Why Mitch Daniels Was Right

Peter Wood

The Associated Press broke a story on July 16 that Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University, wrote e-mails while the governor of Indiana attacking the use of Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, as “a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page.”

My first response: good for Mr. Daniels. His comment, made on February 9, 2010—according to the date stamp on his e-mail—shows that he has a pretty clear grasp of both American history and Mr. Zinn’s book.

But the Associated Press wasn’t interested in Daniels’s intellectual acumen. Its story was headlined, “Mitch Daniels Looked to Censor Opponents,” and it was based on a Freedom of Information Act request. If the four brief e-mails he sent to political allies over the course of 51 minutes in February 2010 are all the AP came up with, or an additional e-mail sent on April 11, 2009, we can best conclude that the governor was a busy man with little patience for academic bunkum.

Both the AP and The Chronicle, however, have sought to make more of this, and the allegations that Daniels committed some serious misstep are worth a closer look. Those claims come under four headings: (1) Daniels is a hypocrite who “pledged to promote academic freedom” but as governor sought to undermine it; (2) he improperly sought to interfere in the selection of teaching materials in college and university courses (e.g. Zinn’s book); (3) he tried to censor at least one political opponent; and (4) he exhibited a blinkered view of schools of education in particular.

Daniels’s four e-mails and the replies from the education adviser Scott Jenkins and the fund raiser and state-school-board member David Shane are a window into the frustration of American conservatives with the quotidian anti-Americanism of the academy. The exchange begins with Daniels noting that Zinn has just died. The obituaries say that Zinn’s book is widely used in schools and colleges, but Daniels observes that it is a terrible book. “Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before any more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”

He is answered by Scott Jenkins, who tells him that Zinn’s book is indeed featured in an Indiana University summer institute for schoolteachers at which they earn “professional development credit.” Daniels’s reply in its entirety:

This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state. No students will be any better taught because someone sat through this session. Which board has jurisdiction over what counts and what doesn’t?

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.

Let’s not take Daniels’s word that it is “truly execrable” and amounts to “disinformation.” We can instead consult, say, Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton University and a well-known liberal. “What he did was take all of the guys in white hats and put them in black hats, and vice versa,” Wilentz has said about Zinn. The book amounts to “agitprop—but it’s not particularly good history.” Zinn “ceased writing serious history. He had a very simplified view that everyone who was president was always a stinker and every left-winger was always great.”

Or we can consult Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University and co-editor of the left-wing journal Dissent. Kazin admires Zinn for his politics (“a dedicated radical”) but not for his scholarship: “Unfortunately, Zinn’s big book is stronger on polemical passion than historical insight. For all his virtuous intentions, Zinn essentially reduced the past to a Manichean fable. …” And “to make sense of a nation’s entire history, one has to explain the weight and meaning of worldviews that are not his own and that he does not favor. Zinn had no taste for such disagreeable tasks.”

A few months ago, David Greenberg, an associate professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, wrote a long essay in the The New Republic under the illuminating title, “Agit-Prof: Howard Zinn’s Influential Mutilations of American History.” Greenberg professes that as an adolescent he was “enamored of Zinn,” but now he is older and wiser: Zinn’s book, Greenberg wrote, is “a pretty lousy piece of work.”

Sam Wineburg, director of Stanford’s History Education Group, writes in “Undue Certainty: Where Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Falls Short” that Zinn’s work is a “history of unalloyed certainties,” which is “dangerous because it invites a slide into intellectual fascism. … It seeks to stamp out the democratic insight that people of good will can see the same thing and come to different conclusions.” Wineburg didn’t dislike Zinn, a man who he says “lived an admirable life,” but Zinn the historian is another matter. He misuses and abuses sources, “conflates the Nazi bombing campaign with the Allies, ignoring Hitler’s assault on Poland,” and “places Jim Crow and the Holocaust on the same footing, without explaining that as color barriers were being dismantled in the United States, the bricks were being laid for the crematoria at Auschwitz.” He sees Zinn as “educationally dangerous” precisely because the young are so easily seduced by his “interpretative game.”

Wilentz, Kazin, Greenberg, and Wineburg offer among the softer appraisals of Zinn’s magnum opus and his stature as a thinker. Others have been harsher, including the late Oscar Handlin’s original review of the book in The American Scholar in 1980. Handlin, a professor of history at Harvard, wrote of “the deranged quality of this fairy tale, in which the incidents are made to fit the legend.” Cornell’s Michael Kammen reviewed the book in The Washington Post as “a scissors and paste-pot job, but even less attractive.”

That’s more than enough to show that Governor Daniels’s view is well supported by mainstream historians. It was not an eccentric judgment, let alone an ignorant one. The AP was able to find a Marxist English professor—Cary Nelson—to object to Daniels’s characterization of A People’s History, but the weight of scholarly opinion is on Daniels’s side. So is it academic misfeasance for faculty members in schools of education to teach novice teachers or veteran teachers returning for professional development credit that Zinn’s book is reputable history?

I side with Daniels. A governor worth his educational salt should be calling out faculty members who cannot or will not distinguish scholarship from propaganda, or who prefer to substitute simplistic storytelling for the complexities of history. A governor has a responsibility to uphold academic standards as well as academic freedom. The movement to establish the Common Core State Standards in elementary and secondary education is premised on the idea that governors have a legitimate voice in saying what should be taught in schools. There is no bright-line distinction between saying what the substance of state standards should be and what should pass muster as a textbook.

From what we can tell from Daniels’s e-mails, he acted both within the bounds of law and in fidelity to good educational principles when he objected to the use of Zinn’s book and called for “cleanup of what is credit-worthy in ‘professional development’ and what is not.” I wish other governors were as clear-minded in their judgments about educational content.

This leaves the matter of whether he overstepped any bounds in going after a particular instructor. So far no evidence has emerged that he did. The central question is whether Mitch Daniels respects academic freedom. As often happens these days, that becomes a question of what “academic freedom” means. If the term is set out, Cary Nelson-style, to mean something like the absolute right of a faculty member to teach whatever he wants regardless of standards, the rights of students, the truthfulness of his statements, and the public interest in the integrity of higher education, then sure, Daniels sacrificed academic freedom in favor of other considerations.

But that notion of academic freedom (and its more cautiously phrased but still self-aggrandizing cousins) is just the rodomontade of demagogues. Academic freedom is a principle that thrives only when it is sturdily woven together with academic responsibility. That’s what Daniels in his plain-speaking e-mails called for. I see no trace of hypocrisy here. On the contrary, the man who pledged to uphold academic freedom at Purdue looks like he has a better grasp of what that means than anyone who believes that real academic freedom is consistent with using A People’s History of the United States as a text in anything other than a course on how propaganda works.

This article originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education on July 18, 2013.

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