Once again, a legislator thinks that it’s a good idea to ban Howard Zinn from the the public school classroom. This time, it’s Arkansas Representative Kim Hendren.
Those who follow debates over free speech and book bans will remember that Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana (now President of Purdue University) tried a similar move in 2010. When his administration’s memos became public in 2013, it led to weeks of debate and protest. The memos revealed that not only did Daniels and his staff attempt to ban books, but they specifically targeted public university professors. It revealed a group of politicians who were more comfortable silencing ideas than allowing teachers and students to engage with them.
Representative Hendren’s bill focuses on K-12 classrooms. Recently, Anthony L. Fisher of Reason.com — a site for “free minds and free markets” — had an interview with Hendren about the bill. Representative Hendren provided the vaguest of justifications for the legislation, claiming that his constitutents had “concerns about some of the approaches that Howard Zinn has taken to history in the books he’s written.” Concerns about what? Zinn’s politics? Zinn’s facts? Zinn’s interpretations?
Hendren continued, “My basic personal philosophy is I think we ought to be open to hearing both sides of the situation and then try to do what’s best for ourselves and our country. That’s what will happen with this bill.” It seems that what Hendren means by “hearing both sides” is, in fact, silencing other viewpoints. Implicitly, he is making the case that legislators should play the role of thought police.
In 1980, when Zinn wrote his most famous book, A People’s History of the United States, he was responding to the fact that our education system had produced generations of students with historical blind spots. The country’s public school curricula had never been particularly good at representing the diverse histories of its inhabitants. Its textbooks smoothed the rough edges of America’s history. Its classrooms silenced history by omission, ignoring egregious abuses of power. They maintained the intellectual and political status quo by making sure that students did not engage with ideas outside of the mainstream. As an antiwar and civil rights activist, Zinn had seen firsthand how lack of historical knowledge was linked to a lack of civic empathy. His work was an attempt to provide an accessible account of U.S. history that challenged the conservative orthodoxy. Since then, teachers have found A People’s History of the United States a valuable text to use. In high school classrooms in particular, the book allows teachers to show students how our historical understanding is shaped by the facts that we use (or ignore) and how these facts are used to create historical interpretations.
The last thing we need is for legislators to blacklist scholars whose interpretation of the past differs with theirs. This has has no place in a democracy. And, frankly, it sets a bad example for students. We need more dialogue, not less. We need more engagement with books like Howard Zinn’s, not less. We need to teach our students how to compare and contrast historical arguments — to examine the facts and make reasoned judgments. These are essential tools for our citizenry — perhaps now more than ever.
Arkansas teachers, if you need a copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (and some lessons to go along with it) fill out this form at the Zinn Education Project.
I encourage you to contact Representative Kim Hendren to express your opinions about book banning and intellectual censorship. His office contact information is
Arkansas House Bill 1834 (2017)
To see the pdf copy on the Arkansas Legislature’s website, click here. Below is the text of the bill.
State of Arkansas
91st General Assembly A Bill
Regular Session 2017
HOUSE BILL 1834
By: Representative K. Hendren
For An Act To Be Entitled
AN ACT TO PROHIBIT A PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICT OR OPEN-ENROLLMENT PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL FROM INCLUDING IN ITS CURRICULUM OR COURSE MATERIALS FOR A PROGRAM OF STUDY BOOKS OR ANY OTHER MATERIAL AUTHORED BY OR CONCERNING HOWARD ZINN; AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES.
TO PROHIBIT A PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICT OR OPEN-ENROLLMENT PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL FROM INCLUDING IN ITS CURRICULUM OR COURSE MATERIALS FOR A PROGRAM OF STUDY BOOKS OR ANY OTHER MATERIAL AUTHORED BY OR CONCERNING HOWARD ZINN.
BE IT ENACTED BY THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE STATE OF ARKANSAS:
SECTION 1. Arkansas Code Title 6, Chapter 16, Subchapter 1, is amended
to add an additional section to read as follows:
6-16-149. Prohibited course materials.
A public school district or an open-enrollment public charter school shall not include in its curriculum or course materials for a class or program of study any book or other material:
(1) Authored by Howard Zinn from the years 1959 through 2010; and
(2) Concerning the books or other materials under subdivision (1) of this section.