In 2010, after historian Howard Zinn died, then-Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels sat down at his computer and started a quiet witch hunt with a flurry of emails to top state education officials. This only became public this summer after the Associated Press obtained copies of the emails under Indiana’s public records laws. In one email to Tony Bennett, then the superintendent of public instruction, Daniels wrote:
“This terrible anti-American finally passed away. The obits and commentaries mentioned that 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 any more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”
In another email, seeing that a professional development course for teachers included readings from Zinn, Daniels wrote, “This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state.”
He didn’t want any high schools or public universities teaching the works of Howard Zinn, sought a statewide investigation into “what is credit-worthy” to see that similar works weren’t being taught for credit, and was considering ways to cut state funds to a program led by a professor who had criticized him.
Daniels is presently the president of Purdue University and continues to insist that Zinn’s works are “truly execrable” and fraudulent. More than 90 Purdue professors wrote an open letter to him on July 22 criticizing his comments and his call for “reconsidering” the tenure system.
The American Historical Association, a nonpartisan group that sets academic standards of review and publication for historians nationwide, issued a statement on July 19 saying it “deplores the spirit and intent” of Daniels’ emails. The association said it considered any governor’s effort to interfere with an individual teacher’s reading assignments “inappropriate and a violation of academic freedom.”
When People’s History is used in high schools, it typically is used as a supplement to the conventional main stream narrative found in the course history textbook. For 15 years, John Zola used Zinn’s book in a social studies class he taught at Boulder’s New Vista High School (which he describes as “a non-traditional break-the-mold public high school for kids who might not have succeeded in more traditional settings”). He guesses that one-tenth of 1 percent of U.S. high school teachers use A People’s History. His class compared Zinn’s bottom-up story of America from the point of view of ordinary people (factory workers, women, African-Americans, Native Americans, the working poor and immigrant laborers) to a mainstream history book emphasizing the role of political and economic leaders. He said the students found this approach exciting.
Howard Zinn was a unique figure, not only as a historian, but as a public intellectual who had a considerable impact outside academia. A new book from Boulder’s Paradigm Publishers, Agitation With A Smile: Howard Zinn’s Legacies and the Future of Activism (edited by Stephen Bird, Adam Silver and Joshua C. Yesnowitz), explores his political thought and his views of activist scholarship and political dissent. He was a pragmatic and eclectic radical, describing himself as “something of an anarchist, something of a socialist. Maybe a democratic socialist.”
He felt that a historian couldn’t be neutral “in a world where children are still not safe from starvation or bombs.” He was deeply skeptical of claims of scholarly “objectivity”:
“Surely, we want to be objective if that means telling the truth as we see it, not concealing information that may be embarrassing to our point of view. But we don’t want to be objective if it means pretending that ideas don’t play a part in the social struggles of our time, that we don’t take sides in those struggles.”
He was an activist in the civil rights and anti-war movements. But he also brought the politics of the street onto the university campus. He supported the union struggles of Boston University’s clerical workers, librarians, and building and grounds workers.
He almost got fired for that. He stood up for what he believed in. With optimism and humor. As a teacher, he spoke American.
We need more Zinns.