Mitch Daniels, whom some Republicans would like to see president of something more than Purdue University, is under attack because as governor of Indiana he objected to the use of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in public-school curricula. In recently published e-mails, the plainspoken Governor Daniels described Zinn’s work as “anti-American” and “crap,” which, when expressed in sufficiently polite language, is the professional consensus: “a polemicist, not a historian,” says Arthur Schlesinger; his work a “deranged” “fairy tale,” says Harvard’s Oscar Handlin; a man who traded in “every left-wing cliché with which the academy has abetted its sense of election these past several decades,” says Roger Kimball.
The book is full of errors and deliberate distortions, as Handlin noted in The American Scholar, and these are not limited to minor issues. Zinn misrepresents everything from slavery in the Chesapeake colonies to American involvement in Cuba to the Tet offensive. He reports as fact the story of Polly Baker, a woman persecuted for having an illegitimate child, when the story is in truth a work of fiction, penned by Benjamin Franklin. Zinn himself described A People’s History as “a biased account,” that bias being in favor of socialism, a political tendency that Zinn favored and thought would be popular but for the fact that “the Soviet Union gave it a bad name.” Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro didn’t help much, either, though Zinn had kind words for their revolutions. Zinn denied being a member of the Communist party, though he was identified as such by several other members and served as an officer in a CPUSA front group. Presented with evidence (including a confession) that Soviet spies Zinn had defended were in fact guilty as charged, his response was: “To me, it didn’t matter whether they were guilty or not.” Later in life, he trafficked in 9/11 conspiracy theories.
Zinn’s book is as notable for what it excludes as it is for its distortions. It is a history of the United States in which there is no Gettysburg address, no Wright brothers, no moon landing, no D-Day landing at Normandy. The thought of Joan Baez receives more prominent attention than does that of Alexander Hamilton.
Liberals can be relied upon to object to the teaching of the Christian creation story as an alternative to evolution in a science class on the very reasonable basis that whatever Genesis is, it is not high-school biology. Similarly, whatever A People’s History is, it is not history. Schools, especially government schools, have a duty to eschew political propaganda and offer an honest education. If there were a course in the use of dishonest rhetorical devices, then Zinn’s oeuvre could occupy a prominent place in that course prospectus.
Governor Daniels’s illiterate critics notwithstanding, it was not an act of censorship – there was no talk of banning publication of the bestselling book, only of declining to use it in school curricula. From kindergarten through graduate school, American education is a sewer of left-wing ideology, and Zinn’s work is an especially ripe excretion. Governor Daniels’s office was right to bring attention to it — shoring up the integrity of public institutions is part of what governors are there for.