A representative of an organization I had never previously heard of–despite 15+ years in the ‘groves of academe’ –has mounted a robust defense of Mitch Daniels’ censorship efforts.According to Google, The National Institute of Scholars “was founded to bring together conservatives in academia to fight the “liberal bias” on college and university campuses and to target multiculturalism and affirmative-action policies.”
Titled “Mitch Daniels was Right,” it was an apologist’s spin on the emails, taking considerable liberties with the characterization of their contents. But inaccuracies are almost beside the point. These “scholars” spend their time attacking the value of Howard Zinn’s work–a focus that demonstrates an utter obliviousness to the issue.
Let’s be clear. Daniels was perfectly within his rights to express his opinion of Zinn (who, incidentally, had been critical of Daniels’ tenure as Budget Director, although surely that had nothing to do with Daniels animus..). The Governor was NOT within his rights to dictate what can and cannot be taught in public school or university classrooms, and certainly not within his rights to try to cut off funding for a respected academic program because the scholar in charge of that program had been critical of his education policies. He can criticize, he can generate a conversation with the appropriate people if he feels strongly enough that something does not belong in the classroom, but he is not the “decision-maker,” to appropriate a term favored by the President he last served.
There is a huge difference between a scholarly consensus that–for example–creationism isn’t science, or that the work of a particular historian is too error-ridden to merit inclusion in the classroom, and having an elected official, a government actor, dictate what scholars may teach. That’s why the merits of Zinn’s work are ultimately beside the point. The question is, as I said in my previous post, WHO DECIDES?
If academic freedom means anything, it means that scholars make these decisions free of government interference. I get to be horrified when a creationist is given a science classroom because there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that says creationism isn’t science. I get to sound the alarm when someone teaches that the Holocaust never occurred, because historians of every ideology overwhelmingly acknowledge that it did. If Daniels was entitled to dictate what constitutes acceptable history or “good” science, we would soon find ourselves in a world where Ted Cruz and Michelle Bachmann are making decisions that should be made by the scholars in those disciplines.
It is noteworthy that even several scholars whom Daniels cited in his defense of his position on Zinn–scholars he claims supported his views–have weighed in to oppose him.
Michael Kammen disagreed with Daniels’ belief that Zinn “intentionally falsified” his work. While Kammen might not recommend the use of Zinn’s book in schools today, it is “only because it was written 35 years ago and there are now more balanced and judicious treatments of the US survey.” Kammen also rejected Daniels’ view about banning Zinn’s work from professional development classes for teachers: “I think that some teachers might need to know about its emphases because when Zinn wrote the US history textbooks omitted a great deal. Although it is not a great book, it remains a kind of historiographical landmark. Teachers should at least be aware of it.” And Kammen emphatically opposed the idea of politicians deciding what books should be used in schools rather than historians and teachers: “Absolutely not!”
As John K. Wilson wrote on the Academe blog of the AAUP,
Of course, these critics of Zinn don’t necessarily represent a historical consensus about his work. There are many historians and educators who praise Zinn’s book. But there’s a big difference between academic criticism of a historian’s work, and a desire to see politicians banning him from the classroom. There are plenty of thinkers whom I strongly condemn, such as David Horowitz, but I don’t want to see him banned from classrooms. In fact, I’ve taught his work in my own classes.
No one objects to the fact that Daniels criticized Zinn’s work. Daniels’ attack on Zinn is so purely political (“anti-American”), so dishonest (“purposely falsified”), and so stupid (“phrenology”) that it raises serious questions about Daniels’ ability to do or even understand academic work.
But what’s most objectionable about Daniels is his desire to censor to Zinn’s work. And contrary to what he believes, that effort to censor teaching Zinn’s book is not supported, not even by the historians Daniels cites to justify what he did.
By focusing their arguments on the merits or errors of Zinn’s work, Daniels’ defenders not only miss the point: they reinforce the perception that Daniels does not belong at a major university.