A state legislator in Arkansas earlier this month introduced a bill with a very specific and highly unconstitutional goal: to ban all books by or about historian Howard Zinn from public school classrooms in the state. The bill is scheduled to be considered in the House Education Committee tomorrow; meanwhile, hundreds of Arkansas teachers and librarians have requested free copies of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States donated by individuals and several publishers via the Zinn Education Project.
Zinn’s most well-known work considers U.S. history through the lens of popular movements such as abolition, civil rights, and labor organizing. The book is often used in schools to provide an alternate perspective to mainstream textbooks, which Zinn found to be biased in favor of institutions over people. A People’s History has run into trouble in classrooms before: in 2010 then-Governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels unsuccessfully pushed to have it removed from public university curricula in that state, and in 2012 it was part of the Mexican American Studies curriculum that was banned wholesale from Tucson high schools. Last August a parent in Chatham, New Jersey objected to excerpts of the book being used in high school history classes, claiming that it encouraged “one-way thinking.”
State Rep. Kim Hendren, who introduced the Arkansas bill, has granted an interview to Reason.com but failed to provide a clear motive for the legislation. He told Reason’s Anthony Fisher that some of his constituents have “concerns about some of the approaches that Howard Zinn has taken to history in the books he’s written” and added that “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.”
Of course, that is precisely not what would happen if the bill were to pass; the very straightforward wording of the legislation leaves no room for “both sides” regarding Zinn and his work. But Hendren, who happens to be the brother-in-law of Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, admitted to Fisher that he doesn’t necessarily expect or intend for the bill to be passed as-is, but “to spark a conversation and debate.” As Bookriot’s A.J. O’Connell pointed out, that is exactly what teachers aim to do when they use A People’s History in the classroom: prompt students to think about and discuss the way that history is commonly framed. Rep. Hendren’s bill, on the other hand, would simply shut down those conversations.
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.