Former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, now the president of Purdue University, has impeccable taste in historians.
Upon the death of Howard Zinn in 2010, he wrote an e-mail to his advisers about Zinn’s most famous work, A People’s History of the United States. “It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page,” he said. “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?”
He was appalled to find out that Indiana University used the tome in a course training the state’s teachers, and wanted his education adviser to look into such courses and impose some standards. “Disqualify the propaganda,” he urged, “and highlight (if there is any) the more useful offerings.”
Just revealed, the e-mails have occasioned much heavy breathing among the sorts of people for whom lacking perspective is a professional obligation. For them, Daniels might as well be a book-burning fireman out of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
Ninety-two Purdue professors signed a letter warning that “the very viability of academic inquiry and the university’s mission is at stake.” The American Historical Association said it “deplores the spirit and intent” of the e-mails, and considers “any governor’s action that interfered with an individual teacher’s reading assignments to be inappropriate and a violation of academic freedom.” Historian Michael Kazin generously allowed, “I don’t know if Daniels should be fired,” before stipulating “he should be roundly condemned.”
You would never guess from the hysterics that the low estimation that Daniels has for Zinn’s work is shared by a swath of distinguished historians. It’s not that they disagree with Zinn or believe he’s too controversial. They think his work is, to borrow the word Daniels used in another e-mail, “crap.”
As Michael Moynihan pointed out in Reason magazine, much of the incoming fire comes from Zinn’s more intellectually credible comrades on the left. Sean Wilentz describes Zinn’s work as “balefully influential.” Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. called him “a polemicist, not a historian.” The New Republic recently ran a review of a biography of Zinn under the headline “Agit-Prof.” Even the aforementioned Michael Kazin believes Zinn “essentially reduced the past to a Manichean fable.”
A People’s History is a book for high-school students not yet through their Holden Caulfield phase, for professors eager to subject their students to their own ideological enthusiasms, and for celebrities like Matt Damon, who has done so much to publicize it. If it is a revelation to you that we treated Native Americans poorly, and if you believe the Founding Fathers were a bunch of phonies, Zinn’s volume will strike you with the power of a thunderclap. And one day, maybe, you will grow up.
The caterwauling in the Daniels controversy about the importance of academic inquiry is particularly rich, given that Zinn didn’t believe in it. He had no use for objectivity and made history a venture in rummaging through the historical record to find whatever was most politically useful, without caring much about strict factual accuracy. “Knowing history is less about understanding the past than changing the future,” he said. He joined his propagandistic purpose to a moral obtuseness that refused to distinguish between the United States and its enemies, including Nazi Germany.
Daniels was right not to want Indiana school kids to be subjected to Zinn in the classroom (what they choose to read on their own time is another matter), and right to worry that A People’s History was part of teacher training. The former governor’s critics are willing to look the other way at Zinn’s transgressions against his own academic discipline; for them, defending a fellow man of the Left and shouting “censorship” are more important and congenial pursuits than maintaining standards.
The sin of Mitch Daniels, it turns out, is to take history more seriously than they do.