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Think Again: Indiana Is the Latest Skirmish in the Conservatives’ War on Knowledge

SOURCE: AP/Michael Conroy

Former Gov. Mitch Daniels (R-IN) answers question during a news conference after being named the next president of Purdue University by the school's trustees in West Lafayette, Indiana, Thursday, June 21, 2012.

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Mitch Daniels—the former Republican governor of Indiana and now president of Purdue University—and I don’t have much in common, except neither one of us are big fans of the late pro-Communist historian and anti-war activist Howard Zinn. When my daughter was in middle school a few years ago, I went to a parents’ night and discovered that the only readings in American history being assigned to the students were drawn from a collection edited by Zinn. In the assigned Zinn book, the liberals come off as right-wingers, relatively speaking, and there were no conservatives at all. I wrote a column about that parents’ night visit in The Forward in which I made fun of myself—an Upper West Side, New York liberal objects to his daughter’s leftist schooling—but hastened to add that I had no problem with my daughter being educated about leftist criticism of the United States. But as I noted back then:

My primary objection to her teacher’s reading list is that if all you read about on American history are leftists who object to most everything about it, you’d never be able to understand why perfectly decent, smart and committed people think so differently from you. What’s more, your own thinking needs to be tested against theirs to ensure that it remains sharp and relevant. This is true even if you have no sympathy for such ideas.

While we may share a critical view of Zinn’s take on American history, this is where the similarity between former Gov. Daniels and myself ends. Although Daniels pledged himself to promote academic freedom when he was officially appointed to the Purdue presidency at the beginning of the year, recently released emails prove that as governor, he tried to ban the writings of Zinn from Indiana University’s assigned reading lists. Daniels explained that his move to ban what he deemed “propaganda” from classrooms coincided with his effort to “cleanup” the college curriculum. Daniels also discussed cutting the funds for an academic program that happened to be headed by a professor who had once criticized him.

True, it’s not unusual for politicians, especially conservative Republicans, to complain about leftist professors. In one famous case, back in 1965, the Rutgers University historian Eugene Genovese, who was then a Marxist but later became a virulent right-winger, announced at a “teach-in” demonstration, “I do not fear or regret the impending Vietcong victory in Vietnam. I welcome it.” He found himself denounced by both Richard M. Nixon, the former vice president who would be elected president in 1968, and by Wayne Dumont, who was then running as the Republican candidate for New Jersey governor. Both politicians demanded that Rutgers dismiss Genovese. Cars across the state soon bore bumper stickers that declared, “Rid Rutgers of Reds.”

What was different about Daniels’s efforts, however, was his attempt to censor the curriculum. As Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center, told the Associated Press, “Under the First Amendment, the government is prohibited from trying to suppress expression with which it disagrees.” Yet it is clear that is exactly what Daniels sought to do as evidenced by emails he sent upon Zinn’s death in 2010. Two of the emails composed by the then-governor read:

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?

And another:

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

Apparently, Daniels’s emails got results. As the Associated Press reported, David Shane, a top fundraiser and state school-board member, replied with a strategy directing Indiana’s commissioner for higher education to review university courses across the state. Shane added that a statewide review “would force to daylight a lot of excrement.” Within seven minutes of receiving Shane’s reply, Daniels okayed the plan:

Go for it. Disqualify propaganda and highlight (if there is any) the more useful offerings. Don’t the ed schools have at least some substantive PD (professional development) courseware to upgrade knowledge of math, science, etc.

The Associated Press article also notes that earlier in his term as governor in April 2009, Daniels demanded an audit and pursued the possibility of cutting the funds for a program run by Charles Little, who at the time was both executive director of the Indiana Urban Schools Association as well as a professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. It is alleged that Daniels targeted the professor because he had vocally opposed the governor’s education overhaul.

For his part, Daniels does not deny what he tried to do in banning Zinn’s works. “We must not falsely teach American history in our schools,” he emailed the Associated Press in response to questions pertaining the emails. “We have a law requiring state textbook oversight to guard against frauds like Zinn, and it was encouraging to find that no Hoosier school district had inflicted his book on its students,” Daniels wrote. (As an aside, Daniels’s criticisms of Zinn were apparently lifted from a 2010 article in Reason Magazine, which has led to accusations of plagiarism and additional violations of academic integrity by adjunct faculty member Aaron Hoover, who is also a member of the Society for an Open, Accountable Purdue.)

One academic, Peter Wood, an anthropology professor and head of the right-wing National Association of Scholars, supported Daniels’s attempts at censorship because he agrees with Daniels that Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is indeed “a terrible book.” Wood quotes some of the same historians that Daniels cited in defending his attempt to ban Zinn’s writing, including Georgetown University’s Michael Kazin, Stanford University’s Sam Wineburg, and Cornell University’s Michael Kammen, among many others who have all been critical about Zinn’s book. I was too. But that’s hardly the point. Wood, who is not trained as a historian, apparently thinks it appropriate for governors to censor academics. “A governor worth his educational salt should be calling out faculty members who cannot or will not distinguish scholarship from propaganda, or who refer to substitute simplistic storytelling for the complexities of history,” wrote Wood. “A governor has a responsibility to uphold academic standards as well as academic freedom.”

Alas, even a number of the historians cited by Daniels in his defense find the former governor’s actions indefensible as noted recently in the Academe blog. The blog posted Michael Kazin’s response in which he insisted that Daniels “should be roundly condemned for his attempts to stop students from reading Zinn’s big book and for calling Zinn a liar.” Kazin suggested that instead of censoring Zinn’s work, “chapters of it can be quite useful if contrasted with alternative interpretations.” Likewise, Sam Wineburg took issue with Daniels. The Stanford professor took to Twitter to respond, “Mitch Daniels uses my work to defend his shameless attempts to censor free speech. Shame!” And Wineburg noted, “I have criticized Zinn but will defend to my death the right to teach him. Shame on Mitch Daniels.” Wineburg added, “Mr. Daniels, free societies openly teach ideas we disagree with. We do not censor objectionable speech. Study your Orwell.” Wineburg also noted that he taught Zinn in his own classes. “How could I possibly agree that ‘banning Zinn’ makes sense when I assign him in my own classes?” Kammen, too, took issue with Daniels, saying that “A People’s History,” though “not a great book, … remains a kind of historiographical landmark. Teachers should at least be aware of it.” Kammen also answered “Absolutely not!” when asked if he supported politicians determining what academics can teach, regardless of the circumstances.

In fact, Daniels’s efforts are not merely an attempt to strangle academic freedom in his state, but are part and parcel of the nationwide conservative “war on knowledge.” Daniels and his ilk seek to curb the First Amendment, which they see as the only way for them to protect their ideological obsessions that inevitably turn out to be inconsistent with reality. (There was a particularly egregious effort not long ago to miseducate Texas schoolchildren about American history under this guise, as Bill Moyers notes.) Ironically, on Monday, The New York Times led with a story about a new study linking economic opportunity to geography. The results, while complex, appear to link the ability to rise in the world to places such as those in the northeast section of the United States such as New York and Massachusetts, where Tea Party zealots and ideological censors are not allowed anywhere near academia. In other words, it is likely that Indiana’s future will dim economically if thinking such as Daniels’s and his allies’ is allowed to prevail.

As for my daughter’s long-ago eighth-grade reading list: Well, as it turns out, her teacher invited my suggestions for additions to the reading list upon hearing my criticism. He too had little in common with Mitch Daniels.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, recently released in paperback.

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This is part of a regular column: Think Again

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