Indiana: “How do we get rid of” Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States?’

In a disturbing development, the Associated Press has revealed emails in which former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels advocated banning the use of Howard Zinn’s text, “A People’s History of the United States” in the state’s educational systems. What’s troublesome is not dislike of a book but that Daniels seems to have been willing to misuse his power in an attempt to shape what is taught by trained professionals. Also troubling: Daniels is now president of Purdue University!

Professional historians also often have problems with Zinn’s text. But the way to deal with them is to teach it against critiques or alternative points of view. Banning books or arguments on merely ideological grounds, which is what Daniels apparently wanted to do, is the opposite of a liberal arts education. Where an argument is wrong or pernicious, scholars should debate it and learn how to show what is faulty in it. Daniels’ attitude is a mirror image of that of the apparatchiks in the old Soviet Union on the look-out in books like Doctor Zhivago for bias toward the business classes.

It is a principle of university administration in the United States that an administrator never gets to interfere in the syllabus of a teacher merely on the basis of ideology. Some state universities have charters of independence from the state legislature; where they don’t, sometimes a used car salesman who happened to get elected to something decides he is a Ph.D. and attacks a course or text choice. Anti-intellectualism and powerful ignorance is not the same as democracy.

Bill Bigelow writes at the Howard Zinn Education project:

“Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, one of the country’s most widely read history books, died on January 27, 2010. Shortly after, then-Governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels got on his computer and fired off an email to the state’s top education officials: “This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away.”

But Gov. Daniels, now president of Purdue University, was not content merely to celebrate Howard Zinn’s passing. He demanded that Zinn’s work be hunted down in Indiana schools and suppressed: “The obits and commentaries mentioned his book ‘A People’s History of the United States’ is the ‘textbook of choice in high schools and colleges around the country.’ It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”’

Democracy Now! reports:

Posted in US politics | 19 Responses | Print |

19 Responses

  1. Those on the Right who want to muzzle Leftist historians such as Howard Zinn and the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm are just as disgusting in their anti-intellectualism as those on the Left who want to muzzle the likes of Conservative historians such as Niall Ferguson and Victor Davis Hanson. Such attempts to suppress or muzzle intellectual discourse with which one may disagree are usually thwarted by a strong tradition of intellectual inquiry and competing ideas in the academy. Nevertheless, as the story above demonstrates, one must always be alert to the anti-intellectual current that runs just below the surface of both the Right and the Left in much of the American populace.

    • I’m saying it is up the academic with the Ph.D. and the appointment to decide what books to use. We don’t know what their teaching goal is in any particular class, and you’d be surprised how little of academic teaching has anything to do with politics or culture wars.

      • “I’m saying it is up the academic with the Ph.D. and the appointment to decide what books to use. We don’t know what their teaching goal is in any particular class, and you’d be surprised how little of academic teaching has anything to do with politics or culture wars.”

        We are in complete agreement, Professor Cole. My concern is that there are always outside forces–Boards of Regents, political figures, alumni contributors–who attempt to pressure the university to suppress, and sometimes even to fire, professors with whom they disagree.

        Rarely can they achieve their goal by attacking the teaching, reading material, or ideological slant a professor may engage in, but they try to find another chink in the armor to do their damage. Sort of like putting Al Capone away for tax evasion. Isn’t that what happened to Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado? Ward Churchill and I probably would not agree on much of anything, but I thought the witch hunt to get him (If I recall, they found some questionable research as a pretext to fire him.) was pretty disgusting.

        Thus, my sense that academics and academia must constantly be alert to attempts by the anti-intellectual mob (of whatever persuasion) to attack.

    • This is a bogus comparison.

      What politicians have tried to use their power to get Niall Ferguson or Victor David Hanson’s actual historical work removed from classrooms?

      When Ferguson and Hanson write about contemporary politics, people argue with them. Comparing this to a governor trying to ban a historian’s actual historical texts is absurd.

      • “This is a bogus comparison. What politicians have tried to use their power to get Niall Ferguson or Victor David Hanson’s actual historical work removed from classrooms?”

        What is bogus is your attempt to suggest Daniels wanted Zinn removed from the classroom, and that I hung my comment on that. He did not, and I did not. Daniels wanted to prevent the state of Indiana from granting professional development credit to teachers who took the class.

        If you had read my posts carefully you would have seen that I was using this incident to criticize those on both the Right and the Left who have historically attempted to pressure universities to muzzle or suppress views (whether from the likes of Zinn and Hobshawm or Fergason and Hanson) with which they disagree. If you think that attempts to suppress academic freedom and different points of view come only from the Right, then I have some oceanfront property in Arizona to sell you, site unseen.

