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An Open Letter to Mitch Daniels from 90 Purdue Professors

UPDATE: Read Mitch Daniels’ response to this letter here.

July 22, 2013
An open letter to Mitch Daniels
Dear President Daniels:

We are writing in response to the recent news reports about emails you wrote while governor of Indiana. In those emails, you criticized the historian Howard Zinn and his work, and you sought to find ways to “get rid of” Zinn’s ideas in Indiana schools. However much we disagree with your past statements, we are more troubled by the fact that you continue to express these views today, especially since you are now speaking as the chief representative of Purdue University with the responsibility to embody the best of academic inquiry and exchange.

We appreciate the fact that you have articulated your support for the idea of academic freedom for tenured professors, but such reassurances do not go far enough. In this letter, we’d like to explain what we find so troubling about your continued insistence that Zinn’s works are “truly execrable” and fraudulent.

First, your assessment of Zinn’s work goes against the judgment of Purdue’s own faculty members, many of whom do include his work in their syllabi or in their published research—not to mention historians across the nation and the world. Whatever their political stripe, most experts in the field of U.S. history do not take issue with Howard Zinn’s facts, even when they do take issue with his conclusions.

Second, we note that you quote several scholarly critics of Zinn’s works in the statement posted on your Purdue President’s page. It’s important to recognize that Oscar Handlin and Arthur Schlesinger made assumptions about how to study and interpret history that were fundamentally at odds with Zinn’s assumptions. Handlin and Schlesinger and others of the so-called “consensus school of U.S. History” that flourished in the 1950s believed that they could use the sources generated by the people with power to speak for ALL Americans. In the 1960s, Zinn and many others of a rising generation of scholars questioned that original assumption and practice; they sought the voices and perspectives of people who did not have power. They discovered through diligent research that working people, black people, women, Native Americans, and immigrants expressed views that were at odds with their political, military, and economic leaders.

Such disagreements about scholarship in the fields of humanities and social science are not unusual. In fact, we expect that generational change in the academy and the publication of innovative, exciting work by scholars in good standing should spark this kind of debate. Such discussions make for better history and for better teaching in the wider community!

Third, we also note that you do not quote the many positive reviews of his work—just the kind of biased presentation you accuse Zinn of making in his publications. For every negative comment that you note in your letter, you can find a positive one published in expert venues. As just one example, Eric Foner, the Dewitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and a former president of the American Historical Association, insisted in a review that appeared in the New York Times Book Review that Zinn’s A People’s History ought to be “required reading.” On another occasion Foner said of Zinn, “Over the years I have been struck by how many excellent students of history had their interest in studying the past sparked by reading Howard Zinn. That’s the highest compliment one can offer to a historian.”

Throughout his career Zinn was a dedicated teacher, and until his death he was a well-respected member of the American Historical Association. You can find the association’s memoriam to him, which details his contributions to the field of U.S. history here. To call him “a fraud” and to charge that he “purposely falsified American history,” as you do in your statement to the Associated Press released on July 17, and “irredeemably slanted,” as you do in the letter published on your Purdue President webpage, reflects a misunderstanding of the nature of academic discussion. Scholarly debates and disagreements create ferment that leavens the study of history. Without vigorous disagreements about the meaning of the American experience, the field would not have moved in such important directions as the study of women’s history, African American history, labor history, the history of sexuality, and so on. Moreover, to insist that Zinn’s critical perspective is anti-American is to miss his commitment to bringing out our better collective selves—living up to the great ideals of egalitarianism and democratic involvement upon which this republic was founded.

Fourth, we see that your response to the AP reporting draws a line between academic freedom in higher education and K-12 classrooms. And yet, in your January “Open Letter to the People of Purdue,” you suggest that the tenure system—the bedrock on which academic freedom in higher education is built—should be reconsidered: “The academies that, through the unique system of tenure, once enshrined freedom of opinion and inquiry now frequently are home to the narrowest sort of closed-mindedness and the worst repression of dissident ideas.” When we put this statement next to your excoriation of a respected scholar, we are concerned that in fact ideas that don’t find favor at the highest levels of our institution will be discouraged, and ideas that are celebrated by our top administration rather than by those scholars whose expertise makes them uniquely qualified to make such judgments will be promoted. Whether or not our fears reflect your point of view accurately, when we put your public statements together, we find them to have a chilling effect on untenured scholars and to affect the morale of Purdue’s long-time faculty as well.

