By Peter N. Kirstein
Peter N. Kirstein is a professor of history at St. Xavier University, and the vice-president of the Illinois AAUP.
Mitch Daniels is president of Purdue University, and considered a moderate Republican. I am not sure what that says about immoderate Republicans, but his recently publicized efforts as governor to ban Howard Zinn’s works from the public school system suggest a lack of moderation. His angst against A People’s History of the United States resulted from its emphasis on the class struggle in America, the failure of American capitalism to achieve redistributive justice, and its unrelenting opposition to the American Empire with its detritus of destruction and burning cities.
Professor Zinn was a historian who taught in the political science department at Boston University. I was a political science major and matriculated in three courses with him. He was also my advisor. I have used many of his books in my classes, and he inspires students with his advocacy for the underrepresented and dispossessed. Yet his books are quite factual, historically sound, and represent an apotheosis in critical thinking. They are insightful, reflective of the documents under review, and solid scholarship.
I even teach a Senior Seminar on Howard Zinn. The course was first introduced in 2011 and will appear again in spring. The entire course centers on his works: his path-breaking editing of New Deal documents, his memoir as a senior SNCC official in the south, and his memoir ranging from the searing experience as a bombardier in World War II to his efficacious opposition to the Vietnam genocide. Students will read works addressing his loss of academic freedom and position at Spelman College and the AAUPs efforts to assist him. Howard Zinn was a whistleblower on the American past, and those who choose to silence the past know it is to preserve the status of those who continue to exploit in the present: “The rule of law does not do away with the unequal distribution of wealth and power, but reinforces that inequality with the authority of law. It allocates wealth and poverty in such calculated and indirect ways as to leave the victim bewildered.”
I can understand why President Daniels attempted to purge Professor Zinn’s works from K-12. Zinn challenged the very empire that Daniels and the elite-ruling class have a stake in defending. Zinn challenged the endemic racism and oppression of the worker that Daniels has never marched or fought for. The great historian’s works advocated through democratic socialism a pathway to liberation using historical documents honestly and in a manner that brought honour and glory to the profession.
I saw Dr. Zinn in 2006 at a Historians Against the War conference at the University of Texas at Austin. I don’t know if he remembered me or not, but we spoke for about twenty minutes as others were gathered around him just prior to his keynote address. David Horowitz’s The Professors had just been released, and I told him I was included along with him. He was elated and said, “Oh, a former student is in there, too?” After this great humanitarian’s death, it was revealed that the FBI had initiated a decades-long surveillance program that followed and monitored his movements. While Zinn had long speculated about such police-state tactics, I published an article in HNN that documented this intrusion into a person’s academic freedom and freedom of conscience.
It is unfortunate that the motivations that propelled J. Edgar Hoover to track this person are the same as President Daniels’ efforts to purge and eliminate Zinn’s books from secondary education.
Having used Zinn’s books in my history courses for over twenty-five years, I can attest that his American history liberates and does not indoctrinate; it elevates and does not debase; it frees us from the mindlessness of patriotism with a more serious reflection about ourselves and our past.