This suggestion comes in from Heather, who asks “If you had the opportunity to choose one book to be required reading in American high schools, which one would it be?”
This is a ridiculously hard question because I am such a book nerd, but I think my answer would ultimately be The People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.
I debated in my head some more typical answers, like Huck Finn, The Great Gatsby, something Shakespeare, the like, but Chana said that it needs to be something that completely changes the way that you think, and I agree.
Zinn’s book is a tome, and an absolute classic. It starts with Columbus’ arrival in the Caribbean and continues through to the present day, presenting a narrative of the history of America not through the old rich white men who are all anyone focuses on in high school history classes, but instead takes his readers to the plantations, coal mines, and picket lines of the working classes. For most readers, it is their country seen in an entirely new light; not the land of the free, home of the brave, democracy and apple pie national legend that we all have shoved down our throats from day one, but instead one where the haves exploit and oppress the have nots to maintain their privilege and wealth.
I think Zinn himself described his work best of all.
My history, therefore, describes the inspiring struggle of those who have fought slavery and racism (Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses), of the labor organizers who have led strikes for the rights of working people (Big Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, César Chavez), of the socialists and others who have protested war and militarism (Eugene Debs, Helen Keller, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, Cindy Sheehan). My hero is not Theodore Roosevelt, who loved war and congratulated a general after a massacre of Filipino villagers at the turn of the century, but Mark Twain, who denounced the massacre and satirized imperialism…
I want young people to understand that ours is a beautiful country, but it has been taken over by men who have no respect for human rights or constitutional liberties. Our people are basically decent and caring, and our highest ideals are expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which says that all of us have an equal right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The history of our country, I point out in my book, is a striving, against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make those ideals a reality — and all of us, of whatever age, can find immense satisfaction in becoming part of that.
Schooling, particularly high school, should be about free thought and critical investigation. I think Zinn’s book is one of the best catalysts for this that is available.