Zinn 1, Daniels 0

Yesterday, university  campuses around the state held Howard Zinn “Read Ins”  at which numerous faculty–including yours truly– participated. The events were prompted by then-Governor Daniels’ efforts to banish Zinn’s work from Indiana classrooms.

As I said yesterday, Daniels wanted to use the power of state government to protect unsuspecting students from “wrong” ideas—defined as ideas with which he disagreed. There is no principle more basic to both the academy and the American constitutional system than the one that forbids him from doing so.

The Founders did not minimize the danger of bad ideas; they believed, however, that empowering government to suppress “dangerous” or “offensive” ideas would be far more dangerous than the free expression of those ideas—that once we hand over to the state the authority to decide which ideas have value, no ideas are safe.

In these United States, We the People get to decide for ourselves what books we read, what websites we visit, what videos we watch, what ideas we entertain, free of government interference. Your mother can censor you, and in certain situations your employer can censor you–but your Mayor or Governor or President cannot.

Furthermore, free intellectual inquiry is an absolutely essential ingredient of a genuine education. Education requires the freedom to examine any and all ideas, to determine which are good and which not so good. It also requires that we protect scholars who come to unpopular conclusions or hold unpopular views.

Some citizens will make poor choices of reading materials or ideologies. Some Professors will embrace perspectives that disturb or offend students and Governors. Just as putting up with Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and their clones is the price liberals pay for free speech, putting up with Howard Zinn–or with Robert Reich, or with me—is the price conservatives pay for their own freedom.

The search for truth requires that we examine contending ideas. That is not the same thing as requiring some sort of artificial “balance” that ignores scholarly integrity in order to teach discredited positions like creationism rather than science, or holocaust denial rather than accurate history.  As a statement from the AAU put it some years back,

Self-appointed political critics of the academy have presented equal representation for conservative and progressive points of views as the key to quality. But the college classroom is not a talk show.  Rather, it is a dedicated context in which students and teachers seriously engage difficult and contested questions with the goal of reaching beyond differing viewpoints to a critical evaluation of the relative claims of different positions. Central to the educational aims and spirit of academic freedom, diversity of perspectives is a means to an end in higher education, not an end in itself.

Howard Zinn was a reputable, albeit controversial, historian. Much of what he wrote was a valuable corrective to the histories of his era; some was oversimplified or otherwise problematic. But opinions about the value of his–or any–books are beside the point.  The question is “who decides what books are used in the classroom,” and the answer is not ”the governor”.

The real irony of these sorts of efforts at censorship is that they almost always backfire by shining a brighter light on the object of the censorship. I wonder how many of the people attending the IUPUI read-in and the others around the state had ever heard of Howard Zinn prior to Daniels’ ill-advised effort to suppress his work.

Funny how often it works that way.

One of my sons was a student at the University of Cincinnati when the local prosecutor tried to close down an “obscene” exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs. Students and residents who ordinarily wouldn’t have gone across the street to attend an art exhibit couldn’t wait to see this one. The line stretched for blocks.

This happens so often, censorship has become a marketing tool. According to film histories I’ve read, at times when movie attendance has been dwindling, filmmakers have responded by producing more explicit films in hopes that the howls from the “usual sources” would increase attendance.

You’d think the busybodies would learn: If there’s material you don’t want people to see or hear or read, your best bet is just to ignore it. As Governor Daniels demonstrated, however, the moral scolds and PC enforcers have trouble learning that lesson.

Howard Zinn says “thanks, Mitch.”


  1. I dusted off my old paperback edition of Zinn’s, ” A People’s History” after Mitch’s comments became public and read it again. The history books of my era the late 1950’s and 1960’s informed me on the landing of the Mayflower, and Jamestown, but after that the Native Americans disappear until Custer’s Last Stand. The in between where the Native American land was “legally” stolen and when the Native Americans resisted they were brutally putdown was left out.

    Zinn also points out the collaboration of corporations, the government, the media and in some cases the big unions in the out right suppression of movements or the deflection of the movements into the mainstream.

    Then there is the interference at the point of a gun into Latin America by American troops throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries for Corporate America. Again this was not covered by history books.

    There is an ugly history of the USA, which Zinn told, and some like Mitch would prefer left untold.

  2. Zinn’s book, The People’s History of the United States is one of my favorite books. Unfortunately, I didn’t discover it until after his death. As an American of Italian descent, I will NEVER celebrate Columbus day ever again and will do everything possible to have that so called holiday changed to Citizens Rights Day or something like that. Zinn wrote what so called Americans did over the last couple of centuries and I was disgusted that this was not taught in my history classes in school. Shame on America’s education planners for hiding these facts. With that information in the first chapter of that book, I couldn’t put the book down until I finished it. Sometimes the facts made me cry too. I recommend the book to anyone that is interested.

