Kudos to The Associated Press in its exposure of former Gov. Mitch Daniels’ attempt at academic censorship.This was a case of a state leader using his powers to push a political agenda at the expense of education, and that’s disgraceful.
The focal point of Daniels’ ire seemed to be Howard Zinn, who taught political science at Boston University until his retirement in 1988. In 1980, Zinn published the first edition of his best seller, “The People’s History of the United States.” In it, Zinn turned away from the traditional privileged white male history to tell an alternative history consisting of slaves, Native Americans, socialists, women and rank-and-file workers and soldiers.
The book played up the colonialism of the U.S., along with the country’s efforts at suppression and oppression to maintain the privileged white male scenario. To a conservative like Daniels, this book was dangerous.
The former governor called the book “execrable,” and in a series of emails with state education leaders, including former superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, sought to rid classrooms of Zinn’s book. An email by a board of education member to Daniels suggested a review of all teacher preparation programs at Indiana’s universities after discovering that Zinn’s book was used in an Indiana University class.
Daniels was quickly on board. “Go for it,” he wrote. “This crap (Zinn’s book) should not be accepted for any credit by the state.”
When Zinn died at 87 on Jan. 10, 2010, Daniels wrote that he was glad Zinn, who Daniels characterized as a liar, was gone.
A book like Zinn’s is going to elicit a strong response. On the flip side of Daniels’ remarks are those from historians such as Eric Foner, who teaches history at Columbia University. “Historians may well view it as a step toward a coherent new version of American history.” He wrote for the cover of the revised and updated edition of Zinn’s book.
But Daniels has not backed down from criticizing Zinn even as the emails have come to light.
The point is, this is a matter for academics and the students they teach, not a governor who is reacting as a partisan toward something that violates his values. Just because he’s governor doesn’t mean he can force feed his values onto the state and dictate how academic investigation and classroom discussion should be conducted.
This is deeply troubling because of Daniels’ post-governor occupation: president of Purdue University. What will this do to Purdue’s academic reputation? Can Purdue faculty expect a call from Daniels about what to teach?
Admittedly, Purdue probably won’t suffer, but thinking that a governor who is now a university president would try to censor certain writers and prevent their work from being taught in the state’s classrooms is beyond the pale.
Some Purdue professors struck back at Daniels in a letter, writing: “However much we disagree with your past statements, we are more troubled by the fact that you continue to express these views today, especially since you are now speaking as the chief representative of Purdue University with the responsibility to embody the best of academic inquiry and exchange.”
With his rigid ideology, Daniels has no business as the head of a university that prizes the unencumbered pursuit of free and open academic inquiry.