After "knocking around in various bad jobs"—digging ditches, waiting tables, working in a brewery—Zinn followed the GI Bill to New York University. Yet his undergraduate education was decidedly untraditional. "I was an older student, I was a ex-GI, I had a family," he explains. "I didn't hang around." He admits that he hardly attended classes. "If it was a choice between going to class and going to the library, I went to the library, because I found that I learned more from one hour in the library than from one hour in class." He cites an independent study in labor history as the most transforming academic experience of his undergraduate years. "There was no labor history at the time," he reflects. "There were no courses in labor history...and there was nothing in my textbooks about labor movements." Soon Zinn stumbled upon a relatively obscure book by a poet named Samuel Yellen that recounted crucial moments in the struggle of American workers—the railroad strikes of 1877, the Lawrence textile strike of 1912, and the San Francisco longshoremen's strike of 1934. "None of this had ever appeared in any of my classes, in any of my history books," explains Zinn. "I wanted to know: Why aren't they telling me about this?" While studying at NYU, Zinn also worked the "four to twelve shift" loading trucks and continued his union activism. Later, he wrote a master's thesis at Columbia University on the Colorado coal strikes of 1914. Among his teachers at Columbia—where he later penned a doctoral dissertation on Fiorello LaGuardia—were legendary figures Harry Carman, James Shenton, Henry Steele Commager, William Leuchtenberg and David Donald. Zinn recalls Donald, a southerner, speaking with tears in his eyes of the anti-slavery movement. "That impressed me enormously," Zinn recollects. "It was rare to find teachers with tears in their eyes.... you might say he influenced me in the sense of seeing how important it was for a teacher to be emotionally involved in a subject and not simply detached."If you don't freaking know who Howard Zinn is, then, well, find out.
Zinn brought a similar passion to his own teaching career at Spelman. When Zinn first arrived at the all Black college, he was stunned to find that they offered no courses in African-American history. Instead, history majors were required to enroll in a yearlong course on the history of England. "I remember coming into my first class," says Zinn, "and seeing on the blackboard what had been left over by the previous teacher. It was this genealogical chart of the Stuarts and the Tudors. These young black women were expected to learn about the monarchs of England, the difference between Charles I and Charles II, but not anything about Black history." During his time in Atlanta, Zinn warmly recalls living on campus and—although a white northerner—essentially becoming part of the Black community. He taught Constitutional law at the height of the Civil Rights struggle and advised students who wished to protest against segregation along Atlanta's exclusive Peachtree Street. Zinn recalls that "reading Constitutional law...was especially revealing because what you could see [was] the huge gap between what the law said and what the reality was." He had to warn students that while their right to protest was constitutionally protected "theoretically"—the Supreme Court decisions were very clear on the right to distribute leaflets on the public street—"the reality was that the policemen's clubs were going to be more important than the Supreme Court's decision in Marsh vs. Alabama." He carried the lessons from these experiences to his teaching at Spelman and later at Boston University: "I discovered that if you go back and forth from the arena of social struggle to the classroom, your motivation for learning is enormous. It's very powerful motivation when you're looking at the law to see if people's rights are being violated."
UPDATE: You might have trouble getting connected to Zinn's website, linked to directly above, because of all the traffic going there since news of his death. His wikipedia entry is also very informative.