Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Question In Daniels Email Dustup: Who Decides What Students Read In Class?

Mitch Daniels takes questions from media from the stage of Purdue's Loeb Playhouse following the announcement he would become the school's next president.

Elle Moxley / StateImpact Indiana

Mitch Daniels takes questions from media from the stage of Purdue's Loeb Playhouse following the announcement he would become the school's next president.

When the Purdue Board of Trustees selected Mitch Daniels last year as the university’s next president, he pledged not to let his politics interfere with his new role.

But Daniels’ recent defense of disparaging remarks he made about a controversial historian while governor has some Purdue faculty members questioning that commitment.

“I hope to be the strongest advocate Purdue has ever had for the freedom to speak out,” Daniels said at a press conference after the Associated Press released emails he wrote criticizing historian Howard Zinn. “That does not mean that the product of scholarly work should be free from criticism.”

Still, Daniels reiterated his position that Zinn’s work should not be taught to K-12 students.

Then, on Monday, 90 Purdue professors signed an open letter to Daniels, writing they were “troubled” by Daniels’ continued criticism of the historian.

Who is Howard Zinn — And Why Does He Matter?

No one disputes that Zinn’s work is controversial. In his bestselling book “A People’s History of the United States,” Zinn describes himself as a “radical.”

But many educators still see the value of teaching his version of history. Deborah Menkart helps run the Zinn Education Project, a Washington, D.C. based organization that provides resources to K-12 educators who teach “A People’s History.”

Menkart says the point of the book is to tell American history from a different viewpoint — that of working people, women and people of color, the voices most likely to be omitted from history textbooks.

Daniels sees Zinn differently. In 2010, while governor, he called Zinn a “terrible anti-American” and dismissed the historian’s work as “a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation” in an email exchange with a group of state education advisors. He didn’t want Zinn’s book taught in Indiana classrooms.

The Associated Press obtained the emails and published them earlier this month. But Daniels wasn’t able to quiet concern over his commitment to academic freedom with a next-day press conference.

Daniels Says Emails Were About K-12, Not Higher Education

First came the letter, signed by 90 Purdue professors, expressing concern that Daniels continues to stand by his comments, given his position now as president of an academic institution.

Then Tuesday, an Indiana lawmaker publicly requested both Daniels and the Board of Trustees resign, stating that it would be “in the public’s best interest.”

“I think you all owe the Purdue community and the general public a more thorough airing of the rationale for these recent moves than we have seen to date,” wrote Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, in a letter.

But the board is sticking by Daniels, according to a statement posted on the Purdue website.

“No one was censored,” Daniels maintains. “My only concern had to do with protecting students in public K-12 education in Indiana against what the whole world agrees is a false version of American history.”

In the email exchange, when Daniels asked whether Zinn’s book was used in any Indiana classroom, his top education adviser, David Shane, wrote the book was being used at Indiana University in a course to train teachers.

“Sounds like we need a cleanup of what is credit-worthy for professional development,” the governor quickly replied.

Do Elected Officials Have A Role To Play In Setting Curriculum?

More broadly, the incident has other education professionals questioning the role government plays in setting curriculum at the state’s public colleges and universities. A lot of the decisions depend on the university and the administration — the state doesn’t have any authority.

Stephen Watt, a provost professor of English at Indiana University, said in an interview when instructors chose curriculum and resources for their courses, they rely on the opinions of people with credentials:

I think people with a reasonable basis of knowledge in an area — and we call those people faculty — are in the best position to be able to suggest what should be taught. Does that mean that we aren’t open to suggestions and criticisms? Of course we are — and we have to be responsive to those criticisms.

Some issues are best effectively made by management. But 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.

Others believe politicians should step in from time to time to keep the process clean. National Association of Scholars President Peter Wood says organizations like his own — a network of academics in higher education — are constantly tasked with finding a balance between academic freedom and academic responsibility.

For his part, Wood said in an interview Daniels is right to stand by his 2010 criticism of Zinn:

There is a contingent within higher education that has attempted to redefine academic freedom as a kind of ‘anything goes.’ When a very important, maybe fundamental, doctrine like academic freedom is misused, then it behooves other people, responsible people such as college administrators, college trustees and, yes, politicians, to intervene and say ‘something is wrong here.’

There is an administrative function in the state of Indiana in which people are making careful decisions about what should and should not rate as appropriate material for this public purpose, and the public official said I think that there’s something amiss for this, let’s look into it. That’s a responsible exercise of authority by an elected official.

‘That’s What Academic Freedom Means, A Respectful Dialogue’

At the K-12 level, school districts are generally allowed to adopt materials teachers and administrators have determined meet the needs of their students.

State Superintendent Glenda 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?”

“This would be a great occasion for a conversation with students, faculty and administrators about the issues of academic freedom in the 21st century. Let’s talk about what’s important.”
—Professor Stephen Watt, Indiana University

But a gray area exists where official standards and the public’s opinions don’t mesh. Wood says although Zinn’s book presents a unique point of view on American history, it is unpolished and therefore not suitable for instructional use.

“There are historians who recognize that the book is full of error, and nonetheless think that there’s some validity in exposing students to it because it gets students excited,” Wood says. “I think that to excite people with things that are falsehoods is not good teaching.”

But if that’s the case, Watt says, then perhaps it is time for the state to take a closer look at what schools are teaching.

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


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