Who’s Afraid of Radical History?
Mitch Daniels’s covert war on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
By Robert Cohen and Sonia Murrow • The Nation • August 5, 2013
A recent Associated Press expose—drawing on e-mails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act—revealed that in 2010, Mitch Daniels, then Indiana’s Republican governor, covertly set out to ban Howard Zinn’s best-selling A People’s History of the United States from Indiana’s classrooms. Daniels had privately responded to Zinn’s death that year with unseemly glee; “This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away,” he crowed. Daniels attempted to banish Zinn’s book on the grounds that it was “a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page…. How do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?” When Daniels’s education adviser replied that A People’s History was being used in a social movements course for teachers at Indiana University, the governor insisted that “this crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state,” sparking a proposed statewide review of university courses designed to “disqualify propaganda” from Indiana’s curriculum.
This view of A People’s History as propaganda was not shared by the historians who named it a finalist for the American Book Award in 1981—an honor virtually never accorded to historical surveys—or by the more than 2 million readers who made A People’s History the most popular radical history in the United States during the last three decades.
As governor, Daniels seemed unconcerned that purging Zinn from Indiana’s educational system constituted a violation of academic freedom. But this issue emerged in the political storm unleashed by the AP story, in part because Daniels is currently president of Purdue University. Aware that trampling academic freedom is incompatible with leadership in higher education, Daniels sought to evade the issue by claiming (falsely) that he had respected academic freedom at the university level and only sought to keep Zinn out of the K-12 educational curriculum.
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