  2. I think you’re reaching on this one. See this from the President of the NAS:

    link to

    Key graph:
    “Let’s pause here. Note that Daniels’s immediate concern is not to stop Zinn’s book from being taught, but to prevent the state of Indiana from awarding professional development credit to teachers on the basis of this course. He wonders who has jurisdiction. These are reasonable concerns—provided you have a clear view of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.”

    The article also quotes several renowned historians panning Zinn’s scholarship and calling the book in question “a pretty lousy piece of work.”

    • Oh, I think the quote from Daniels goes rather beyond that limited context.

      I am a professional historian and I noted the disgruntlement with the book in the profession; however, administrators don’t tell the academics what books they can assign.

    • Zinn’s book is popular history, written for a general audience.

      No, it’s not top-flight academic scholarship, but how many text books used for non-historians (undergraduates, high school teachers doing professional development, and the like) are top-flight, primary-source-based research?

      • “Zinn’s book is popular history, written for a general audience. No, it’s not top-flight academic scholarship, but how many text books used for non-historians (undergraduates, high school teachers doing professional development, and the like) are top-flight, primary-source-based research?”

        While my previous posts on the topic reflect my disgust at any attempt to suppress historians (or academics in general) of both the liberal and conservative persuasion, including Zinn, I have to say that criticism of Zinn’s work is based on more than just that it lacks rigorous scholarship. Zinn’s work deliberately downplays, and in some cases omits, important historical events and data that would undercut his slanted point of view. To answer your question, there are plenty of American history texts that are more balanced in their approach than Zinn’s.

        • Sir, every work of history I have ever read, quite a few at my age, from a pretty broad scope, carried the stamp of the “historian’s” biases and predilections and loyalties. As surely as do your comments here, and mine, too, of course. Along with what I guess you would insist you would never do, as an implied “responsible historian:” the downplaying, shading, omissions and mis-statements and mis-characterizations of “facts” that themselves are slimy, octopus-like critters that squirt ink when troubled, morph easily in shape and color, and can escape containment through cracks in the tightest argumentative box, however wide or narrow.

          Which “plenty of American history texts” should be held out as meeting the presumed criterion of being “more balanced” than Zinn’s works? The Beards’ works, maybe? What kids learned from the McGuffey Readers? Your recommendations are awaited.

          Anyone who insists they are “responsible historians” and that there is anything like a One True Recitation of History is, not to put too fine a point on it, a less than candid person. “History,” after all, is an exercise in selective story-telling, out of an essentially infinite tapestry and ecology of “facts,” a process that by its very nature REQUIRES a bias, a viewpoint. Often, that’s one that is claimed or assumed by the “responsible historian” to be “unbiased” and “correct.” By the “responsible historian” who nevertheless (often when attacking or impeaching some selection done by other “responsible historians”) occasionally regurgitates truisms like “history is written by the victors.”

          The best we can seemingly do, and so often fail to even approach (ask the Taliban, theirs and our home-grown equivalent like Daniels and the successful school curriculum insurgents in Texas and elsewhere how pretermitting that approach so easily can be made to work) is put it all out there, and hope that people of good will and some residual knowledge of human nature and “history” garnered from some magical wellspring, in responding to some internal compass that points in the direction of decency and survival, will be able to use the brains God gave them to separate the wheat from the chaff, the nuggets of wisdom from the fool’s gold of subtle, seductive and selective falsehood.

          “History tells us,” of course, just looking at the RECORDED (that “victors” thing again”) body counts and externalized costs and actual foci and forms of our “historical” political and economic and spiritual organization, and inter alia the applications of technology to resources and to each other, to see that there’s not much of a good outcome (by MY personal criteria, of course) that’s either possible or likely or even imaginable…

        • “Sir, every work of history I have ever read, quite a few at my age, from a pretty broad scope, carried the stamp of the “historian’s” biases and predilections and loyalties”

          I have spent a lifetime reading history and discussing it, first with my family at the dinner table and later with colleagues while attending university, continuing throughout my professional life until today. I can assure you that not all histories are equally biased. Some, in fact, attempt to present a more objective understanding of America, both regarding its domestic developments and its role in the world, than others. Contrary to your belief that history is “an exercise in selective storytelling” (Your tribute to the “postmodern” ethos is touching), some sets of facts are more defensible than mere “storytelling.”

          I am not dismissing Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History” out of hand. I stated that I did not agree with attempts to muzzle or suppress him. Zinn’s work, however, is just this side of being “agitprop.” He clearly has an agenda in his work to relentlessly portray the United States in as negative a light as he can, without appearing to be a card-carrying member of the old Comintern.

