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Who's Afraid of the People's History?

Mitch Daniels’s covert war on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
 
 
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Photo Credit: By Jared and Corin (Howard Zinn Uploaded by zro) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 
 
 
 

A recent Associated Press expose—drawing on e-mails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act—revealed that in 2010, Mitch Daniels, then Indiana’s Republican governor, covertly set out to ban Howard Zinn’s best-selling  A People’s History of the United States from Indiana’s classrooms. Daniels had privately responded to Zinn’s death that year with unseemly glee; “This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away,” he crowed. Daniels attempted to banish Zinn’s book on the grounds that it was “a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page…. How do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?” When Daniels’s education adviser replied that  A People’s History was being used in a social movements course for teachers at Indiana University, the governor insisted that “this crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state,” sparking a proposed statewide review of university courses designed to “disqualify propaganda” from Indiana’s curriculum.

This view of  A People’s History as propaganda was not shared by the historians who named it a finalist for the American Book Award in 1981—an honor virtually never accorded to historical surveys—or by the more than 2 million readers who made  A People’s History the most popular radical history in the United States during the last three decades.

As governor, Daniels seemed unconcerned that purging Zinn from Indiana’s educational system constituted a violation of academic freedom. But this issue emerged in the political storm unleashed by the AP story, in part because Daniels is currently president of Purdue University. Aware that trampling academic freedom is incompatible with leadership in higher education, Daniels sought to evade the issue by claiming (falsely) that he had respected academic freedom at the university level and only sought to keep Zinn out of the K-12 educational curriculum.

Upset by Daniels’s refusal to admit last week that he had erred in seeking to ban Zinn, dozens of Purdue’s faculty, including some of its most prominent historians, wrote an open letter explaining how “troubled” they were by his failure either to stand up for “academic inquiry and exchange” or to realize that “academic freedom is essential to all levels of education.” The American Historical Association condemned Daniels’s war on Zinn as “inappropriate and a violation of academic freedom,” and championed “open discussion of controversial books,” which “benefits students, historians, and the general public alike.” “Attempts to single out particular texts for suppression from a school or university curriculum,” the AHA wrote, “have no place in a democratic society.”

Governor Daniels assumed, without evidence, that teachers “inflicted” Zinn’s book on their students and “force-fed” them Zinn’s radical view of the American past, indoctrinating them with leftist “propaganda.” But the way that  A People’s History has most commonly been used in history classes bears no resemblance to Daniels’s overheated, ideological imaginings. For example, the Indiana University professor, Carl Weinberg, whose use of  A People’s History so angered Daniels in 2010, assigned the book’s civil rights movement chapter, along with conflicting accounts of the movement, in order to explore competing theories about how social movements arise—just what one would expect and hope for in a class on mass protest.

Innovative history teachers across the United States have for decades used  A People’s History at the high school level in similarly comparative and rigorous ways. High school teachers desperate to breathe some life into their classes have distributed Xerox copies of Zinn’s most provocative chapters to offer a contrast to state-mandated textbooks, seeking to engage students in historical debate so they learn that history involves sorting out competing interpretations of the past rather than mere memorization of names and dates. These teachers have been drawn to Zinn because he offered their students a uniquely accessible introduction to the new social history, which revolutionized historical scholarship beginning in the 1960s. As its title indicates,  A People’s History presented American history “from the bottom up” focusing on the experience of workers, women, African-Americans and Native Americans; it brought a New Left sensibility to the analysis of foreign policy and was profoundly critical of the US tendencies towards violence, expansionism, racism and militarism from the Indian Wars up through Vietnam.