In his statement defending his efforts to censor Zinn’s book, Mitch Daniels argued, “Respected scholars and communicators of all ideologies agree that the work of Howard Zinn was irredeemably slanted and unsuited for teaching to schoolchildren.” Daniels’ office has been sending out quotes from seven historians critical of Zinn to support that claim. I surveyed the living historians cited by Daniels, and got responses from three of them, who unanimously condemned Daniels.
Academe Blog posted Michael Kazin’s response last night, in which Kazin wrote that Daniels “should be roundly condemned for his attempts to stop students from reading Zinn’s big book and for calling Zinn a liar…” Kazin wrote about Zinn’s book, “chapters of it can be quite useful if contrasted with alternative interpretations.”
Sam Wineburg took to Twitter to respond to Daniels, writing: “Mitch Daniels uses my work to defend his shameless attempts to censor free speech. Shame!” Wineburg noted, “I have criticized Zinn but will defend to my death the right to teach him. Shame on Mitch Daniels.” He explained, “Mr. Daniels, free societies openly teach ideas we disagree with. We do not censor objectionable speech. Study your Orwell.” As Wineburg put it, “How could I possibly agree that ‘banning Zinn’ makes sense when I assign him in my own classes?”
Michael Kammen disagreed with Daniels’ belief that Zinn “intentionally falsified” his work. While Kammen might not recommend the use of Zinn’s book in schools today, it is “only because it was written 35 years ago and there are now more balanced and judicious treatments of the US survey.” Kammen also rejected Daniels’ view about banning Zinn’s work from professional development classes for teachers: “I think that some teachers might need to know about its emphases because when Zinn wrote the US history textbooks omitted a great deal. Although it is not a great book, it remains a kind of historiographical landmark. Teachers should at least be aware of it.” And Kammen emphatically opposed the idea of politicians deciding what books should be used in schools rather than historians and teachers: “Absolutely not!”
Of course, these critics of Zinn don’t necessarily represent a historical consensus about his work. There are many historians and educators who praise Zinn’s book. But there’s a big difference between academic criticism of a historian’s work, and a desire to see politicians banning him from the classroom. There are plenty of thinkers whom I strongly condemn, such as David Horowitz, but I don’t want to see him banned from classrooms. In fact, I’ve taught his work in my own classes.
No one objects to the fact that Daniels criticized Zinn’s work. Daniels’ attack on Zinn is so purely political (“anti-American”), so dishonest (“purposely falsified”), and so stupid (“phrenology”) that it raises serious questions about Daniels’ ability to do or even understand academic work.
But what’s most objectionable about Daniels is his desire to censor to Zinn’s work. And contrary to what he believes, that effort to censor teaching Zinn’s book is not supported, not even by the historians Daniels cites to justify what he did.