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The Daniels–Zinn Controversy
On June 21, 2012 the Purdue University Board of Trustees unanimously selected Mitch Daniels, who was at the time the governor of Indiana, to be the University's new President. Daniels subsequently took office in January 2013, upon completion of his term as governor. His selection attracted a great deal of criticism, primarily on two grounds. First, Daniels lacked any of the academic qualifications typically required of university presidents: he did not have a Ph.D. or comparable research degree; he had no teaching experience; and he had never published any peer reviewed scholarly research. Secondly, the trustees who selected him to this position, for which he lacked the customary qualifications, owed their own positions as trustees to him — as governor, he had appointed eight of them to the Board of Trustees, and had re-appointed the other two.
The controversy intensified on July 17, 2013, when the Associated Press, having obtained them through a Freedom of Information Act request, published some of Daniels's emails from February 2010 (LOB). The emails revealed that while Daniels was governor of Indiana he privately instructed his subordinates to make sure that a book he did not like, Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, would not be "in use anywhere in Indiana." As an alternative to Zinn's text, Daniels expressed a preference for a book by a fellow Republican politician, William Bennett, and asked his staff to do what it could to see that Bennett's work, America: The Last Best Hope, would become "the textbook of choice in our state."
Daniels's initial email was sent at 10:54 AM on February 9, 2010 to Tony Bennett (not the singer, but the Indiana State Superintendent of Schools) and copied to Todd Huston (former Chief of Staff for the Indiana Department of Education), Scott Jenkins (Senior Education Policy Director), and David Shane (Republican donor and member of the state school board). Under the subject heading "Howard Zinn," the email reads as follows:
This terrible anti-American academic finally passed away. The obits and commentaries mentioned that 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 it 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?
Twenty-four minutes later Jenkins posted a reply, in which he informed Daniels that Zinn's text was indeed being used in a course at Indiana University on "Social Movements in America: Labor, Civil Rights, and Feminism." Though Jenkins provided no information about the course aside from its title and the claim that "Zinn along with other anti American leftist readings are prominently featured," Daniels needed only three minutes to reach the conclusion that "This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state," and that "No student will be any better taught because someone sat through this session." He then inquired, "Which board has jurisdiction over what counts and what doesn't?" A brief back-and-forth on bureaucratic technicalities immediately ensued, during which Daniels again demanded to know "Who will take charge?" Shane suggested that Bennett and Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Teresa Lubbers could undertake a review of university courses across the state, a process that, he assured Daniels, "would force to daylight a lot of excrement." Just seven minutes later, Daniels endorsed the plan: "Go for it. Disqualify propaganda and highlight (if there is any) the more useful offerings."
In response to criticism, once the emails were made public, Daniels defended his actions, noting that "we must not falsely teach American history in our schools." And he redoubled his criticism of Zinn, calling him a "fraud," saying that he was "by his own admission a biased writer" (SAP), insisting that his book "represents a falsified version of history" (SPD), accusing him of having "purposely falsified American history," and asserting that "his books have no more place in Indiana history classrooms than phrenology or Lysenkoism would in our biology classes or the 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion' in world history courses" (SAP). Further, he offered the following, more specific, criticism: "Prof. Zinn's disdain for the idea of objective truth went far beyond American history. In his essay, 'The Uses of Scholarship,' Prof. Zinn criticized 'disinterested scholarship,' 'objective study' and the 'scientific method' across the disciplines, thus attacking the foundations of Purdue's entire research enterprise" (RPF).
To support his harsh criticisms of Zinn, Daniels also claimed that a consensus of opinion among professional historians supported his position, that Zinn's book "has been criticized all across the ideological spectrum, including by so many who share his strongly negative view of the American experiment" (RPF), and that "no one credible defended his versions of history." More expansively, he argued that
No one need take my word that my concerns were well-founded. Respected scholars and communicators of all ideologies agree that the work of Howard Zinn was irredeemably slanted and unsuited for teaching to schoolchildren. Arthur M. Schlesinger said, "I don't take him very seriously. He's a polemicist, not a historian." Socialist historian Michael Kazin judged Zinn's work as "bad history, albeit tilted with virtuous intentions" and said the book was more suited to a "conspiracy monger's website than to a work of scholarship." Reviewing the text in The American Scholar, Harvard University professor Oscar Handlin denounced "the deranged quality of his fairy tale, in which the incidents are made to fit the legend, no matter how intractable the evidence of American history." Stanford history education expert Sam Wineburg cautioned that exposing children to a heavily filtered and weighted interpretation such as Zinn's work is irresponsible when "we are talking about how we educate the young, those who do not yet get the interpretive game." Many more such condemnations by persons of political viewpoints different from my own are available on request.
