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.”