Finally, we note that in the original emails you were concerned in particular with a summer institute taught at Indiana University for high school teachers, not students. Surely you don’t believe that fully accredited teachers need to be protected from Zinn, whatever you may believe about children being “force-fed” information that you find objectionable. We know better of our K-12 colleagues. As do all teachers, they need to read peer-reviewed scholarship from across the spectrum and be challenged with points of view that they may not hold; as we all do, they crave energetic, vibrant discussion with other professionals—just the kind of experience the program at Indiana University was designed to provide. And then, as all teachers should, they bring the insight and energy of such experiences back to their own classrooms.

We trust our colleagues to introduce young people to the facts of history, but also to the much more difficult, much more essential practices of critical thinking. We trust our K-12 colleagues to know how and when to present challenges to received knowledge and how to encourage their students to judge such challenges for themselves. And we trust them to decide how and when to use controversial scholarship such as Zinn’s in their classrooms. This kind of academic freedom is essential to all levels of education, whether within a tenure system or not. And we promise you, this kind of challenging, stimulating approach will result in better, more engaging education of all Indiana students, from our five-year old kindergartners, to members of Purdue’s class of 2017, and beyond.

In the end, this issue transcends one author and one book. It concerns the very legitimacy of academic discourse. Scholarship emerges virtually every day that challenges the “conventional wisdom” of prior generations. Do we assess such scholarship critically, or do we censor uncomfortable ideas out of hand? The very viability of academic inquiry and the university’s mission is at stake.

Sincerely,
Professor Susan Curtis, History and American Studies
Associate Professor Kristina Bross, English and American Studies

