Indiana’s Anti-Howard Zinn Witch Hunt

by Bill Bigelow

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Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, one of the country’s most widely read history books, died on January 27, 2010. Shortly after, then-Governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels got on his computer and fired off an email to the state’s top education officials: “This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away.”

But Gov. Daniels, now president of Purdue University, was not content merely to celebrate Howard Zinn’s passing. He demanded that Zinn’s work be hunted down in Indiana schools and suppressed: “The obits and commentaries mentioned his book ‘A People’s History of the United States’ is the ‘textbook of choice in high schools and colleges around the country.’ It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”

We know about Gov. Daniels’ email tantrum thanks to the Associated Press, which obtained the emails through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Scott Jenkins, Daniels’ education advisor, wrote back quickly to tell the governor that A People’s History of the United States was used in a class for prospective teachers on social movements at Indiana University.

Daniels fired back: “This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state. No student will be better taught because someone sat through this session. Which board has jurisdiction over what counts and what doesn’t?”

After more back and forth, Daniels approved a statewide “cleanup” of what earns credit for professional development: “Go for it. Disqualify propaganda and highlight (if there is any) the more useful offerings.”

cartoon_danielaacademicfreedomDaniels recently defended his attack on Zinn’s work, telling the Associated Press, “We must not falsely teach American history in our schools.” In a letter posted on his Purdue University webpage, Daniels claimed that, “the question I asked on one day in 2010 had nothing to do with higher education at all.” Daniels should go back and read his own emails.

There are so many disturbing aspects to this story, it’s hard to know where to begin.

The first, of course, is Daniels’ gleeful, mean-spirited reporting of Zinn’s death. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Howard Zinn’s career knows that his great passions were racial equality and peace. Finding cause for joy in the death of someone whose life was animated by confidence in people’s fundamental decency is shameful.

As someone who spent almost 30 years as a high school history teacher, I’m amused by the impoverished pedagogical vision embedded in Daniels’ emails and subsequent defense. Daniels wants Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States banned from the curriculum, so that the book is not “force-fed” to students. Governor Daniels evidently assumes that the only way one can teach history is to cram it down students’ throats. To see some alternative ways to engage students, Daniels might have a look at our lessons at the Zinn Education Project, which use Zinn’s People’s History of the United States in role plays, in critical reading activities, to generate imaginative writing, and to search for the “silences” in students’ own textbooks.

Take for example the last textbook I was assigned as a teacher at a public high school in Portland, Oregon, American Odyssey, published by Glencoe/McGraw-Hill. In the book’s one thousand pages, it includes exactly two paragraphs on the U.S. war with Mexico—the war that led to Mexico “ceding,” in the polite language of school curricula, about half its country to the United States.  American Odyssey does not quote a single Mexican, a single soldier, a single abolitionist, a single opponent of the war. Well, in fact, the textbook doesn’t quote anyone. As one of my students pointed out when we read the book’s dull passages in class, “It doesn’t even view it as a war. It’s a situation.”

Read the rest of Indiana’s Anti-Howard Zinn Witch Hunt at our Zinn Education Project.

2 thoughts on “Indiana’s Anti-Howard Zinn Witch Hunt

  1. “Kids shouldn’t only learn to read. The must learn to QUESTION what they read.” (G. Carlin, quoted from memory) Thus: even if this bloke disagrees, banning the book isn’t the solution. I live in Switzerland, close to Germany. In that country, burning books was all the rage, odd 80-something years ago. Didn’t end well. 😦

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