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Daniels’ Comments Ignite Debate About Academic Freedom

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels talks with students outside Stewart Center following the announcement that he will become Purdue University's 12th President

Publication of emails indicating former Governor Mitch Daniels wanted to ban a book by a liberal historian have roused reaction among higher education professionals, with some educators expressing alarm that a top state official would try to censor teachings.

Emails obtained by The Associated Press lay out Daniels’ 2010 request to ban historian and anti-war activist Howard Zinn’s book “A People’s History of the United States” from state classrooms.

“It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page,” the former Indiana governor wrote to recipients including then-state superintendent Tony Bennett. “Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before any more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”

Rob Helfenbein, associate professor of curriculum studies in the School of Education at IUPUI, requires students in his class on social studies teaching methods to read a selection of chapters from “A People’s History” every year. He argued that Daniels’ criticism of implementing the text is precisely the main goal he has in using it: providing for multiple perspectives in history.

“I would argue that every historian has a bias. What’s different is most people don’t admit it,” Helfenbein said. “If you read the introduction to the Howard Zinn book, he says exactly what Mitch Daniels accused him of – that he’s writing from a particular bias.”

Helfenbein says ‘A People’s History’ seeks to write history from a different perspective, which is a considerable contribution to the social sciences.

In addition, about 320 middle- and high-school educators from Indiana have registered for the Zinn Education Project, an effort to promote the use of “A People’s History” across the country, by providing access to a database of additional teaching materials relating to the book.

Indiana University classes have used ‘A People’s History’ in the past. “The Study of Public Advocacy,” a class in the Department of Communication and Culture, lists the book on its syllabus for Fall 2013. Professors for the class could not be reached for comment.

Stephen Watt, Provost Professor of English at Indiana University, said although some matters are most effectively handled by management, textbook issues are best left under the control of others.

“When it comes to curricular issues, I believe that those people who have the most special field disciplinary knowledge should be at the forefront of making those decisions,” Watt said. “People with a reasonable basis of knowledge in an area – we call those people faculty – are in the best position to be able to suggest what should be taught.”

Watt added that any dismissal of any historical book based on statements about the author as a biased political figure is unfair, and does not follow standards of academic freedom.

“I think academic freedom would demand that if this history book is riddled with errors, somebody needs to identify those errors, somebody needs to rebut those errors, teachers who may or may not use that book need to make sure that those errors are corrected – if there’s a dialogue,” Watt said. “That’s what academic freedom means, a respectful dialogue over areas where there might be disagreement.”

In response to reports, Daniels on Tuesday defended his criticism of Zinn’s book.

“In truth, my emails infringed on no one’s academic freedom and proposed absolutely no censorship of any person or viewpoint,” Daniels said in a statement posted on Purdue’s website Wednesday. “If Howard Zinn had been a professor at Purdue University, I would have vigorously defended his right to publish and teach what he wanted. Academic freedom, however, does not immunize a person from criticism and certainly does not confer entitlement to have one’s work inflicted upon our young people.”

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