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The Optimism of Uncertainty

Howard Zinn is one of the most prominent and respected historians in the world today, and among the pioneers of “People’s History”—the movement to document history from the perspective of the ordinary people who collectively make it—and lived it, rather than as broad, faceless trends. Few historians or their work for that matter appear on prime time television or in blockbuster films, but Zinn has featured in both, cited in an argument about Columbus Day in The Sopranos, and mentioned in Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon’s character saying “If you want to read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s A People's History of the United States.” It is perhaps a little known fact that Howard and Roslyn Zinn were neighbours to the Damon family in West Newton, Massachusetts, and baby-sat the future Hollywood star and his brothers. howard_zinn-historian.pngIn his seminal, award winning A People’s History of the United States, Zinn was one of the first historians to write a comprehensive history of colonisation from the perspective of the colonised, and in rewriting the role of Columbus it is safe to say that that icon of Italian-American machismo, Tony Soprano, is not a fan. Since its original publication in 1980 A People’s History has sold over a million copies, and is required reading as a textbook in many high schools and colleges. It is considered to be one of the most widely known examples of critical pedagogy—the academic analogy to the age-old meditative discipline of discrimination, equally interested in arriving at truth:
Habits of thought, reading, writing, and speaking which go beneath surface meaning, first impressions, dominant myths, official pronouncements, traditional cliches, received wisdom, and mere opinions, to understand the deep meaning, root causes, social context, ideology, and personal consequences of any action, event, object, process, organization, experience, text, subject matter, policy, mass media, or discourse. Ira Shor, Empowering Education
howard_zinn_bombardier_england_1945.jpgUnlike most academics, Zinn has actually made history as well as written about it, first as a part of “The Greatest Generation,” a bombardier who dropped bombs on Western Europe, including one of the tragic first uses of napalm near the war’s close; later as a tenured history professor in Atlanta, Georgia, who eventually lost his position due a very public involvement and fostering of the Civil Rights movement—Pulitzer Prize winning author Alice Walker (The Color Purple) and Marian Wright Edelman (founder Children’s Defense Fund) were among his students. Zinn’s wartime experiences saw him become a lifelong advocate of non-violence and an unequivocal opponent of war. He was one of the most outspoken critics of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, securing the release of American POWs from North Vietnam and assisting in the release of the Petagon Papers, an act which contributed to turning the tide of popular opinion against the war. Noam Chomsky, pioneering linguist, social conscience and perhaps pre-eminent intellect of our time states of his personal friend, that he "changed the consciousness of a generation." In the following essay, The Optimism of Uncertainty, Howard Zinn makes a powerful case for continued optimism even in the worst of times, and like the poet, artist and meditation teacher Sri Chinmoy, sees the history of the world as one of slow but irresistible progress and improvement.