Howard Zinn, 1922-2010


Howard Zinn died yesterday.  I never read much of his work, but I admired his career a great deal–the linked obituary is a nice rundown, but hilariously, it identifies Camelot lapdog Arthur M. “history goes in cycles” Schlesinger Jr. as a “liberal historian.”  Zinn was a “polemicist,” as Schlesinger called him–but then, aren’t we all?  It’s just that some of us are timid polemicists, and some of us are bolder than others, and Zinn was a bold, combative person.  (He was literally combative–the obituary linked above says that he got his head bashed in by police at a Communist rally when he was 17, and he was in the Army Air Corps during World War II.)

I never met Zinn, but curiously, our paths crossed in a distant way in-between my freshman and sophomore year of college.  Here’s the story of my brush with (the correspondence of) greatness:  I moved to Boston that summer to live with some friends, and found a job at Boston University as an administrative assistant in the Office of Faculty Actions for the College of Liberal Arts.  Zinn was a longtime member of the History Political Science faculty there.  The Office of Faculty Actions processed all of the paperwork involved in hiring and tenuring and promoting (or not) everyone on the Liberal Arts faculty at B.U.  I was the person that summer who was xeroxing (and reading!) everyone’s tenure and promotion files, and filing all of the documents that came down from the President’s and Provost’s offices.

The President of Boston University at the time was John Silber, whom many of you liberal and progressive-types my age and older will remember as a comic-book like villain of a university president who was actively at war with what he believed was the dangerously liberal and/or feminist tendencies of the faculty in the Liberal Arts college in particular.  (Silber and his reactionary cronies were just colossally stupid–this is the guy who let it be written down in the 1980s that he thought the English department was a “damn matriarchy,” because it had 6 women on a faculty of 26 and a woman department chair, as revealed in a successful lawsuit against the university for a tenure denial case.  Yes, I looked in the Julia Brown file, and yes, I saw the words “damn matriarchy” there in black and white.  What a dumba$$.)

In addition to handling faculty advancement, Faculty Actions was also the office that processed all of the annual faculty contracts and salary increases.  I dutifully prepared a mountain of contracts for mailing out to individual faculty members, which they were supposed to sign and return to me.  (It was shocking to me even then at the age of 18 to see how little the humanities faculty were paid, as compared to the economists and scientists.)  By 1987, Zinn hadn’t had a salary increase in years–presumably because of his politics and his combative stance against the Silber administration.  He was at that time being paid just $41,000 a year by B.U.–a salary that was clearly far below that of his colleagues in the History Political Science department.  Zinn’s contract came back signed, but with a righteous addendum printed under the signature that went something like this:  “I see that once again you have refused to give me a raise because you disagree with my politics.  But fortunately for me, I am independently wealthy!!!!”  Just based on that brief note, I decided that I really liked his style.  Childish, yes:  but really, the whole thing was childish.  That’s the kind of response you should expect if you treat your eminent faculty like disobedient children.

I think back on that summer of 1987, and I often marvel at the fact that I went into academia myself, because I was privy to a lot of nasty faculty politics, even aside from Howard Zinn’s financial persecution.  It was a pathetic bunch of twerps who were in charge at B.U. at that time.  Sadly, I’ve learned in my brief career so far that there are pathetic bunches of twerps in a lot of universities, and that they unfortunately can wield meaningful power.  Would that we all had the courage and common decency of Howard Zinn (not to mention, the financial means) to call it as we see it, and to take the consequences cheerfully–with exclamation marks!!!!

UPDATE, later this morning:  See also this more detailed obit at the Boston Globe, which reports that Zinn “Dr. Zinn became an associate professor of political science at BU in 1964 and was named full professor in 1966.”  I’ve made the relevant corrections above.  The Globe story also provides more details and context for understanding Silber’s feud with Zinn: 

Certainly, it was a recipe for rancor between Dr. Zinn and John Silber, former president of Boston University. Dr. Zinn, a leading critic of Silber, twice helped lead faculty votes to oust the BU president, who in turn once accused Dr. Zinn of arson (a charge he quickly retracted) and cited him as a prime example of teachers “who poison the well of academe.”

Dr. Zinn was a cochairman of the strike committee when BU professors walked out in 1979. After the strike was settled, he and four colleagues were charged with violating their contract when they refused to cross a picket line of striking secretaries. The charges against “the BU Five” were soon dropped.

John Silber:  classy, classy guy.  (Verily, verily, I say unto you:  dumba$$!!!!)

