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Adrienne Langlois '10: R.I.P. Howard Zinn

Admit it: regardless of how much we enjoy our academic pursuits at Brown, they can sometimes seem very distant from reality. The journal articles and academic books we read can seem too specific to be useful in "real life," and the papers we write rarely see the light of day once their due dates have passed.

It's certainly not every day that an academic's obituary makes international headlines, either. But the unexpected Jan. 27 death of Howard Zinn, one of the most visible academics of the twentieth century, appeared in news sources around the globe.

Whether or not you've extensively studied history, you probably know Zinn as the author of the 1980 "A People's History of the United States: 1942–Present." The book, which reinterpreted key events in American history from the perspectives of the disenfranchised and oppressed, is frequently found on both high school and college reading lists around the country, and has even been revised into an edition for "Young People."

Much of Zinn's visibility was most likely due to the controversy he caused: He drew fire from both left-leaning and conservative writers, pundits and historians. He is most often labeled with the title "revisionist historian" and has been criticized by reviews and by others in his field for oversimplifying the course of events to suit his narrative. He was even fired for his protest activities and radical views.

But whether or not one agrees with his politics, Zinn and his writing are of particular value to those of us in the academic system. For undergraduates experiencing their first taste of academia at a liberal arts institution, the theoretical aspects of their chosen course of study can make the practical applications of academic work, whether that work be evolutionary biology or international relations, seem distant. While there's something to be said for theory for theory's sake (it does, after all, provide the foundation for academic disciplines), finding connections between the goings-on in the ivory tower and the rest of the world can seem difficult.

One does not have to look hard to find the practical applications of his discipline within Zinn's writing; nearly every description of historical events in "A People's History" is framed in such a way as to be applicable to their present-day counterparts. Beyond his academic appointments, Zinn made his work and ideas visible by protesting, speaking and writing in newspapers, magazines and journals.

Even more importantly, Zinn and his writing demonstrated an engagement with his subject matter not always seen in academic literature. Zinn's interest in history grew from his background as the son of immigrants and his many working-class jobs, experiences which are fully manifest in his class-centric historical narratives and his fiery prose. Whether or not they agreed with him, readers could not help but share Zinn's interest in the subject — since its publication, "A People's History" has inspired countless retorts and reinterpretations.

Whether or not you hope to make a career as a professional academic, Zinn's engagement with his subject and his practical application of the lessons of his discipline still provide an important standard for all students and researchers in every area of study. With his groundbreaking and often controversial work, Zinn forced his readership to confront the implications of his chosen area of study — history and the past — in the present and the future.

Not every student or academic needs to try to be as political or accessible as Zinn. Even the simple act of finding ways to apply one's academic knowledge in real life is a worthwhile pursuit. Bringing one's intellectual interests not only to the research library but also to the dinner table and to the evening news is just as useful an application of academic knowledge as protesting (and is far less likely to get you labeled a Communist).
Ironically, with his death, Zinn passes into the much-derided category of "dead white men" who write history. Indeed, it remains to be seen what history will have to say about Howard Zinn, and whether he will even make it into the history books.

My prediction is that Zinn's greatest achievement will not be his prolific bibliography or his rethinking of historical methodology. It is ultimately irrelevant whether or not his words remain as tenacious and powerful as they are today. As long as students and teachers from all disciplines seek to mirror Zinn's commitment to making practical connections to the intellectual, his legacy will be secure.

Adrienne Langlois '10 is also pretty bummed about J.D. Salinger's death.



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