Rep. Kim Hendren’s bill to prohibit use of the late Howard Zinn’s books in Arkansas public schools died quietly in committee, of course, but it had great unintended consequence:
Some 700 copies of Zinn’s book, “A People’s History of the United States,” were sent free to teachers and librarians throughout Arkansas thanks to the controversy. Donations poured into the Zinn Education Project to support the giveaway to any middle or high school teacher or librarian in Arkansas who asked, writes one of the project directors, Bill Bigelow.
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In just a few days, we were flooded with requests. Many of them came accompanied by poignant notes about why people were eager to get the materials. One middle school librarian in Western Grove, Arkansas, near the Missouri border (population 373), wrote, “The proposed bill to ban Mr. Zinn’s book has fired up the Arkansas librarian world. To combat ignorance, I must have knowledge. I respectfully request a copy so I can educate my tiny corner of the world.”
A high school teacher in El Dorado, Arkansas, in the far south, near Louisiana, wrote defiantly, “Books and ideas are increasingly under attack in Arkansas. We need to defend our rights and freedoms and be willing to look at history from multiple viewpoints. As Orwell wrote, freedom is the freedom to say 2+2=4. Sometimes, speaking the truth is a revolutionary act. The truth will be taught in my classroom.”
Bigelow spoke with Hendren about the bill. He recounts the conversation:
“I’ll talk with you because in your message you seemed respectful, but I’ve been called the F-word, people have wished me dead. Apparently, there is some organization out there of Zinn supporters stirring things up.” I assured him that my aim in calling was simply to hear why he sought to single out Howard Zinn’s work for banning.
“I think my constituents had seen some stuff on the internet or media. And Rick Santorum had mentioned it. I’d never heard of Howard Zinn. I’d never heard of the man.” He also mentioned former Republican Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ work to cut Zinn from the curriculum. “I don’t want indoctrination. Let’s just present the bill and see where it goes.” At the end of the call, my impression was that Rep. Hendren was running away from his own piece of legislation.
Mitch Daniels indeed was serious about stripping the book from schools in Indiana. Why? Bigelow argues it’s not about facts, but Zinn’s partisanship. Zinn once wrote:
I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by Black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by Southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by Blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America.
I don’t think this would sit well with, say, your average Arkansas legislator. Bigelow thinks Zinn would have loved the hubbub.s
Amidst a flurry of White House executive orders to ban Muslims and build pipelines, a conservative legislator tries to jump on the bandwagon, with an attempt to ensure that his state’s children learn only a Fox News version of America’s past. But in response, teachers and librarians throughout the state reject his attempt to stifle critique and questioning; supporters around the country rally in solidarity, and people’s history materials pour into the state’s classrooms and libraries.