Zinn did no original research in primary texts (well, he did).

2 – Much more likely, his politics are far to the right of Zinn’s, as are those of most public intellectuals. University faculties have always served as gatekeepers, subtly setting the boundaries of who is allowed within the pale (ethnicity, politics, race, gender) and just how critical college teachers can be of both their superiors and the government. Hundreds of liberal teachers were fired during the Cold War, for example. When someone like Zinn risks his tenure (as he did) to speak out against injustice, it is easy – and necessary – for the gatekeepers to label him “a joke.” Consider this story:

“When I was nominated for tenure in the mid-1960s, the rules at Boston University were pretty simple. If the political science department voted to extend tenure, the rest of the bureaucracy would rubber-stamp it.” The department put Zinn on the fast track for tenure, which would be confirmed at the annual Founders Day banquet. But that event was still months away. Around the same time, a few students asked him to speak at an anti-Vietnam War rally in downtown Boston. Howard immediately said yes but didn’t ask for any details. The Vietnam War still enjoyed wide public support then, and dissenters were considered traitors, communists or both. This didn’t deter Howard for a second.

Eventually he realized that the anti-war protest was focused on Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State. And why was Rusk in Boston? To speak at BU’s annual Founders Day banquet. Zinn recalled, “Well, I slowly figured out my academic future was in serious jeopardy.” Speech day/tenure day finally came, and Howard arrived at Copley Plaza and asked who else was speaking. “Well, we’ve had a lot of cancellations, Howard, so you’re it … can you stretch your talk to 45 minutes or longer?” At that point, Zinn knew his goose was cooked, so, in his words, he decided to go all out. “I was in great form that day. I denounced the war, I denounced the secretary of state, the president. … I even denounced the founders.”

The creme de la creme of polite Boston society, the BU trustees, turned up in black tie to discover one of their own at a microphone loudly denouncing anything and everything. Howard went back to campus and began to think about his next teaching assignment – somewhere else. A few days later, a letter arrived from the Board of Trustees. It told him that the board had extended tenure – on the morning of the Founders Day event. Zinn had spoken out without knowing about the letter.

3 – Academics, who often know (really) nothing about anything outside their very narrow specialties, hate those who write books for the general public, in plain English.

4 – Then there’s the obvious issue of envy. A People’s History of the United States has sold over a million copies. Some joke.

This commentary is really about the myth of American Innocence. Throughout our history, from the Mexican War to the Afghanistan war, the media and the intellectuals have been its strongest supporters. As I write in Chapter Seven:

Violent thugs were not the only whites to perpetuate these conditions; respected intellectuals have always done their part. The “Dunning School” of racist historians dominated the writing of post-Civil War history well into the 1950s. William Dunning, founder of the American Historical Association, taught Columbia students that blacks were incapable of self-government. Yale’s Ulrich Phillips defended slaveholders and claimed they did much to civilize the slaves. Henry Commager and (Harvard’s) Samuel Morison’s The Growth of the American Republic, read by generations of college freshmen, perpetuated the myth of the plantation and claimed that slaves “suffered less than any other class in the South…The majority…were apparently happy.” Daniel Boorstin’s The Americans: The Colonial Experience doesn’t mention slavery at all. Similarly, Arthur Schlesinger’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Jackson never mentions the Trail of Tears.

The process of initiation into higher education (and the careers it opens one to) nearly guarantees that those admitted within the pale are already thinking within very narrow boundaries. Noam Chomsky writes that is a system of imposed ignorance in which the most highly educated people are the most highly indoctrinated:

A good education instills in you the intuitive comprehension – it becomes unconscious and reflexive – that you just don’t think certain things…that are threatening to power interests.

Over the years, polls clearly indicate the results: the higher one’s education, the more one is likely to unquestioningly support America’s wars of aggression – and the reverse is also true. That means that you, even if you live in Berkeley, are likely to be among a distinct minority. You are one of those well-educated people who –like most young and ill-educated working people – can still perceive the obvious in a world where most of your “teachers” have been dedicated to misleading you.

All praises and gratitude to those real teachers like Howard Zinn and James Hillman who left us in the past two years.

Update, July, 2013:

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5 Responses to Barry’s Blog # 34: Howard Zinn and the Academic Gatekeepers

  1. Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 53: The Myth of Equivalency, Part One | madnessatthegates

  2. Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 66: Gatekeepers, Provocations and Cover-Ups | madnessatthegates

  3. Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 96: Deconstructing a Gatekeeper | madnessatthegates

  4. Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 334: American Exceptionalism, Part One of Six | madnessatthegates

  5. Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 334: American Exceptionalism, Part One of Six – Barry Spector’s Blog

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