0 thoughts on “Howard Zinn, 1922-2010

  1. I attended Boston University as an undergraduate, when Silber was becoming all (too) powerful. I sat in on some of Howard Zinn’s classes–he was in Political Science. He and the late Murray Levin were well beloved faculty figures. I was there in 1979, during the faculty and clerical strikes and I supported the strikes. Many faculty members held classes off campus; others brought the issue into their classrooms. The university’s photographers captured the strikes and there was a purge of clerical workers.

    I returned to BU in 1991 in my first tenure-track job. I didn’t make it through the third-year reappointment, even with an NEH fellowship, a book contract, and several published essays. Because of the Yeshiva decision, BU no longer had a faculty union, and there was no clearcut grievance process. From the dean up to Silber, I was told that the administration need not tell me why I wasn’t reappointed. I kept pressing, and they kept feinting, stalling, and insulting me personally. I consulted a lawyer who had a long, and successful, history of defending BU faculty against Silber U., and she was confident that I had a winning case. I still have Silber’s response to my appeal, full of unsupported claims that were libelous because he shared it with another faculty member who supported my case. When she saw that I had been at BU in 1979, she asked whether any photographer had taken a picture of me on the picket line. Wow. Family illness intervened, and I decided not to pursue it. This–even though my alma mater–wasn’t a university with which I wished to be affiliated or to support. (Even though they ask, every damn year.)

    My neighbor at the time was the daughter of another BU faculty, a member of the “BSASH Club”: Before Silber And Still Here. Another colleague called Silber’s presidency “The Interregnum.” Coping strategies were many, including total divorcement from the situation at hand: yearly purges of humanities and arts faculty, primarily women. Still and all, I met great people and enjoyed great students, not a few of which I count as very close friends. I learned a great deal about academic politics. And, still today, when people learn what happened to me there, they shake my hand and say that I must be a decent scholar, having earned rejection by Silber.

    Through it all, I remembered what Howard Zinn had said of BU and Silber (though I cannot recall where): he compared the university to the Pyramids and Silber and his non-Ph.D.-holding provost (and successor)to the pharaohs. He said the university will become great, but at what cost: Who will remember and credit the slaves who actually built the institution?

    Howard Zinn was a decent and good man, and I learned a lot from his example. The last time I saw him was when I had returned to Boston to serve on a student’s dissertation committee (I kept all my students, and I love them all the more for their faith in me.) A friend and I went to local farm market, and there the man was, arm in arm with his wife. And you could tell that everyone there knew who he was–even before “Good Will Hunting” made him a pop icon.


  2. HistoryMaven–thanks for the details on both B.U. and Zinn. And thanks, too, for more on Silber. I forgot that his Provost & successor Jon Westling didn’t even have a Ph.D.! (I think he was the CLA Dean I worked for that summer!!!) It was like Russia, with Silber/Putin staying on as Chancellor/Prime Minister to continue to pull the puppet strings for their nominal “Presidents.”

    It’s weird that we know so many of the same institutions, although at different times so our paths never crossed!


  3. We’re losing one of our three public history faculty this year, unfortunately–so who knows? (That is, “who knows” if we’ll ever have the do-re-mi to run a search to replace this person?) As Matt Druge likes to say, “developing. . . “


  4. One of Zinn’s great contributions was the way he made history accessible to non-academics. I can’t count how many friends have said, “Oh, _People’s History of the US_ was so good. Now, I always wanted to say “I’m glad, but you should know that not all historians agree with everything he says” (safe sentence, you could say that about all of us) but I never did — I just told them I was glad they had read it and enjoyed it.


  5. My reading recommendation for the day is Zinn’s autobiography, _You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train_. Much as I enjoy his other work, I always feel squeamish about polemics (even if I agree with them). With no expectation or obligation for objectivity, you can just enjoy reading a very interesting man explain his very interesting life. Much better than the movie.


  6. Jonathan–thanks for the tip. He had a long and eventful life right in the middle of the major conflicts of the twentieth century: communism and anti-communism, Nazism and anti-Nazism, and Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement, just to name three. Really, he’s almost Zelig-like or Forrest Gump-like in his proximity to or participation in the major events of the past century.

    I found his last bit of published writing over at The Nation, in a forum in which various people rate the first year of Obama’s presidency. Zinn is not impressed, as you might expect, although he says “[a]s far as disappointments, I wasn’t terribly disappointed because I didn’t expect that much.” He concludes that “I think people are dazzled by Obama’s rhetoric, and that people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president–which means, in our time, a dangerous president–unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.”


