Mitch Daniels hates people and history

July 22, 2013

Bill Mullen explains how the former Indiana governor and current Purdue University president took pleasure in the death of Howard Zinn and tried to start a witch-hunt.

CALL IT Orwell meets The Onion.

In a headline ripped from the back pages (or footnotes) of Glenn Greenwald's reporting on the National Security Agency, the Associated Press reported last week that in 2010, then-Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels--now, the president of Purdue University--directed his staff to "clean up" college courses in the state by searching out professors who might be teaching the "execrable" work of Howard Zinn.

Daniels was especially upset about Zinn's classic work A People's History of the United States, his anti-racist, feminist and pro-working class account of American history. "Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana?" Daniels wrote at the time.

If that weren't ugly enough, it turns out Daniels's directives were prompted not by student uprisings in Indiana schools, but by Zinn's death. The governor fulminated that now that this "anti-American" scholar was gone, the time was ripe to make sure his legacy would never reach Indiana young minds.

DANIELS' E-MAILS--which came to light after an AP Freedom of Information Act request--are full of toxic creep. For example, Daniels also considered cutting funding to an academic program in Indianapolis administered by a professor who was critical of him. His aides trawled the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) website and the curriculum at Indiana University to find evidence of left-wing teaching.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (Adam P. Schweigert)

But perhaps the apex of thought-speak in response to the AP story came in a prepared statement from the Purdue University Board of Trustees. For context, the trustees are all Mitch Daniels appointees--who later showed their gratitude by approving him to become president of Purdue, in violation of state law and the Board's own code of ethics.

The Board wrote: "What we see is a complete misrepresentation of President Daniels' views and concerns. The exchange had nothing to do with academic freedom or censorship. Rather, it had to do with concerns over what is being taught in Indiana's K-12 public schools...The Board rejects as totally misleading the original article and reaffirms its unanimous and complete support of President Daniels."

The trustees apparently read, "Assure me that it is not used anywhere in Indiana," as the pinnacle of academic freedom.

Of course, there's a more serious subtext to all this. Daniels has long been associated with the Heritage Foundation and Bradley Foundation--radically conservative academic think tanks that consistently attack multicultural education and have funded right-wingers like David Horowitz who claim that African Americans benefited from slavery and compare supporters of the Palestinians to Holocaust deniers.

As governor, Daniels supported Arizona-style legislation on immigration and tried to remove all state funding for Planned Parenthood (luckily, a court blocked the effort).

Heritage, Bradley and Daniels also support the privatization of public schools and the destruction of teachers' unions. As governor, Daniels' first legislative initiative was to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights. He also built the largest school voucher program in the nation.

Daniels' appointment as president of Purdue was a right-wing coup in a national campaign by conservatives to gut public education, privatize learning and return radical conservative thought to the center of academic culture. Indeed, Daniels has recommended that Purdue faculty and staff read the writings of white supremacist Charles Murray--the co-author with Richard Hernnstein of The Bell Curve, the notorious eugenicist study arguing for the intellectual inferiority of non-white people.

IN RESPONSE to the revelations, more than 60 Purdue faculty members signed on to an open letter to Daniels that reads:

We are writing in response to the recent news reports about e-mails you wrote while governor of Indiana. In those e-mails, you criticized the historian Howard Zinn and his work, and you sought to find ways to "get rid of" Zinn's ideas in Indiana schools." However much we disagree with your past statements, we are more troubled by the fact that you continue to express these views today, especially since you are now speaking as the chief representative of Purdue University, with the responsibility to embody the best of academic inquiry and exchange.

We appreciate the fact that you have articulated your support for the idea of academic freedom for tenured professors, but such reassurances do not go far enough. In this letter, we'd like to explain what we find so troubling about your continued insistence that Zinn's works are "truly execrable" and fraudulent.

First, your assessment of Zinn's work goes against the judgment of Purdue's own faculty members, many of whom do include his work in their syllabi or in their published research--not to mention historians across the nation and the world. Whatever their political stripe, most experts in the field of U.S. history do not take issue with Howard Zinn's facts, even when they do take issue with his conclusions.

Second, we note that you quote several scholarly critics of Zinn's works in the statement posted on your Purdue President's page. It's important to recognize that Oscar Handlin and Arthur Schlesinger made assumptions about how to study and interpret history that were fundamentally at odds with Zinn's assumptions. Handlin and Schlesinger and others of the so-called "consensus school of U.S. history" that flourished in the 1950s believed that they could use the sources generated by the people with power to speak for ALL Americans. In the 1960s, Zinn and many others of a rising generation of scholars questioned that original assumption and practice; they sought the voices and perspectives of people who did not have power. They discovered through diligent research that working people, Black people, women, Native Americans and immigrants expressed views that were at odds with their political, military and economic leaders.

