Eyebrows at campuses around the country furrowed with concern last week over an Associated Press report involving former Indiana governor and current Purdue University president Mitch Daniels. Indeed, “AP Exclusive: Daniels looked to censor opponents,” is one heck of a headline to hang on four emails the wire service stumbled upon in a Freedom of Information Act request—especially when the emails actually confirm Daniels’s commitment to high academic stand-ards, not cast doubt on them.
Daniels’s supposed thoughtcrime is pointing out that Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, a popular left-wing text, is a fraudulent work of scholarship. When he found out an Indiana University summer institute for schoolteachers was awarding professional development credits for reading the book, Daniels called it “a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page.”
Daniels’s opinion is spot-on, but don’t take his word for it. The president of the National Association of Scholars, Peter Wood, runs down the recent criticism of Zinn’s book at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Well-known liberal Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz said Zinn “ceased writing serious history. He had a very simplified view that everyone who was president was always a stinker and every left-winger was always great.” Georgetown professor Michael Kazin, an editor at the left-wing journal Dissent, said, “Zinn’s big book is stronger on polemical passion than historical insight. For all his virtuous intentions, Zinn essentially reduced the past to a Manichean fable.” And this past March, the New Republic published a damning essay by David Greenberg, an associate professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, “Agit-Prof: Howard Zinn’s influential mutilations of American history.” It’s beyond dispute that Zinn’s book isn’t up to the kind of academic standards that justify it being taught as history, and the fact that Daniels thought public school teachers should receive no credit for reading it is hardly a scandal.
It’s only controversial because leftists have spent decades celebrating Zinn. (It’s even become a touchstone in popular culture—Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting, a supposed genius, gave the book an extended plug.) The only possible reason one of the nation’s biggest media outlets is calling Daniels a “censor” is that the left still feels it will lose credibility if the truth about Zinn becomes widely known.
In fact, Zinn’s influence may be on the wane. True, over 90 members of Purdue’s faculty have signed an open letter hyperventilating that Daniels’s emails call into question the “very legitimacy of academic discourse.” But as First Things pointed out, Daniels, the former head of the Office of Management and Budget, is good with math, so he can relax:
There are roughly 1,800 faculty at Purdue University, and just 90 of them signed this letter. There are 34 active full-time faculty in the History department, and just 15 of them signed it. There are 17 specialists in one branch or another of American history in that department, and just seven of them signed it. The History department at Purdue appears to be in better shape than one might have guessed, for a major American university these days.
Sleep tight, President Daniels. The tumbril is not arriving for you any time soon.