Supporting signatures from Purdue University
Janet Alsup, Professor, Department of English
S. Dorsey Armstrong, Associate Professor, Department of English
Elena Benedicto, Associate Professor, Department of English
Paul Benhamou, Professor Emeritus, School of Languages and Cultures
Tithi Bhattacharya, Associate Professor, Department of History
Samantha Blackmon, Associate Professor, Department of English
Evelyn Blackwood, Professor, Department of Anthropology
Richard Blanton, Professor, Department of Anthropology
Antonio Bobet, Professor, Department of Civil Engineering
George M. Bodner, Arthur E. Kelly Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, Education, and Engineering, Department of Chemistry
T. J. Boisseau, Associate Professor, Department of History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Patricia Boling, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science
Marianne Boruch, Professor, Department of English
Rebecca Bryant, Assistant Professor, Patti and Rusty Rueff School of Visual and Performing Arts
Marianne Stowell Bracke, Associate Professor, Purdue University Libraries
Thomas F. Broden, Associate Professor, School of Languages and Cultures
Cornelius Bynum, Associate Professor, Department of History
Robin P. Clair, Professor, Brian Lamb School of Communication
Rosalee Clawson, Professor, Department of Political Science
Elena Coda, Associate Professor, School of Languages and Cultures
John Contreni, Professor, Department of History
Charles R. Cutter, Associate Professor, Department of History
Marlo David, Assistant Professor, Department of English and Women’s Studies
Stephen M. David, Assistant Dean for International Programs, College of Education
Dorothy Deering, Associate Professor, Department of English
Ariel de la Fuente, Associate Professor, Department of History
Richard M. Dionne, Assistant Professor, Patti and Rusty Rueff School of Visual and Performing Arts
Paul Dixon, Professor, School of Languages and Cultures
Nadine Dolby, Professor, Department of Curriculum Studies
Mohan Dutta, Professor, Brian Lamb School of Communication
John Duvall, Margaret Church Distinguished Professor, Department of English
Rachel Einwohner, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology
James Elicker, Associate Professor, Department of Human Development and Family Studies
David Ertner, Professor, Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences
Peggy Ertner, Professor, Department of Curriculum and Instruction
Jennifer Foray, Associate Professor, Department of History
Alexander Francis, Associate Professor, Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences
Elaine J. Francis, Associate Professor, Department of English and Linguistics
Robert S. Freeman, Associate Professor, Purdue University Libraries
Geraldine Friedman, Associate Professor, Department of English
Nancy Gabin, Associate Professor, Department of History
Jackson T. Gandour, Professor, Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences
James R. Gilligan, Assistant Director, Office of Field Experience, College of Education
April Ginther, Associate Professor, Department of English
Sandor Goodhart, Associate Professor, Department of English
Sally A. Hastings, Associate Professor, Department of History
Aaron Hoffman, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science
Richard Hogan, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology
John P. Hope, Assistant Professor, School of Languages and Cultures
Daniel Hsieh, Associate Professor, School of Languages and Cultures
Caroline Janney, Associate Professor, Department of History
David Kemmerer, Professor, Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences
Rebekah Klein-Pejšová, Assistant Professor, Department of History
Anne Meis Knupfer, Professor, Department of Educational Studies
Roberta Kraft, Professor, Patti and Rusty Rueff School of Visual and Performing Arts
Ben Lawton, Associate Professor, School of Languages and Cultures
Maren Linett, Associate Professor, Department of English
Christopher Lukasik, Associate Professor, Department of English
Dawn Marsh, Assistant Professor, Department of History
Robert P. Marzec, Associate Professor, Department of English
Jill P. May, Professor Emerita, College of Education
Robert May, Professor, Department of History
Clarence Maybee, Assistant Professor, Purdue University Libraries
Shannon McMullen, Assistant Professor, Patti and Rusty Rueff School of Visual and Performing Arts and American Studies
Daniel C. Morris, Professor, Department of English
Michael Morrison, Associate Professor, Department of History
Bill Mullen, Professor, Department of English and American Studies
Lynn R. Nelson, Associate Professor, Department of Social Studies Education, Retired
Mary Niepokuj, Associate Professor, Department of English
Alice Pawley, Associate Professor, School of Engineering Education
Lisa Lee Peterson, Professor, Patti and Rusty Rueff School of Visual and Performing Arts
Donald Platt, Professor, Department of English
Anatoli Rapoport, Assoicate Professor, Department of Curriculum and Instruction
Jennifer Richardson, Associate Professor, Department of Curriculum and Instruction
Meredith Richmond, Continuing Lecturer, Department of Curriculum and Instruction
Aparajita Sagar, Associate Professor, Department of English
Iñigo Sánchez-Llama, Professor, School of Languages and Cultures
Mary Schweitzer, Program Manager, Global Engineering Program
Melanie Shoffner, Associate Professor, Departments of English and Curriculum & Instruction
Maribeth Slebodnik, Associate Professor, Purdue Libraries
John R. Staver, Professor, Department of Curriculum and Instruction
Marcia Stephenson, Associate Professor, School of Languages and Cultures
Harry Targ, Professor, Department of Political Science
Sharon Weiner, Professor, Library Science and W. Wayne Booker Chair in Information Literacy
Steven T. Wereley, Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering
Ronnie Wilbur, Professor, Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences
Jennifer William, Associate Professor, School of Languages and Cultures
Tatjana Babic Williams, Continuing Lecturer, School of Languages and Cultures
Fabian Winkler, Associate Professor, Patti and Rusty Rueff School of Visual and Performing Arts
Harold D. Woodman, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Department of History

20 comments on “An Open Letter to Mitch Daniels from 90 Purdue Professors

  1. Pingback: Page not found | Academe Blog

  2. Pingback: Mitch Daniels responds to Purdue faculty - world.edu

  3. Beverly Hartford
    July 24, 2013

    Thank you! What a beautiful letter!

  4. Neal Smith
    July 24, 2013

    A few years ago, when she was still in high school, I read through my daughter’s history text book. Watergate, one of the define chapters of our history, was given a paragraph buried deep in the middle of a chapter. This book devoted one page to the Vietnam war. It so generously devoted two pages on the Civil Rights Movement. History is written by those in power, and one can not trust just one single source. Zinn’s historical writings are more accurate than any I’ve seen. Mitch Daniels is way off base on this.

    • Wall Dodger
      July 24, 2013

      Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay off base, Like so far off base he should be fired for trying to censor a body of work,, just because he disagrees with it.