Such disagreements about scholarship in the fields of humanities and social science are not unusual. In fact, we expect that generational change in the academy and the publication of innovative, exciting work by scholars in good standing should spark this kind of debate. Such discussions make for better history and for better teaching in the wider community!

Third, we also note that you do not quote the many positive reviews of his work--just the kind of biased presentation you accuse Zinn of making in his publications. For every negative comment that you note in your letter, you could find a positive one published in expert venues. As just one example, Eric Foner, the Dewitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and a former president of the American Historical Association, insisted in a review that appeared in The New York Times Book Review that Zinn's A People's History ought to be "required reading." On another occasion, Foner said of Zinn, "Over the years, I have been struck by how many excellent students of history had their interest in studying the past sparked by reading Howard Zinn. That's the highest compliment one can offer to a historian."

Throughout his career, Zinn was a dedicated teacher, and until his death, he was a well-respected member of the American Historical Association. You can find the association's memoriam to him, which details his contributions to the field of U.S. history here:

To call him "a fraud" and to charge that he "purposely falsified American history," as you do in your statement to the Associated Press released on July 17, and "irredeemably slanted," as you do in the letter published on your Purdue President webpage, reflects a misunderstanding of the nature of academic discussion.

Scholarly debates and disagreements create ferment that leavens the study of history. Without vigorous disagreements about the meaning of the American experience, the field would not have moved in such important directions as the study of women's history, African American history, labor history, the history of sexuality and so on. Moreover, to insist that Zinn's critical perspective is anti-American is to miss his commitment to bringing out our better collective selves--living up to the great ideals of egalitarianism and democratic involvement upon which this republic was founded.

Fourth, we see that your response to the AP reporting draws a line between academic freedom in higher education and K-12 instruction. In your statements, you seek to reassure us that were Zinn a tenured professor here at Purdue, he would be allowed to pursue his research and to publish it. You argue that your original e-mails and your views today pertain only to the introduction of Zinn's book into K-12 classrooms.

And yet, in your January "Open Letter to the People of Purdue," you suggest that the tenure system--the bedrock on which academic freedom in higher education is built--should be reconsidered: "The academies that, through the unique system of tenure, once enshrined freedom of opinion and inquiry now frequently are home to the narrowest sort of closed-mindedness and the worst repression of dissident ideas."

When we put this statement next to your excoriation of a respected scholar, we are concerned that in fact ideas that don't find favor at the highest levels of our institution will be discouraged, and ideas that are celebrated by our top administration rather than by those scholars whose expertise makes them uniquely qualified to make such judgments will be promoted. Whether or not our fears reflect your point of view accurately, when we put your public statements together, we find them to have a chilling effect on untenured scholars and to affect the morale of Purdue's long-time faculty as well.

Finally, we note that in the original e-mails, you were concerned in particular with a summer institute taught at Indiana University for high school teachers, not students. Surely you don't believe that fully accredited teachers need to be protected from Zinn, whatever you may believe about children being "force-fed" information that you find objectionable.

We know better of our K-12 colleagues. As do all teachers, they need to read peer-reviewed scholarship from across the spectrum and be challenged with points of view that they may not hold; as we all do, they crave energetic, vibrant discussion with other professionals--just the kind of experience the program at Indiana University was designed to provide. And then, as all teachers should, they bring the insight and energy of such experiences back to their own classrooms.

We trust our colleagues to introduce young people to the facts of history, but also to the much more difficult, much more essential practices of critical thinking. We trust our K-12 colleagues to know how and when to present challenges to received knowledge and how to encourage their students to judge such challenges for themselves. And we trust them to decide how and when to use controversial scholarship such as Zinn's in their classrooms. This kind of academic freedom is essential to all levels of education, whether within a tenure system or not. And we promise you, this kind of challenging, stimulating approach will result in better, more engaging education of all Indiana students, from our five-year old kindergartners, to members of Purdue's class of 2017, and beyond.

In the end, this issue transcends one author and one book. It concerns the very legitimacy of academic discourse. Scholarship emerges virtually every day that challenges the "conventional wisdom" of prior generations. Do we assess such scholarship critically, or do we censor uncomfortable ideas out of hand? The very viability of academic inquiry and the university's mission is at stake.

Mitch Daniels is no joke: he is the Manchurian Candidate of right-wing higher education in the U.S. He and his cronies seek to roll education history back to the McCarthy years of academic purges, aggressive sexism, racism, anti-Communism and blacklisting. We need to fight back with everything we have.

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