  7. “Faculty Advancement.” What a nice term for it, if only it was true. You almost picture someone sitting at a huge mahogany desk who thinks 24/7 about how to keep instructional compensation up there within a few light years of, say, that of Goldman Sachs portfolio advisors. My favorite part of the Globe obit was Zinn knocking off thirty minutes early during his “last lecture” so he could join a picket line, and bringing 100 of 500 students in the class along with him!


  8. In these days when most the progressive cannot even understand what it means, Zinn was a real progressive. Not some faux monkey jumping up and down and berating Hillary, not some guy who make several hundred of thousand a year and believe that this middle class status has to protected and preserved.

    There aren’t too many Zinn’s left.


  9. $41K! That is amazingly bad. In 1987 I was a new PhD and new assistant professor and I made $30K with good benefits, at a school that likes to compare itself to BU. My father was a full professor in the humanities at UCSB at that time and I saw a pay stub in 1986; he was making $66K.


  10. Prof. Zero: Big Daddy Silber wasn’t about to let Prof. Zinn have his allowance now, not after he. . . said mean things about his leadership!

    Indyanna, I liked that fitting end to Zinn’s career too. There may be some administrators out there behind a mahogany (or mahogany veenered) desk with an eye on protecting and compensating hir faculty well, but they’re like hen’s teeth, I am sure.

    koshem bos: there really aren’t *any* Zinn’s left among historians that I can think of. And Zinn was singular when he was alive. “Historians” in the popular imagination all are well-paid, prominent talking heads like Michael Beschloss and Doris Kerns Goodplagiarist, or avuncular elderly white men on Ken Burns’ and other PBS American Experience documentaries. Not a radical among ’em. But, as Zinn’s career suggests, radicalism has its price. Zinn was fortunate to have the means to give the double finger to John Silber and Jon Wesling.


  11. Remember when BU appointed that president some years back, and the guy did not want Silber on the board (or something like that). Rather than offend Silber (aka Richard III) the university withdrew the offer and had to pay $1 million severance — to someone who never even arrived on campus. I’m just glad Silber lost his bid for governor. Didn’t he know that to get elected he needed to undress for a photo spread. Uh, never mind.

    But about Zinn – yes! Real hero, and when Silber is forgotten we’ll still have copies of the People’s History.


  12. This discussion of Zinn as a part of a rare and dying breed recalls for me a point one Latin American historian made: in Europe and Latin America, faculty are “public intellectuals” – activists even – but not in the U.S. This must be a legacy of McCarthyism (and the on-going witch hunts for “liberals” in academia), which is why someone like Zinn is missed so dearly. The only other historian I know who invited her class to a picket line acted with the same job security that Zinn did; she had tenure.


  13. DV–excellent points. Yes, tenure helps, but unless one has an income stream separate from one’s faculty position, unis can still exert a great deal of economic pressure on one. (This may be a good argument for pursuing contracts to write “popular” books–which would address your concern about faculty as public intellectuals AND perhaps give them the means to do whatever they want without fear of reprisal or salary-bullying.)

    Rad: I remember that million-dollar payout. Awesome leadership, B.U.!!! Silber’s gubernertorial campaign back in 1990 was just weird. He ran as a Democrat, when most liberals of course hated his guts. (The fact that the Dem party nominated him is another argument in favor of my analysis that Massachusetts really isn’t all that “liberal,” although it is reliably Democratic.) He paved the way for the rise of Bill Weld–I had a lot of friends who voted for Weld simply because the notion of Silber as governor was so completely offensive that they saw Weld (reasonably, IMHO) as the lesser of two evils.


  14. I read People’s History in a high school history class, alongside a more conventional textbook. It gave me a kick in [what I now take to be] the right direction. Changed the way I thought about social conflicts and social movements.

    On a slightly tangential note. I’ve recently been convinced that conscientious people should avoid using “classy” and “tacky” as evaluative terms, the same way we would avoid “gay” or “lame” or “retarded” for the obvious reasons. “Classy” and “tacky” are rooted in classism, and traditionally indicated facility (or lack thereof) with politeness conventions of the wealthy. Today, people unthinkingly use them to denote facility (or lack thereof) with moves made in a variety of social games we value.

    So here, you’re calling Silber “classy” — ironically — because he’s spectacularly failing to behave in a way that befits his position. The standard of behavior you’re employing belongs to feminism rather than wealth, but the reason the word WORKS to express your meaning is because of its classist past.

    I would encourage you to avoid that word.

    I love the blog, and this post was wonderful as always!


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