  3. ALG; did you grow up as I did in the age of cowboys and Indians – with all Indians being the enemy? Once I learned the truth, as an adult and long past school days, I questioned the celebration of Columbus Day. I do NOT celebrate it nor do I Remember The Alamo. There are many dark chapters in this country’s history; they began with the beginning of white men and women stepping onto these shores. Are you familiar with the story of the execution of Private Slovac? He was a young man in Chicago with an IQ barely above retarded level; he was drafted into the army during WW II. During one of the many major battle in Europe he got separated from his platoon; wandered around till finding another US Army encampment. He explained his situation which was understood and “higher-ups” were contacted till Private Slovac could be returned to what was left of his platoon. He was arrested, tried, convicted and executed for desertion during wartime. There is also the ugly story of the missing USS Indianapolis not being missed or reported for days; the few survivors were found by accident after hundreds either drowned or were eaten by sharks. The US military tried to Court Martial the pilot of the plane who spotted them because he landed the plane on the water to rescue survivors. That didn’t work so the US Navy Court Martialed Capt. McVey of the USS Indianapolis; bringing in the Japanese submarine commander who torpedoed the ship to testify against him. The Japanese commander swore it didn’t matter if the ship had zig-zagged or not; it was a brightly moonlit night, making the ship easy to see.

    More recent years we have Waco and Ruby Ridge to add to chapters of American history. It would take more than one book by Zinn or anyone to record and report the wrongs committed by this country in the name of patriotism. Still; it remains the best country in the world and we must accept the bitter with the better. That holds true with this current administration and it’s problems; we can rectify these problems at the polls on election day. Those past “sins” are in the past and cannot be undone or apologized for – hell, they are rarely even admitted. I am elated to see Daniels called to task for his attempted (after it became public) coverup of information he didn’t believe we need made aware of.

  4. JoAnn, yes. Grew up in northern Indiana in the 60s-70s. The stories Zinn reported in the book were so upsetting to me, I had to put the book down several times. I’d go out to the garden and dig in the dirt hoping to wash away the disgust. I disagree with you on one point; This is NOT the best country in the world where we still condone torture of our prisoners and have the highest incarceration rate of any other country. We have infrastructure that is older than me (mid-50s) and the poverty rate is going up, not down for such a country with that distinction. I’ve lived abroad just long enough to realize, we are falling into a third world status and as a citizen by birth, I’m looking to join my spouse and retire in another country some day.
    When I was living in AZ in the 90s, I learned a lot from those native Indians I worked with. What we did to them is unspeakable and I think the casinos are pay back to them for what the early settlers did to them. So everyone that can afford it, please support your Indian casinos; we owe them. 🙂

  5. That’s the point, American, it’s not a choice between Gibbon or Zinn, but a scholarly discussion of both.

  6. Rosemary, the dilution of education since the 60’s currently finds politics being passed off as scholarship.

    Reading Herotodus in the Greek is actual scholarship, for those with the mettle to attempt it.

  7. American, just how much ancient Greek literature do you read? Or are you just reporting what someone has told you?

  8. Stuart; maybe American is telling us that reading Greek literature will give us a better understanding of the GOP lack of interest in public education at this time, as well as our right to select our own reading material in or out of school. I Googled Herodotus (c 484-425 B.C) and learned he was a Greek historian whose Greek liberal education was primarily in grammar, gynmastic training and music. These subjects are sadly lacking in public education today. My 14 year old grandson quoted Herodotus recently, citing a clearer picture of GOP failure to understand that this country is tired of wars and tired of paying for wars while people remain jobless, lose their homes, are hungry and have no health care. The quote is, “In peace, sons bury their fathers. In war, fathers bury their sons.” These sons and daughers were to have been our future leaders and necessary manual laborers and support staff in business.

    We cannot resolve this country’s current problems by reading Greek literature any more than we can by allowing elected officials to control what we are allowed to read in our schools. My grandson’s Herodotis quote is relevant in this 21st Century. Greek grammar, gymnastic training and music taught 800 years B.C. are more than a little behind the times…the topic IS education, not one man’s view of what should be read. This includes American and Daniels’ views.

  9. JoAnn, excellent observation. I suspect that you may have cited a lot more Herodotus that Mr. “American” may know, but is really important stuff. And in this case, his referring to someone as possessing the very negative characteristics that he may himself own is called “projection”. I suspect that we will see a lot more of that from him in the future.

  10. JoAnn, The quote is, “In peace, sons bury their fathers. In war, fathers bury their sons.”

    Brilliant example.

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