But the heart of Daniels's defense consisted of three rather startling assertions. First, he claimed that in his Zinn emails he had been speaking exclusively about K-12 classrooms, and that his questions and concerns "had nothing to do with higher education at all" (SPD). Or again, "My only concern in two e-mail questions years ago was what was being taught to middle school children in their formative lessons in American history. My questions expressed no interest in higher education" (RPF). Second, he asserted that his emails "proposed absolutely no censorship of any person or viewpoint" (SPD), adding that "I have never made any suggestion that any university cease teaching whatever its faculty pleases, or cease using any book.... Most important, no one tried to 'censor' anyone's right to express any opinion they might hold. As many others have observed, this was a careless and inappropriate use of that inflammatory word" (RPF). Third, he claimed that his actions "infringed on no one's academic freedom" (SPD), "had nothing to do with academic freedom on campus" (WAR), and carried "no implication for academic freedom" (JAS).
Further, Daniels pointed out that his emails did not lead to any actions. There was no need to ban Zinn's book from Indiana public school K-12 classrooms, since his subordinates found "that no Hoosier school district had inflicted [it] on its students" (SAP), because "apparently every school board in the state to date shares and has adopted" Daniels's own evaluation of the book (RPF). Similarly, but this time for unspecified reasons, nothing was done about the Indiana University course, discussed in the initial emails, that featured Zinn on its reading list: "No change of any kind occurred with regard to the summer class for K-12 teachers; its participants received credit, and would today if the class was still offered" (RPF).
Finally, Daniels made the point that his criticism of Zinn, and his authorization of a scheme to have his book banned from use in Indiana public schools, cannot be construed as an attack on tenure, since tenure "does not confer immunity from criticism of shoddy work and it certainly gives no entitlement to have one's work taught to young schoolchildren in our public schools" (SAP). Nor can it be interpreted as inconsistent with academic freedom, since (in nearly identical language) "Academic freedom ... does not immunize a person from criticism and certainly does not confer entitlement to have one's work inflicted upon our young people in the K-12 public school system" (SPD).
Assessing Daniels's Claims and Arguments
Notice, first, that in the initial emails Daniels offers no evidence, argument, or reasoning of any kind in support of his harsh judgment of Zinn's work. Nor does he engage Zinn's text — no page numbers or specific claims or analyses are cited. This raises disturbing questions about the intellectual standards in play here. Note, for example, that we demand much more of our freshman students in the papers they write for our introductory courses. They must provide a rational defense of their conclusions in order to receive a good grade. One would think that as much or more would be required of one who would presume to determine unilaterally that a specific text should be removed from Indiana classrooms.
Similarly, what is the significance of the fact that none of his four email correspondents asked any critical questions or raised any concerns in response to Daniels's demands? Note that none asked for supporting evidence, or examples, or a detailed explanation of what was wrong with Zinn's book. (Are we to think that all of them had read it themselves?) None asked how or why, if the book were really that bad, it had become "the textbook of choice in high schools and colleges around the country." None asked why the judgment of Daniels, who is not a historian, should be assumed to be superior to that of history professors and other teachers who specialize in teaching history. Note, further, that these are rather obvious questions — the sort that any at least minimally rational person would be inclined to ask.
While some might defend Daniels on the grounds that his concern for education is admirable, it must nonetheless be pointed out that he pursues that interest in an autocratic, undemocratic way. He asks no questions of others who might disagree with him, makes no attempt to address their concerns, and engages in no public process of inquiry into the merits of using Zinn's text, but rather simply decides, completely on his own, that Indiana must "get rid of" it, and that his subordinates are to "disqualify" it.
It is worth noting, in this connection, the precise wording of the proposal that Daniels authorized when he said, "Go for it. Disqualify propaganda." David Shane proposed a plan "quietly" to do "a 'what's needed' list (subject matter knowledge plus results-focused pedagogy) & then 'survey' each of the major institutions & see how it matches up. Would force to daylight a lot of the excrement" (emphasis added). But why would anyone with the slightest concern for democracy propose (or approve) undertaking such a project "quietly"? Shouldn't such an effort be carried out publicly, with input from teachers solicited, and different points of view given careful consideration? One suspects that the point of proceeding "quietly" is precisely to prevent those who disagree with the education views of Daniels and his team from having a chance to be heard. And what legitimate reason could there possibly be for putting the word "survey" in quotation marks? Is the implication that no genuine fact-finding effort would be undertaken, but rather that the word "survey" would be used simply to provide cover for an attempt to suppress the teaching of ideas that Daniels disliked?
