I felt a surge of righteous indignation July 17 when I first read the February 2010 emails sent by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels regarding Howard Zinn’s classic book “A People’s History of the United States.” The documents were released by Tom LoBianco of the Associated Press, who filed a Freedom of Information Act request. When Daniels found out the book was being assigned as required coursework at the Indiana University-Bloomington School of Education — my alma mater — he asked for it to be banned. As a lover of words, history and intellectual freedom, this got my blood up.
I wrote current Purdue University President Daniels requesting an interview July 24 after the controversy broke. I held off publishing my original column, “A People’s History of Mitch Daniels,” for a whole week while I went back and forth with Brian Zink, associate director of editorial for the Purdue University Office of Marketing and Media. Zink finally informed me Daniels had no interest in answering my questions.
“For your reference, however, and hopefully to answer most of your questions, [Daniels] suggested that I send you a letter he wrote to faculty on this issue,” Zink wrote July 30. What was sent was a version of a statement he had initially released, albeit much revised. In his original July 17 rebuttal, Daniels defended his dim view of Zinn’s work by citing historians like Arthur M. Schlesinger, Michael Kazin and Oscar Handlin.
“Stanford history education expert Sam Wineburg cautioned that exposing children to a heavily filtered and weighted interpretation such as Zinn’s work is irresponsible when ‘we are talking about how we educate the young, those who do not yet get the interpretive game,’” wrote Daniels. These passages were later removed by Daniels after he received a resounding rebuke from the very academics he turned to for support. “I don’t know if Daniels should be fired, but I agree that he should be roundly condemned for his attempts to stop students from reading Zinn’s big book and for calling Zinn a liar,” wrote Kazin on July 18 in Academe Magazine. “Mitch Daniels uses my work to defend his shameless attempts to censor free speech,” Wineburg wrote July 18 on Twitter. “Shame!” (Sadly, Schlesinger died in 2007 at 89, and Handlin followed in 2011 at 95. Neither was available for comment.)
In my original Aug. 8 column, I issued a challenge: I would read a chapter of the book a day and discuss it on my Twitter feed using the hashtag #zinnbookclub. I’m just now finishing the book for the second time in my life and the discussions it has prompted have been intriguing. I think Daniels and his ilk imagine supporters of Zinn’s work want it to be the first, last and only American history book anyone reads. They probably picture some fantasy world where it is treated like Chairman Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book” was in China during the Cultural Revolution. “A People’s History” would make zero sense to someone who has never absorbed the sanitized, mainstream version of this country’s past. It’s meant to be a corrective to the record, not the record itself.
Incidentally, the timing of all this couldn’t have been better. The 31st annual Banned Books Week is set to return Sunday. Robert P. Doyle’s report on the most-challenged or banned books from May 2012 to May 2013, as reported in the Journal on Intellectual Freedom, is a fascinating read. The list runs the entire spectrum of quality levels: From E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Challenged texts also cover every age range: From books for young adults like Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” to more adult fare like Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fight Club.” Examples of both fiction, like Stephen King’s “Different Seasons,” and non-fiction, like Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed: On (not) Getting By in America,” are represented. I encourage you to experience a banned book for yourself so you can form your own opinion about it.
Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at twitter.com/robaburg.