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How Howard Zinn Sparked A Debate About Academic Freedom

Howard Zinn

Photo: Miss Millions (flickr)

Howard Zinn is the author of "A People's History of the United States."

At universities across the state this week, groups honored liberal historian Howard Zinn, in response to emails the Purdue University president Mitch Daniels sent while he was governor trying to censor the use of Zinn’s work in classrooms.

A Different Viewpoint Or ‘Misinformation’

The group that gathered Tuesday night at Purdue University wanted to send a message to Daniels and to political leaders that teachers deserve academic freedom.

Daniels was not there but a spokesperson issued a statement that said:

“All viewpoints are welcome on our campus.”

But Daniels doesn’t just consider Zinn’s liberal teaching of U.S. history a viewpoint. He calls it misinformation.

In emails the Associated Press released this summer, Daniels wrote after learning of Howard Zinn’s death, “This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away.”

He called Zinn’s book, The People’s History of The United States,  “a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page.”

In those emails Daniels sought assurances from his staff that Zinn’s history wasn’t being used in Indiana classrooms.

“It’s a little bit concerning to have that quote coming from a university president where the university, especially a public university is supposed to have a variety of perspectives coming from either side whether it was the left or the right,” says Purdue University student Tiffany Montoya, who attended the read-in.

There’s no disputing Zinn’s approach is radical. He even described himself as such.

He tells the history of the U.S. through people’s viewpoints he says were often ignored such as slaves and Native Americans.

Indiana University modern history professor Alex Lichtenstein encouraged his students to come to the read-in at Purdue. His class is beginning a lesson on anti-war and the civil rights movement so he says it naturally fit into the schedule

“The entire purpose of the book is to is to demonstrate that there are many voices in American history,” he ays. “So to ban it or suppress it or to suggest that these voices should be silent for young people is completely at odds with Zinn’s work and Zinn’s ideas and Zinn’s purpose in life and Zinn himself would have said completely at odds with American democracy.”

While he has received much criticism over his statements, Daniels does have his supporters.

The head of the National Association of Scholars, which is a network of academics in higher education wrote an op-ed defending Daniels not long after the emails were released.

He said sometimes it’s important for politicians to get involved to decide what’s appropriate material in a public classroom, and Daniels was right writing what he did:

From what we can tell from Daniels’s e-mails, he acted both within the bounds of law and in fidelity to good educational principles when he objected to the use of Zinn’s book and called for “cleanup of what is credit-worthy in ‘professional development’ and what is not.” I wish other governors were as clear-minded in their judgments about educational content.

Who Determines What’s Taught In The Classroom

And that brings up a question:

“Who chooses what we are exposed to? Who chooses what our children are exposed to?” asks Purdue University student Na’eemah Web.

She says five months after the emails were released, she still worries about politicians getting too closely involved in that is taught in the classroom.

“There’s been a lot of government officials, the president of Purdue being one of them, that supports the privatization of schools and that means the privatization of knowledge,” Webb says.

IU professor Peter Kloosterman says it is also a question of freedom of speech.

“In a lot of other countries you’ve got the government controlling what the people can say. So academic freedom is just another way of looking at freedom of speech,” says Kloosterman, who is also a member of the American Association of University Professors – a group that works to protect academic freedom. “We’ve known for a long time that freedom of speech is always under attack.  Freedom of speech gives people who aren’t in power the opportunity to say what they think.  What we see here is someone who has a lot of power trying to take that away from less powerful.”

At the college and university level, a lot of decisions depend on the university administration and the state doesn’t have any authority.

But Kloostermann says months after the emails were printed, the reason people are still talking about Daniels and attending read-ins is because people in power are trying to get more involved in making decisions about what should be studied in Indiana’s classrooms.

“There are people who think the elected officials or people in charge of universities are there because they know more and they should be making more of the decisions,” Kloosterman says.

But as StateImpact Indiana reports, Daniels said his emails weren’t referring to university classrooms:

Daniels told the Associated Press on Tuesday the push was only to get Zinn out of K-12 classrooms, not necessarily the state’s higher education institutes. He defended his decision as governor, calling the historian a “fraud” who wouldn’t withstand state textbook oversight.

And K-12 classrooms typically have more oversight than university classrooms, with administrators taking a key role in selecting course materials.

State superintendent Glenda Ritz, however, told StateImpact Indiana that role does not extend to state officials.

Ritz said her department’s role in textbook selection is strictly advisory.

“What we’re looking for really is scope and sequence,” Ritz says. “Are they meeting the standards? Are they complying with what we want children to know and learn in the state of Indiana?”

But those standards are too restrictive, says Howard Zinn’s co-editor Anthony Arnove, who also attended the read-in.

“I think teachers just need to have the freedom to make those kind of choices, and as they’re pressured more and more to just teach to a test and teach to a core curriculum they have less control over what’s going on in their classroom so it’s harder to bring in those outside voices like Howard’s,” he says. “I think students would be far richer if they’re able to engage in Howard’s work.”

Arnove adds even he does not advocate for Zinn’s work to be taught by itself. Instead, he says it is best taught alongside other history textbooks, giving students more than one perspective.

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