Mitch Daniels and Howard Zinn

by Benjamin Studebaker

Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana, one-time speculative presidential candidate, and current president of Purdue University  has been accused of attempting to use his office to influence the ideological content of Indiana’s classrooms so as to silence dissenting opinions. Specifically, he is accused of attempting to prevent schools from using A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, a deceased academic. Daniels did indeed attempt to prevent the book from being taught in schools, as he freely admits–was this morally permissible of him?

There can be no doubt that Daniels was openly opposed to the book. He said:

This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away. The obits and commentaries mentioned 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? … 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?

Daniels continues to defend this view in a statement he released after the story went public:

 I merely wanted to make certain that Howard Zinn’s textbook, which represents a falsified version of history, was not being foisted upon our young people in Indiana’s public K-12 classrooms.

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.

Daniels then proceeds to list a couple of scholars who disagreed with Zinn and wrote polemical criticisms of him, taking this to be sufficient evidence that “scholars are communicators of all ideologies” agree with him. There are, of course, many who do not–the book is used not only in many high school classrooms, but by many professors in university classes. If all professors disagreed with Zinn, the use of his book would be a non-issue, because no one would desire to use it in the first place.

So what’s the deal with this book? Howard Zinn desired to highlight elements of American history that were, at the time when his book first came out, largely ignored in classrooms. For Zinn, US history is a series of struggles between disaffected and dominant groups. It places its focus on:

  • Native Americans
  • Slavery and Racism
  • Women and Gender
  • The Labor Movement
  • Militarism

In sum, he focuses on the stories of disadvantaged individuals and groups and takes a critical view of the nation’s history. For this reason, many on the right have deemed Zinn anti-American. That claim is silly–emphasizing dark periods in a country’s history out of the belief that they ought to be better understood is not equivalent to actively attempting to undermine or destroy the state. Zinn desired a population that was more congnoscent of the dark periods and thought more critically.

That said, while there can be no doubt that while the book covers elements of US history that are too often paid little attention to, it is nonetheless the case that this view is also limited and also suffers from many of the problems competing textbooks suffer from, albeit in a different direction. US history includes a series of injustices, but it is not ultimately reducible to those injustices and those injustices alone, no more than it is reducible to the relentless patriotism of say, A Patriot’s History of the United Stateswhich was written in opposition to Zinn’s book (and comes with an endorsement from Glenn Beck).

It is harmful to children to indoctrinate them with any view of history that carries with it a relentless ideological bias, whether that bias comes from the slant on a given historical event or merely through exclusion or over-inclusion. To do so gives them an inaccurate view of the workings of the world and sets them up to fail as voters. The trouble, of course, is that any book about history is going to carry with it a bias, because there is no convergence among people about the correct interpretation of our history. Additionally, social studies teachers and professors are themselves laden with bias and feed it into their classrooms independently of the books. Teaching “both sides” or “the controversy” is little better–it presents a false dichotomy, privileging two perspectives at the expense of all alternatives, leaving children to pick which one to believe, usually on the basis of whatever their parents happen to have picked.

We are obliged to give students the tools to come to justifiable conclusions about social science. The views of parents are immaterial, the state has no obligation to reinforce them or defend them. Students should be encouraged to have thoughts of their own, regardless of what their parents say at home. No one parent’s view should be privileged. Of course, why is the particular interpretation of any one historian, be it Zinn or anyone else, better than teaching the particular interpretation of any one parent? In either case, the classroom becomes the indoctrination of a view rather than the establishment of critical thinking skills. The historian’s view may be more sophisticated, but it is inevitably limited.

Social science classrooms should not teach students what to think, they should teach them how to think. History should not be a subject of memorized dates and facts, but an arena for developing substantive philosophical beliefs about politics and morality. This should be facilitated not by the teaching of slanted textbooks, but by the reading and discussing of philosophy. It’s not especially important that students know the details of who Frederick Douglass or JP Morgan were, or if they know when the Battle of Shiloh was fought or who won it. What’s important is that students are able to reach justifiable views about politics through reason, a skill that presently very nearly none of them possess, to our universal detriment. Is imperialism or slavery justifiable? What kind of economic system suits people best? Students should form their own opinions and should not be spoon-fed answers to these questions. They should not be told to oppose racism, they should discover that racism is wrong through their own mental development. Opinions we reach through our own thinking are opinions we come to care more about and go to more trouble to defend. Casual racism, classism, and sexism are perpetuated by force-feeding. Students should be introduced to ideas on these subjects without being offered any definitive answers by teachers or textbooks.

As for Mitch Daniels? While Zinn’s book is not anti-American or ahistorical, Daniels is right that it carries with it a bias, and one that is hostile to Daniels’ political views. It would probably be best if Zinn were not taught, but it would also probably be best if none of the textbooks currently in use were taught, because they’re all about memorizing facts and they all feed children pre-scripted answers to moral and political questions rather than offer them the opportunity to develop answers of their own. The various school districts choosing which books to have their students read are just as guilty of politically biasing the education system as Daniels is when he discourages one or more of those books from being chosen. The entire system by which we teach social studies to children is corrupt, and if we single out Daniels we miss the myriad teachers, school board members, textbook authors, parents, and others that contribute to the way it relentlessly attempts to feed students propaganda rather than encourage them to think. Punishing Daniels is no solution, it is the way we go about teaching this subject in the first place that must change.