He was a very funny and warm man. Told jokes all the time. Very self-deprecating. And very humble. When it came to his students and students who disagreed with him—and a lot of students in our classes disagreed with him; it was the mid-’80s, Reagan and all that, a very conservative era—he didn’t sit there and shut them down. He would lecture for a little while, maybe a guest speaker, and then it was an open forum for students to talk and challenge him. He enjoyed being challenged. It kept him fresh and it kept him on his toes. It kept him connected to the next generation. He always wanted to connect to young people.
I was part of a lot of the activist movements, particularly the anti-apartheid movement in the ’80s, and he was there. He wasn’t a detached academic who wrote about these things but didn’t put his heart where his mouth was. He put everything there, because he cared very deeply that these things were wrong—that apartheid was wrong. That’s easy to say in retrospect. But, this was the early ’80s, and there were people who didn’t really think it was so bad.
That’s the thing. A lot of times we look back and we remember how radical it was to confront apartheid. Now, everyone looks back and knows it was wrong. It was so radical to oppose the Iraq War. Most of the public doesn’t think we should have gone in. That’s why dissent is so important, because it creates an atmosphere in which people can explore alternative ways of thinking.
That’s something I took from Howard. That’s what Howard taught. That’s why he still matters.
This story was excerpted from an interview with Nadine Dolby by Dave Bangert in the Journal and Courier called “What Would Howard Zinn Do?”