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The Mitch Daniels Controversy: Context for the AHA Statement

Allen Mikaelian, September 2013

Debates over acadmic freedom, bias in historical writing, and the proper role of a state government in the classroom heated up on July 16, when the Associated Press released an article detailing what it found in a series of e-mails to and from Mitch Daniels when he was governor of Indiana. The AP obtained the e-mails under a Freedom of Information Act request, and the article focused on a series of February 2010 messages in which Daniels expressed concern that A People's History of the United States by the late Howard Zinn was being used in Indiana classrooms.

The AP story quotes Daniels, now president of Purdue University, asking in an e-mail, shortly after Zinn's death, "Can someone assure me that it [A People's History] 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?"When informed of a course for school teachers-Social Movements in Modern America: Labor, Civil Rights, and Feminism-that included Zinn on the reading list, Daniels replied, "This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state" and asked who had jurisdiction.

When offered a plan by a state school board member look at university courses, Daniels's e-mail reply was: "Go for it. Disqualify propaganda and highlight (if there is any) the more useful offerings." In another e-mail, as the conversation turned to teacher training, Daniels wrote, "Sounds like we need a cleanup of what is credit-worthy in 'professional development' and what is not. Who will take charge?"

The Associated Press pointed out that "The success of [Daniels's] efforts remains unclear" and noted that A People's History is still used in some courses.

Responding to the story, Daniels claimed that if Zinn had tenure at Purdue, he would "defend his right not to be dismissed for the nature of his work. That's academic freedom." But he said that would not give Zinn an "entitlement to have that work foisted on school children in public schools." The Indianapolis Star reported that his defense also included an assertion that "his objections were not an attempt at censorship or an infringement of academic freedom in the collegiate world" but were limited to K-12 public schools.

In its coverage, Inside Higher Ed responded to this claim by stating that "the AP descriptions of the e-mails suggest otherwise." Daniels reached out to Inside Higher Ed after it published the story to explain that he was concerned about teachers in professional development courses, and by extension, their K-12 students being taught "falsifications."

Daniels used the remarks of prominent historians like Michael Kazin and history-education professor Sam Wineburg, who have criticized the work of Zinn, to further defend his e-mails. Kazin responded on the Academe blog of the American Association of University Professors: "When Daniels accuses Zinn of being a 'biased writer,' he just shows how little he understands about how history is now and has always been written." And Wineburg tweeted, "Mr. Daniels, free societies openly teach ideas we disagree with. We do not censor objectionable speech. Study your Orwell."

Three days after the AHA released its statement, a group of Purdue faculty signed an open letter to Daniels that took issue with some of the characterizations of A People's History before turning to the issue of academic freedom: "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." Daniels responded with a statement that at Purdue, "all should be free to contend, with the beneficial consequences your letter discusses." However, he continued, "I do respectfully disagree that Prof. Zinn's work is as widely accepted or as mainstream as you portray it.

"Defenders of Daniels' included Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars; the editors of the National Review; Benno Schmidt, chair of the City University of New York Board of Trustees; and syndicated columnist Rich Lowry. Wood, writing for a Chronicle of Higher Education blog, took note of the many historians who have criticized Zinn's scholarship and argued, "A governor has a responsibility to uphold academic standards as well as academic freedom," and "Academic freedom is a principle that thrives only when it is sturdily woven together with academic responsibility." Benno Schmidt made a similar argument in his article for the Wall Street Journal: "Academic freedom is a right and a responsibility. In recent times, the academy has too often been focused on rights and privileges rather than responsibility and accountability." Lowry pointed to Zinn's critics on the left and asserted that "The former governor's critics are willing to look the other way at Zinn's transgressions...; for them, defending a fellow man of the left and shouting 'censorship' are more important and congenial pursuits than maintaining standards." And the editors of the National Review compared the inclusion of Zinn in a history course to the inclusion of creationism in a science course, concluding that "Similarly, whatever A People's History is, it is not history."

Adding his voice to the debate, Carl Weinberg, the teacher whose course was named in the e-mails, spoke out via an article in Inside Higher Ed, explaining why A People History was on his syllabus: "In designing that session, my aim was to help teachers appreciate the challenge of explaining how and why social movements develop. In addition to reading Zinn, the teachers were assigned a wide range of pieces based on social movement theories, some of which actually challenged aspects of Zinn's account as romantic and misleading.... So, by including Zinn, my aim was not to shove his views down teachers' throats-precisely the opposite.... After all, the purpose of education is to help people think for themselves. That is why censorship strikes at the heart of the educational mission."

-Allen Mikaelian is editor of Perspectives on History.

The AHA Statement

The American Historical Association issued the following statement regarding the recently released e-mail correspondence of former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and his staff relating to the assignment of Howard Zinn's work by an Indiana University faculty member.The American Historical Association would consider any governor's action that interfered with an individual teacher's reading assignments to be inappropriate and a violation of academic freedom. Some of the relevant facts of this case remain murky, and it is not entirely clear what in the end happened, or did not happen, in Indiana. Nonetheless, the AHA deplores the spirit and intent of former Governor Daniels's e-mails of 2010, which have now been published online in unabridged form. 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. Attempts to single out particular texts for suppression from a school or university curriculum have no place in a democratic society.This statement originally appeared on AHA Today on July 19, 2013.

Coverage of the Controversy

The e-mails released by the AP can be found at hosted.ap.org/specials/interactives/documents/daniels1.pdf
Tom LoBiano, Associated Press, "As Governor, Mitch Daniels Looked to Censor Academic Writings and Courses," Indianapolis Star, July 16, 2013.
Peter Wood, "Why Mitch Daniels Was Right," Chronicle of Higher Education, July 18, 2013.
Michael Kazin, "What Mitch Daniels Doesn't Know about History," Academe Blog, July 18, 2013.
Carl Weinberg, "Thank You, Governor Daniels," Inside Higher Ed, July 22, 2013.
Alan M. Kraut and Katherine M. Finley, "OAH Responds to Recent Concerns of Academic Freedom," Organization of American Historians, July 25, 2013.
"Open Letter to Mitch Daniels' from Purdue Faculty," Exponent Online, July 26, 2013.
"University President Daniels Responds to Open Letter," Exponent Online, July 26, 2013.
Rich Lowry, "Mitch Daniels Takes Issue with Howard Zinn's So-Called History," Oregonian, July 29, 2013.
Sam Wineburg, "Mitch, Here's Where We Split Ways on Howard Zinn," Journal & Courier, July 29, 2013.
Editors, "Mitch Daniels Was Right," National Review, July 29 2013.
Benno Schmidt, "Mitch Daniels's Gift to Academic Freedom," Wall Street Journal, July 30, 2013.