Friday, July 19, 2013

Pondering Daniels' emails and academic freedom

Posted By on Fri, Jul 19, 2013 at 9:00 AM

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When he was governor, Mitch Daniels released a list of holiday book recommendations just before every Christmas.

He did it to encourage Hoosiers to read.

At the same time, it turns out, Daniels was trying to limit what Indiana students could read and what their teachers could teach.

In a deft and meticulous bit of reporting, the Associated Press's Tom LoBianco reveals that, as governor, Daniels tried to use the power of his office to get a history of the United States with which he disagreed removed from college curricula and to silence a critic of his who worked at a state university.

Daniels apparently tried to initiate an audit and a funding cut for a program run by Charles Little, an Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis professor who also serves as executive director of the Indiana Urban Schools Association. Little frequently delivered scathing criticisms of Daniels' education policy and his performance as governor.

The bulk of Daniels' ire, though, seemed to be directed at the late historian and activist Howard Zinn.

In an email with a subject line "Howard Zinn" dated Feb. 9, 2010, Daniels wrote the state's top education policy makers - including then state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett:

"This terrible anti-American academic finally passed away. The obits and commentary 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 in the same exchange, Daniels added:

"This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state. No student will be any better taught because someone sat through this session. Which board has jurisdiction over what counts and what doesn't?"

A couple of things need to be said here, starting with a few words about who Howard Zinn was.

In addition to being an author, Zinn was a teacher, a civil rights activist and a World War II veteran - a bombardier who enlisted as soon as he could because he wanted to fight fascists and who flew missions over Berlin. At different times, he described himself as an anarchist, "something of a Marxist" and a democratic socialist.

Those are not views that Mitch Daniels, a conservative Republican with a staunch belief in free markets - except, apparently, in the marketplace of ideas - could be expected to endorse.

I've read some of Zinn's books. I've also read Daniels' book, "Keeping the Republic: Saving America by Trusting Americans."

In reading both Zinn and Daniels, I found that while I agreed with each of them on some things, there are things with which I disagree in both authors' books.

But that is, in many ways, beside the point.

Just when did we decide that the primary objective of education - or, for that matter, public discourse - was making sure that people never encountered ideas with which they might disagree? Part of the point of a true education is pushing people to engage with a variety of ideas and opinions so they can develop a more fully informed and deeply committed set of beliefs, regardless of what those beliefs might be.

The notion that any one person, party or ideology has a monopoly on truth, virtue or wisdom is a pile of what Daniels said shouldn't be accepted for credit by the state.

And to argue that Americans should be afraid to encounter any ideas, regardless of how different or foreign from our national experience they might be, is much more anti-American than anything Howard Zinn could have written.

Mitch Daniels is no longer is governor of Indiana. He's now president of Purdue University.

When he was named as Purdue's president, there was a lot of discussion about how committed he was to principles of free speech and academic freedom.

Daniels answered those criticisms, not surprisingly, by going on the attack. He said that many universities had suppressed free speech.

If these emails demonstrate nothing else, they show that Daniels should be careful about throwing those stones.

The glass walls with which he has constructed his house could shatter pretty easily.

John Krull is director of Franklin College's Pulliam School of Journalism, host of "No Limits" WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.

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John Krull

John Krull

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.
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