Historical Footnotes

Folks interested in the academic world (or in the ongoing culture wars around the country) may have seen media coverage of the recent brouhaha over the emails Purdue University President Mitch Daniels sent in 2010, when he was governor of Indiana.  In those emails, Daniels complained about the use of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as a textbook in teacher preparation courses, calling the book “crap [that] should not be accepted for any credit by the state.”  In recent days, he has denounced the book further as “propaganda” and defended his actions; Purdue’s Board of Trustees (almost all of whom Daniels appointed) has publicly supported him.

Under most circumstances any teacher or administrator might sprain an eyeball over a case like this, because it’s a highly dubious move when any politician attempts to influence what is taught in a university.  Decisions like these are usually a bit above their pay grade and almost always above their level of expertise.  A story still floats around Washington about Dan Quayle’s claim during the 1988 election campaign that his favorite book was Plato’s Republic, which he kept at his bedside for easy reference.  What, then, some curious reporters asked, did Quayle make of the allegory of the cave, found within the pages of the Republic?  Quayle’s blank then terrified look gave everyone their answer; it had most likely been decades since he gave the book a moment’s thought. 

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Daniels might seem like Quayle 2.0 on the surface, but it is interesting and commendable that he was paying attention at all; textbook wars usually don’t help one get reelected, so it’s reasonable to assume the guy really did have a personal interest in the quality and content of the textbooks used to train teachers, and not just trying to score political points. 

The problem, unfortunately, is not that Zinn’s book is propaganda; it’s that Daniels and his supporters think there’s some golden standard of objectivity followed by other textbooks or teachers today or in the past.

Frankly, Zinn’s book, first published in 1980 is propaganda—even its most fervent supporters acknowledge that.  But Zinn also did an enormous service to the field of history when he wrote his book, because the whole point seems to be to turn American history on its head, to take every cowboy and make him an indian, to make every white hat black, and to represent voices otherwise ignored or deliberately silenced by mainstream histories over the years.  It may be a bit bald in its preferences, and some of the scholarship might overreach, but it still serves as a valuable corrective to the textbooks in use then and now. And who is going to pretend that those histories are not propaganda in themselves?  Were the lessons we all learned in school about manifest destiny, about America’s founding, about our foreign and domestic policies over the years, somehow pure and free of propaganda?  Fans of The Sopranos may remember the scene when Tony and Carmelo Soprano’s son, A.J., reads from Zinn’s history to correct their notions of Christopher Columbus. They are outraged, of course, but their version of history is even more outrageous than Zinn’s, and Tony seems to know that A.J. isn’t buying what he’s selling.  “All this tuition money so he can learn this!”, he complains, but offers no counter.

I myself think back to the fall of 1984, when I was in fifth grade; Ronald Reagan had trounced Walter Mondale in November in the presidential election a week before.  Our principal at my Catholic grammar school came in one day to teach the fifth-grade history class and talk about the election.  “Do you know why I like Ronald Reagan more than I liked Jimmy Carter?” she asked.  (We did not; we were six when Carter left office).  “Because Ronald Reagan doesn’t let this country get pushed around the way Jimmy Carter did.”

The next day our teacher asked how many of us had wanted Walter Mondale to win.  No one.  How many were happy Ronald Reagan won?  Bedlam.  Cheering and pounding on our desks.  We didn’t know the damndest thing about politics, of course, but we were sure that America wasn’t going to be pushed around anymore.

But think back to 1984, or to 1979.  Was America being pushed around?  The hostage crisis had been a humiliation, certainly; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan another provocation without much in the way of effective response.  Carter himself identified a “malaise” affecting the country.  But does any scholar of military history, or of geopolitical events, argue that the period was marked by a lack of American military or political influence? Nor would any other nation in the world point to that period as one in which America declined; from most international perspectives, the OPEC oil embargo failed.  Ultimately, the only way in which the notion that we were being “pushed around” is pertinent is in a jingoistic one—call it history’s most effective ad campaign for the B-1 Bomber

So let’s let the teachers read Howard Zinn; it’s not the only book they have to read.  Better, let’s allow the students to read him.  It might counteract or expose some of the other nonsense sold as history in our classrooms every day.

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