Former Indiana governor and current president of Purdue University recently got himself into a dust-up over what text books are appropriate to use in history. Reports are coming out that as both governor and university president, Daniels has tried to keep to certain text books from being used for credit in the classroom. He seems to have a particular vendetta against the writings of Howard Zinn, whom he accuses of promoting “liberal propaganda”. At first, it seemed like he was just focused on keeping the book out of K-12 classrooms, but latter reports revealed he has been trying to keep out of Indiana’s universities as well. Daniels has reportedly called the book “crap”, “Anti-American”, and has said that it “should not be accepted for any credit by the state.”
Now, there are two levels here. One is whether schools, in particular K-12, should be including controversial works in their reading lists. The other is whether these works should be critically examined at the college and university level. This isn’t like cases of trying to wedge creationism into science class. Creationism is not science. It can’t even be considered pseudo-science. It’s just a bunch of wishful thinking by people who refuse to look at the evidence. But in the case of students reading a text like Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” Daniels is objecting not because of any particular factual inaccuracies, but simply because he doesn’t like the political interpretation of the work. And that’s where he doesn’t just bump into the issue of academic freedom, but collides head on with it. The purpose of scholarship, especially in the social sciences, is not tell students to memorize a series of facts, but to examine the ideas that helped shaped the course of history. The fact that some of those ideas are controversial is all the more reason why they should be subjected to critical examination. Perhaps such an examination may be too advanced for K-12 schools that have to conform to a state mandated curriculum, but examining these works in the university setting is the very essence of critical thought. I’d rather have a student read the book and give an intelligent rebuttal for why she disagrees with it than not having been exposed to the ideas in the first place. Ideas, like life, that are not examined and critiqued are worthless, regardless of how precious they may seem to those who hold. If Mitch Daniels fears that a book will tear down the fabric of American society, than that speaks far more about his lack of faith in students than it does about the strength of the ideas presented in the book.
But maybe I’m wrong. Either way, I think I’ll add Howard Zinn to my reading list.