Why Mitch Daniels was right to eliminate Howard Zinn

You wanna read a real history book? Read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. That book’ll knock you on your ass.

Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting

So there has been a big dustup recently about Purdue University president Mitch Daniels and some e-mails he sent back when he was the governor of Indiana in regard to eliminating a controversial history book by Howard Zinn. Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, has a strong liberal bent that understandably frustrated a conservative like Daniels.

A lot of liberals and the faculty at Purdue University in general are concerned about whether Daniels will impede academic freedom on campus. Here’s why they have nothing legitimate to worry about.

First of all, being a state governor is a very different job from being a university president. The e-mails in question refer to the use of Zinn’s text in K-12 classrooms, not universities. And it’s perfectly reasonable for a governor to be concerned with a state’s academic standards. Notice that Daniels didn’t say he didn’t want Zinn’s book published or even borrowed from the school library. He merely wanted to ensure that the book was not used as a textbook for academic credit at the K-12 level, and he did not want K-12 teachers to be able to use this textbook for professional development.

I understand the appearance of political censorship here, but perhaps a better question is why some would want a history book with an overt political agenda taught in public school classrooms in the first place.

Despite its popularity, Zinn’s book has come under plenty of fire over the past 33 years, and not just from offended conservatives. Plenty of historians of all ideological stripes have panned Zinn’s book too, not because of its ideology, but because of its questionable academic quality and all of its leading questions for students. This is not to say that there is no value in what Zinn wrote or that it should be kept away from students under lock and key, but using it as an official textbook ascribes an air of authority to it that it doesn’t really merit.

To get a flavor for Zinn’s work, let’s examine a few of Zinn’s questions at the end of Chapter 16:

  • Did the behavior of the United States show that her war aims were humanitarian or centered on power and profit?
  • Was she fighting the war to end the control by some nations over others or to make sure the controlling nations were friends of the United States?
  • With the defeat of the Axis, were fascism’s essential elements — militarism, racism, imperialism — now gone? Or were they absorbed into the already poisoned bones of the victors?

These leading questions are not the stuff of normal history textbooks to be sure.

Here’s another excerpt from Zinn to make it crystal clear that he writes the book with an agenda.

The mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction-so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people’s movements-that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.

For my fellow liberals, remember that we sort of do the same thing with science textbooks, like the infamous Of Pandas and People that so many religious conservatives have fought to include as a science classroom textbook promoting intelligent design. (The conservatives lost that fight in the landmark Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case.) Why did the conservatives want to include that textbook in the classroom? To lend artificial credibility to intelligent design and to discredit the established science of evolution.

Now some might argue that science and history are two different beasts and that history is far more subjective than science so opposing views and controversies are much more legitimate there. But the more important lesson to me is that children, including teenagers, are impressionable, and it’s important that we don’t pass off propaganda as fact to them, regardless of which side the propaganda serves. Most students even at the high school level have not developed the critical thinking skills necessary to digest a book as simplistic and overtly partisan and leading as Zinn’s in proper perspective; especially when it is presented as a bona fide history textbook.

Here’s what liberal historian Michael Kazin — editor of Dissent Magazine — had to say about Zinn’s book.

But to make sense of a nation’s entire history, an author has to explain the weight and meaning of worldviews that are not his own and that, as an engaged citizen, he does not favor. Zinn has no taste for such disagreeable tasks…No work of history can substitute for a social movement. Yet intelligent, sober studies can make sense of how changing structures of power and ideas provide openings for challenges from below, while also shifting the basis on which a reigning order claims legitimacy for itself. These qualities mark the work of such influential (and widely read) historians on the left as Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Gerda Lerner, C.L.R. James, and the erstwhile populist C. Vann Woodward. Reading their work makes one wiser about the obstacles to change as well as encouraged about the capacity of ordinary men and women to achieve a degree of independence and happiness, even within unjust societies. In contrast, Howard Zinn is an evangelist of little imagination for whom history is one long chain of stark moral dualities. His fatalistic vision can only keep the left just where it is: on the margins of American political life.

Do we liberals who have often fought so hard against the child brainwashing techniques common to organized religion really want to foist a book like A People’s History on impressionable schoolchildren as a textbook?

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