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Purdue University President and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels
Associated Press/Photo by Michael Conroy
Purdue University President and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels

Mitch Daniels criticized for censoring revisionist history

Education

Former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels is under fire for academic censorship after the Associated Press obtained emails from 2010 in which Daniels criticized the use of liberal historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States at Indiana University (IU).

In e-mails between Daniels and education adviser David Shane, the former governor asked for a review of state standards after learning an IU workshop for teachers on civil rights, feminism, and labor movements required Zinn’s book.

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

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Daniels, now the president of Purdue University, said he supports academic freedom, but only wanted to make sure the “falsified version of history was not being foisted upon our young people in Indiana’s public K-12 classrooms.” If Zinn taught at Purdue, Daniels added, he would have every right to publish and teach what he wanted. 

Zinn’s book has been widely criticized by scholars, with The Atlanticlisting it as one of the top ten least credible history books in print.Stanford University professor Sam Wineburg criticized the book for relying heavily on secondary sources and taking out primary sources that contradicted Zinn’s view of history. In American Educator, he points to Zinn’s conspicuous lack of footnotes that would allow readers to cross check Zinn’s conclusions: “Not only is Zinn certain about the history that’s happened. He’s certain about the history that didn’t.”

Wineburg’s main concern is that the history book won’t teach young people to think critically about history: “For when students encounter Zinn’s A People’s History … they are exposed to and absorb an entire way of asking questions about the past and a way of using evidence to advance historical argument.”

Though Wineburg disagrees with Zinn’s presentation of history, he did not support Daniels’ attempt to block the book, taking to Twitter to call it “shameless attempts to censor free speech.”

The American Historical Association, a nonpartisan group that sets academic standards of review and publication for historians nationwide, also criticized former governor’s actions.

“Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of Howard Zinn’s text, and whatever the criticisms that have been made of it, we believe that the open discussion of controversial books benefits students, historians, and the general public alike,” the statement read. “Attempts to single out particular texts for suppression from a school or university curriculum have no place in a democratic society.”

Daniels told reporters last week his biggest concern was that Zinn’s inaccurate history would trickle into public school classrooms: “The question is, would this lead to this material being taught to innocent school children? I promise that if the parents of Indiana understood what was in the book in question, 99 if not 100 out of 100 would want some other book used.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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