          You asked for some American history texts that present a more balanced portrayal than Zinn. John Garraty’s two-volume “The American Nation” is good for starters. Earlier editions are better, as the later ones, like a lot of texts these days, seem to have been “dumbed down” for students. Another first-rate history is Samuel Eliot Morison’s “History of the American People.” Morison also wrote the “History of United States Naval Operations in World War II,” if you are interested. A fine diplomatic history of the United States is Thomas A. Bailey’s “A Diplomatic History of the American People.”

          Any one of the above, as well as a host of others, do more justice to both the historian’s profession and to American history than does Zinn.


        • “Not all histories are equally biased.” Hey, something we can agree on!

          But implicit in your statement is acceptance that bias is present, with argument (as yours with Zinn’s work, which disagreement is a not so subtle impeachment-and-dismissal) over the degree and direction. And Doing History is inarguably a process of selection, ordering and presentation of stuff you call “facts” that’s in its nature subjective, and subject to bias in perception, weighting and comprehension. Not to mention the slipperiness of “facts.”

          As to that condescending snipe-ette about “tribute to ‘postmodern’ ethos” in my noting that history is an exercise in story-telling, maybe just google “history is telling a story” and follow the links to all the observations of people who share your apparent biases, and mine, people with more gravitas than either of us, stating rather bluntly that that is exactly what historians do.

          There is no ‘true set of facts’ that capture and demand respect as the One True Recitation, as all your reading should make plain. There are people whose selections and emphasis among the myriad “facts” you agree with, who reinforce your preferences and world view, and those you don’t, who are apparently “unserious” or nothing much better than “agitprop” scribblers.

          If one googles “critique of Morrison” or the same for Garraty, one finds that, mirabie dictu, there are lots of deep people who deeply disagree with the axes of the stories those historians tell, and their selection of “facts” as their proofs. Some even call Garraty a “socialist,” fer Cliff’s sake.

          One little title from Morrison’s works: “The Story of the ‘Old Colony’ of New Plymouth.” Even historians know what they are doing as they read and borrow from and critique other historians’ works, and research primary materials that contain their own biases, frauds and mis-statements, and from which they select and write.

          You disdain Wiki, but it’s interesting that the precis for Morrison, as for others memorialized there, includes an entry under the caption “Allegiance” as being to the United States of America. Also included is this bit of text about one of his works, proposing to recite the history of the Battle of Savo Island:

          In his semi-official account of the Battle of Savo Island, a disastrous defeat for the U.S. Navy in World War II, Morison partly blamed the defeat on the failure of an Australian aircrew to inform the Americans of the approaching Japanese forces.[17] Morison appears to have based this story on inaccurate, now refuted, information.

          (emphasis added) And I think another thing we agree on is that the Israeli efforts to sink the USS Liberty in 1967 were “factually” very much other than the official, widely reported “fact” stories from our leaders.

          “Facts,” it would appear, are not even what most commonly understand that term to mean, ultimately. We do the best we can, and it’s best to maintain a healthy and skeptical humility about our pronouncements.

  3. Would that these academic policemen applied the same vigorous standards to the whitewashing of US history prevalent in so many so-called textbooks.

    • Or even the active perversion of US history by “scholars” like David Barton, trying to shoehorn in a theocratic agenda for the Founding Fathers. I bet Daniels’ academic standards dissolve into mist around that hustler.

  4. The fact that Mitch Daniels was the Director of the Office of Management and Budget for over two years under George W. Bush should have been enough to disqualify him from even being considered as the chief executive at any university. Finding out that he was in favor of banning books makes him an even less-qualified and less-appropriate choice to hold the presidency of a major university.

  5. Daniels and his ilk have a very reductive idea of what “history” is. They cling to the idea that there is an official “version” like a toddler to its blankie. The vibrancy and wonder that the discipline inspires in me comes from the fact that its lifeblood is argument and interpretation. The totality of the past can never be known, but we keep at the Sisyphean task of trying to gain a more complex understanding of it. To believe that there is only one “correct” story is dangerous, as in any other kind of fundamentalism.

  6. Zinn wrote his book to counter existing American histories that are just as rhetorical but which devote their special pleading to defending the status quo. Of course denunciations of the texts he wrote against are notably absent from op-eds and standards of scholarship become notably more stringent when they are useful in discrediting ideas that aren’t agreeable to powerful interests. By turning the issue into an argument about the accuracy of footnotes, academics get to avoid taking a stand.

    Works like Zinn’s are needful in proportion to the prevalence of the propaganda of the other side. Not to get too postmodern about it, his book becomes truer and truer as political attempts to suppress demonstrate that its author really did have a point to make about the authoritarian character of the system

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