Opinion

RUSTHOVEN: A responsibility to 'censor' Zinn

July 20, 2013

RusthovenUsing the headline “Daniels looked to censor opponents,” the Associated Press reported last week that former Gov. Mitch Daniels “pledged to promote academic freedom when he became president of Purdue University in January, but newly released emails show he attempted to eliminate what he considered liberal ‘propaganda’ at Indiana’s public universities while governor.”

Former American Association of University Professors President Cary Nelson called it “astonishing and shocking that such a person is now the head of a major research university, making decisions about the curriculum that one painfully suspects embodies the same ignorance and racism these comments embody.”

My, my. Racism, too? Let’s see what sent Nelson over the edge.

AP’s prime censorship example was Daniels’ asking “that historian and anti-war activist Howard Zinn’s writings be banned from classrooms.” After Zinn’s 2010 passing, Daniels emailed state education officials about this “terrible anti-American academic,” stating:

“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 it 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?”

Was Daniels right? You decide.

Are Alexander Graham Bell and the Wright brothers important in our history? What about the Gettysburg Address, D-Day or Americans landing on the moon? Think these merit mentioning?

Zinn didn’t. As reviewer Dan Flynn noted, “People’s History” omits these (and lots else), but has room for Joan Baez and “several pages on the My Lai massacre.”

Then there’s A Young People’s History of the United States, adapted for middle-schoolers.

What started the American Revolution? Zinn’s textbook says “important people” found “that by creating a nation and a symbol called the United States, they could take over land, wealth and political power from other people who had been ruling the colonies.” Using “language of liberty and equality,” they “could unite just enough whites to fight a revolution against England—without ending slavery and inequality.”

The Civil War? Lincoln “fought the slave states not to end slavery but to keep control of the enormous territory, resources, and market of the South.”

The New Deal’s impact? “The rich still controlled the nation’s wealth, as well as its laws, courts, police, newspapers, churches, and colleges.”

World War II insights? U.S. treatment of Japanese-Americans “came close to the brutal, racist oppression” of Nazi Germany.

So, our wartime internment camps “came close” to the Holocaust? Zinn’s is indeed a “biased account,” a “polemical potboiler” treating American history “as mainly the story of relentless exploitation and deceit.”

That’s not Daniels talking. The “exploitation” quote is from liberal historian Martin Duberman’s Zinn biography. “Polemical potboiler” is Slate contributor David Greenberg’s phrase, reviewing Duberman’s book in the left-leaning New Republic.

“Biased account?” Zinn himself, proudly describing his deliberately slanted opus.

Daniels, whose actual focus was K-12 curriculum, told the AP: “We must not falsely teach American history in our schools. We have a law requiring state textbook oversight to guard against frauds like Zinn, and it was encouraging to find that no Hoosier school district had inflicted his book on its students.”

That’s not censorship. It’s responsible education leadership.•

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Rusthoven, an Indianapolis attorney and graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, was associate counsel to President Reagan. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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