  5. Stephen Cox
    July 24, 2013

    I am always buoyed when intentional ignorance is challenged.

  6. Walter Lipman
    July 24, 2013

    Why is tenure needed? Mitch Daniels is incapable of doing a blessed thing to any of the signatories of this letter because of it, that’s why.

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  9. Paul P.
    July 26, 2013

    Wow… I came across this webpage by chance. I went to Purdue as an undergraduate in engineering and am only vaguely aware of who Howard Zinn was, but Republikan Gov. Mitch Daniels is plainly not an appropriate choice for president of an institution of higher learning.

  10. Pingback: Zinn/Daniels From A Former Leftie Who Understands | Left, Right, and Centered

  11. J Burack
    July 27, 2013

    This open letter is a disgrace, as is the fact that so many leftists shove this book down the throats of unsuspecting students.Daniels is censoring no one at all. The fact that people here confuse what he is doing with censorship is itself a sign of the intellectual decrepitude of the universities. The single best scholar working in the field of history education today, Sam Wineburg, has written a devastating critique of Zinn that makes clear how ahistorical and propagandistic is his distortion of what history as an academic field is, or ought to be. Seeking to thwart the use of agit-prop in the classroom is the essence of a DEFENSE of academic life for which Daniels is to be praised.

    • Aaron Barlow
      July 27, 2013

      What, exactly, is disgraceful about the letter? Not even Daniels found it so, responding with appropriate tone and respect.

      Please give evidence of where Zinn’s book has been “shoved down the throats of unsuspecting students.” The fact that Zinn is used in classrooms is not such evidence.

      As to censorship, well, for a person in authority to single out one book and one author in the way that Daniels did is tantamount to censorship, and that fact is inescapable. His words carried the power of the governorship and an implicit threat to jobs.

      Samuel Wineburg, though he may be your favorite history educator, is not the last word on Zinn. Any good scholar is subject to critique, and many of those appear devastating, especially to those who are not themselves experts in the particular field. Furthermore, the purpose of critique is to move knowledge forward… and we cannot do that if the material under critique then becomes suppressed.

      Finally, please define “agit-prop” in terms of contemporary American classrooms… and give examples of where it is used.

      • J Burack
        July 27, 2013

        Aaron,
        “Please define agit-prop and give examples”? What, no multiple-choice questions? What kind of pop quiz are you running here?

        Seriously, even the Sopranos had a famous episode of a kid using Zinn from his high school class to counter Tony’s view of Columbus. The book is used by many high schools, and “shoved down” is precisely correct since very few students would seek the book out willingly on their own. Your failure to understand the coercive nature of school assignments (a legitimate coercion when done professionally) contrasts totally with your failure to understand the non-coercive criticism Daniels made about using Zinn. As to posing an “implicit threat to jobs” of faculty that do use it, that may be. But that is not censorship. Teachers are hired and fired on the basis of their professional competence. Everyone has a right to read Zinn, but no one has a “right” to a teaching job. If a teacher were teaching the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a legitimate historical interpretation, I would want them fired. Zinn’s book is not that evil, obviously. But it has no more relationship than the Protocols does to historical scholarship, including legitimate left-leaning interpretive scholarship, If you would read Wineburg’s essay on Zinn, you would know that.

      • Aaron Barlow
        July 27, 2013

        So, a television show is your example? Fiction… and you think it is real?

        Almost every text, in your sense, is “shoved down” student throats. Almost no high-school students pick up history books on their own.

        And your claim that Daniels’s comment is “non-coercive” is ludicrous on its face. “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” I guess that wasn’t a command that Thomas a Becket be killed.

        Your comparison between Zinn and a completely fabricated text is specious, at best. Find something in Zinn as made up as the Protocols. You will discover that you can’t. Zinn, though it is quite possible to disagree with him, was a scholar. The authors of the Protocol were not, whoever they might have been.

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  16. mitchy mouse
    August 20, 2013

    Mitch as Mickey Mouse (#mitchymouse) stickers and signs popping up all across Purdue’s main campus in West Lafayette. A little satirical fun at the expense of PrezDaniels. So cool.

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