Last Wednesday, early in the morning, I was informed by KUNC that it was the anniversary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozartâ€™s birth date. Mozart has been my favorite composer ever since I can remember. Although I do not own many CDs, I own two dozen discs of his music. Mozartâ€™s music brings me great joy and helps me express the many moods of being human.
By the end of the day, it was obvious to me that Mozartâ€™s â€œRequiemâ€ should be at the top of my playlist. Late in the afternoon, I learned that Howard Zinn had died.
Howard Zinn left his career as a professor of political science at Boston University. He is most noted for his book â€œA Peopleâ€™s History of the United States.â€ Outside of academia he was one of the earliest and most outspoken protestors against the Vietnam War.
Early on as a professor, he spoke out against being neutral in the classroom. He thought it was his responsibility to speak out against human injustice and not to report on it as a drone reading out of an encyclopedia.
Dr. Zinn and I could have met. He was finishing his teaching career at Boston University as I was starting my graduate student career, three blocks west on Commonwealth Ave. Not coming from an educated background, I had never heard of Howard Zinn until I started working and going to school at BU.
I heard of â€œthis professorâ€ who taught history classes that numbered in the hundreds, where there was standing room only, where students begged the instructor to get into his class. I was impressed to hear this, and now, as an instructor, I can only dream that my classes were full not because they â€œfit my schedule.â€
Yes, he was a liberal; he was radical in his activism and in his teaching. A few years ago, I watched the video â€œYou Canâ€™t be Neutral on A Moving Trainâ€ based on the autobiography of his life. I suppose the title of his autobiography is trying to convey the idea that when something is happening you need to contribute to its cause or to its demise. His philosophy is that we must not sit silent; that each individual indeed can become educated and make a difference.
The two courses that I am teaching this semester try to impart just that. My course on human rights examines the history of human interaction, mostly in the United States. I have used Zinnâ€™s text â€œVoices of A Peopleâ€™s Historyâ€ every semester that I have taught this seminar.
This text gives the voices of the oppressed center stage. My second-semester seminar focuses on consumerism and the environment. I no longer stand neutral on this issue. Itâ€™s imperative we understand the fact that if we continue to degrade the environment, human health, if not perhaps our very existence, is at stake. It is our dependence on fossil fuels and our need for material goods that corrodes the earth that we live on.
The first year I remained neutral. The second year I taught it. I was told by a student named Cori that I should not remain neutral. She taught me to really teach my students about the relationship between what we do as humans and what happens to the environment, the entity that supports human life. I honor Cori for her bravery in telling me what was on her mind and urging me to be brave. I think of her often, but especially when I want to default to my timid nature in the classroom.
Douglas, my boyfriend, continues to urge me to be a leader in my life, including the classroom. I become stronger every semester I teach. I understand that Howard Zinn lived a life of conviction and honor for himself and to the teaching profession.
It is my hope, that when I am old like Howard Zinn and it is time to find out what happens after this life, I will be able to play â€œOde to Joy,â€ a piece by Ludwig Van Beethoven, with the knowledge that life is indeed better because of those who have taught generations of students who will in-turn better the world for the generation after them.
Anne Marie Merline is an instructor for the University Honors Program. Her column appears biweekly Tuesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.