It’s ironic that a debate over the complete and accurate telling of history, and whether Howard Zinn fits in that picture, is what is ultimately bringing out a more complete picture of Purdue University President Mitch Daniels, who sought to keep the liberal historian’s work out of Indiana K-12 classrooms while governor.
In a series of emails sent on Feb. 9, 2010, the former governor advised his education team to “disqualify the propaganda,” like Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” from credit for teacher training on the premise it is “execrable and anti-factual.”
In the days since the emails were first printed by The Associated Press, academics nationwide, including the standards-setting American Historical Association, have condemned Daniels’ move. He contests he never tried to stifle academic freedom and simply wanted to keep the textbook out of the hands of K-12 students.
But much like Zinn’s book was used to present another side of history, internal notes Daniels sent to his education team between 2009 and 2012 show another side of the man presented on the national stage as one of the Republican Party’s most reasonable offerings.
Publicly, Daniels had backed away from much of the rhetoric that had marked his early days as governor, when he charged that Democratic lawmakers “car-bombed” his first legislative agenda. But from the start of his second term, he played a sharp-elbowed role behind the scenes, ensuring his agenda was enacted. In an April 10, 2009, email, he requested an audit of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis professor Charles Little, a sharp critic of his education plans. And when his staunchest opponent, the Indiana State Teachers Association, upped the amount it collected from members, Daniels saw an opening.
“Time to challenge them publicly on this?” Daniels wrote in a July 14, 2009, email.
When the Indiana Professional Standards Board, which used to set teacher licensing rules, demurred on his overhaul of teacher preparation, Daniels asked in a July 29, 2009, email, “What has happened about getting the members of these boards in for a thank-you and a spine-stiffening session?”
Shortly before he pushed the nation’s broadest use of school vouchers, changes in teacher preparation, new teacher evaluations and a raft of other ambitious education changes in 2011, Daniels and his team quietly lined up the votes in the General Assembly. Then-schools Superintendent Tony Bennett’s then-chief of staff, Todd Huston, delivered a spreadsheet identifying where Republican legislators stood on his plan in an Oct. 14, 2010, email to Daniels, Bennett and Republican mega-donor Al Hubbard. Daniels advised Huston should be careful.
“Tks. Will treat in total confidence. If it has headings, I’d delete them if I were you. We shd have for other key reform issues, too???” Daniels wrote.
The emails are a constant reminder that the man who presented himself as a master technocrat, more concerned with fiscal issues than social grenades, came up in Washington as an ace political operative.
Most notes are not as visceral as the Zinn exchange, and many reflect an incredible eye for political strategy that would be expected of Ronald Reagan’s former political director. In an Aug. 12, 2009, email, Huston suggested Indianapolis radio host and African-American leader Amos Brown should be placed on the roundtable discussing the governor’s education agenda because, among other things, it could keep a “loud mouth” opponent in check.
The point Zinn tried to make through an admittedly one-sided career was that the view of history in America’s then-whitewashed textbooks was incomplete. It wouldn’t be right, he argued, to talk about the Boston Massacre without mentioning the massacre of Pequot Indians in the 1630s in Massachusetts or any of the many other wars between colonists and Native Americans.
Likewise, Daniels’ public comments present an incomplete picture of a seminal figure in Republican politics, Indiana and, now, higher education. Talk of removing “execrable” texts from classrooms is not all Daniels ever said about education, but it is now a part of his broader discussion of a “broken” education system.
Tom LoBianco covers Indiana politics for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter @tomlobianco.