Those familiar with Daniels's writings might also wonder how his actions in this case can be squared with the views he advocates in his book, Keeping the Republic: Saving America by Trusting Americans (KTR). There he decries the "steady decline in freedom" that he sees as resulting from the activities of government bureaucrats, who "try to regulate every aspect of our lives." Daniels speaks disdainfully of the claim of superior expertise that he finds to be implicit in their actions. Indeed, he sarcastically calls such bureaucrats "our Benevolent Betters," and argues at length — indeed, as the subtitle suggests, this is one of the major themes of his book — that we would be much freer, and much better off, if we trusted Americans to go about their business without such meddling (KTR 60–2, 72–4, 156, 214, 221). Well then, why not leave history teachers alone and let them decide what to teach? Why should Daniels, by his own logic, not be condemned as a meddling, freedom-destroying "Benevolent Better" — one who arrogantly assumes that his judgment is superior to that of the good folks who teach history in Indiana, and who, even more arrogantly, attempts to impose that judgment unilaterally, by force, and without even bothering first to consult those professionals whose judgment he would overturn?
While Daniels has not, to my knowledge, offered any explanation of how his attempt to ban Zinn can be reconciled with his critique of "our Benevolent Betters," presumably he would base his defense on an appeal to his responsibility as governor to oversee public education. But surely such responsibility does not entail that a governor should intervene at the micro-level, such as in choosing textbooks, any more than a CEO of a hospital should dictate to surgeons what surgical techniques they should use or the owner of a baseball team should tell the pitching coach how to teach pitching.
And such meddling is rendered all the more troubling when the meddler displays a defective grasp of the activity over which he insists on asserting his authority. Such is the case with Daniels's dubious claim, for which he offers no evidence, that the assigning of Zinn's work amounts to a "force-feeding" of his theories and conclusions, as if teachers and students were incapable of engaging Zinn's claims thoughtfully and critically. Indeed, the comparison of reading to eating betrays a serious misunderstanding of the nature of education. When a person eats something, the food produces effects in the body, but the eater plays no active role in this process beyond the act of eating itself. Once the food is in the body, the eater exerts no control over the results. But reading, in quite radical contrast, calls for constant interaction between the reader and the text. The reader's rationality is continually engaged, as he or she interprets the text, assesses its cogency, evaluates its significance, and, in general, considers how to respond to it. Reading is not like eating, and assigning a text is not at all the same thing as "force-feeding" it to one's student. No competent teacher encourages a passive approach to reading, in which the process of learning is analogous to digestion.
Similarly disturbing questions of competence are raised by Daniels's implicit claim to know, based solely on the title of an Indiana University course ("Social Movements in Modern America: Labor, Civil Rights, and Feminism") and on Scott Jenkins's incomplete, undetailed, one-sentence description of its reading list, that the course will be "crap," that "no student will be better taught because someone sat through this session," and that the seminar "should not be accepted for any credit by the state." Wouldn't one, at a bare minimum, need to know a few more details about the course contents, and about how it would be taught, to be in a position to make such sweeping judgments competently?
And matters only get worse for Daniels when we turn to his later statements, those that he issued following the disclosure of the emails and the ensuing criticism. First of all, how can it be seriously maintained that Daniels's emails "had nothing to do with higher education at all"? His initial email, in which he inquired as to how to "get rid of Zinn's book," so that it "is not in use anywhere in Indiana," mentioned both high schools and colleges, and drew no distinction between them. Then, the one class that was specifically discussed during his subsequent exchange with his subordinates was a course offered at Indiana University, not at a K-12 school. It was in connection with this university course that Daniels had instructed his colleagues to "Go for it. Disqualify propaganda." It is noteworthy, in this connection that, according to Associated Press reporter, Tom LoBianco, in Daniels's meeting with the press following the publication of his emails he "declined to speak with the AP. Neither he nor his spokesperson replied to questions about his statement's focus on K-12 classrooms despite the emails' references to classes taught at the state's public universities" (DDT).(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Zinnophobia"
Copyright © 2017 David Detmer.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The Daniels-Zinn Controversy, 17,
Assessing Daniels's Claims and Arguments, 21,
Chapter 2: Bias and Objectivity in History, 60,
Who Was Howard Zinn?, 62,
Chapter 3: Zinn's Critics, 141,
Sam Wineburg, 142,
David Greenberg, 200,
David J. Bobb, 235,
Mary Grabar, 237,
Eugene D. Genovese, 246,
Robert Paquette, 251,
David Horowitz, 271,
Michael Kazin, 308,
Daniel J. Flynn, 332,
Oscar Handlin, 378,
"frankly speaking", 417,
Michael Kammen, 419,
The Editors of the National Review, 429,
Rich Lowry, 433,
Roger Kimball, 438,
Jill Lepore, 451,
Michael C. Moynihan, 453,
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., 474,
Kevin Mattson, 480,
Benno Schmidt, 482,
Gabriel Schoenfeld, 484,
Rick Shenkman, 489,
The Weekly Standard, 492,
Peter Wood, 495,
Sean Wilentz, 502,