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?”’