Remembering a prominent ISI alumnus
Do Teachers Owe Students the Truth?
Purdue’s president, Mitch Daniels, is an enemy of “academic freedom,” say a chorus of professors at the school where the former Indiana governor now works. His monstrous offense emerged when the Associated Press excavated e-mails from his time as governor in which he asked aides to keep the work of the late Howard Zinn out of Indiana’s elementary and high school classrooms.
In an open letter to Daniels, ninety Purdue professors excoriate him for having dared to deprive students of access to such a “respected scholar.” Beneath all the usual blather (“In the end, this issue transcends one author and one book. It concerns the very legitimacy of academic discourse”) lies the faculty’s raw ideological support for Zinn’s left-wing polemics masquerading as history. Here is the key whopper from their letter:
First, your assessment of Zinn’s work goes against the judgment of Purdue’s own faculty members, many of whom do include his work in their syllabi or in their published research—not to mention historians across the nation and the world. Whatever their political stripe, most experts in the field of U.S. history do not take issue with Howard Zinn’s facts, even when they do take issue with his conclusions.
Are they kidding? Even prominent liberal historians like Arthur Schlesinger considered Zinn a “polemicist, not a historian,” as Daniels has pointed out.
And Zinn agreed. He considered his most famous work, A People’s History of the United States, to be a “biased account,” but in his typically cavalier, post-modernist style beamed with pride at his fudging: “I am not troubled by that because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction—so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people’s movements—that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.”
Zinn, who belonged to the Communist Party USA, saw himself not as a historian but as a propagandist for what he considered leftist progress. “Objectivity is impossible, and it is also undesirable,” he once bluntly stated. “That is, if it were possible it would be undesirable, because if you have any kind of a social aim, if you think history should serve society in some way; should serve the progress of the human race; should serve justice in some way, then it requires that you make your selection on the basis of what you think will advance causes of humanity.”
Zinn’s “facts” are just a Marxist brew of anti-American, anti-Western opinions that left-wing academics like to ladle down the throats of impressionable students. What’s shocking is not that governors like Mitch Daniels tried to get his work out of public classrooms but that it was there in the first place. Here’s a sampling from his “respected” scholarship over the years:
- “Behind the English invasion of North America, behind their massacre of Indians, their deception, their brutality, was that special powerful drive born in civilizations based on private profit.”
- “Around 1776, certain important people in the English colonies found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power from the favorites of the British Empire. In the process, they could hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.”
- “How can you have a war on terrorism when war itself is terrorism?”
- “It seemed that the United States was reacting to the horrors perpetrated by the terrorists against innocent people in New York by killing other innocent people in Afghanistan.”
- “Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals the fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such as world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.”
- “I refuse to celebrate ‘the greatest generation’ because in so doing we are celebrating courage and sacrifice in the cause of war. And we are miseducating the young to believe that military heroism is the noblest form of heroism, when it should be remembered only as the tragic accompaniment of horrendous policies driven by power and profit. The current infatuation with World War II prepares us—innocently on the part of some, deliberately on the part of others—for more war, more military adventures, more attempts to emulate the military heroes of the past.”
- “The Constitution. . . illustrates the complexity of the American system: that it serves the interests of a wealthy elite, but also does enough for small property owners, for middle-income mechanics and farmers, to build a broad base of support. The slightly prosperous people who make up this base of support are buffers against the blacks, the Indians, the very poor whites. They enable the elite to keep control with a minimum of coercion, a maximum of law–all made palatable by the fanfare of patriotism and unity.”
That Purdue professors would plant the flag of academic freedom on the grave of a Communist polemicist reveals what a useless, hollow, and destructive concept it has become. Academic freedom once meant the right to tell the truth free of pressure. Now it just means the right to spread false information and ideas in the name of whatever goals progressives in charge of academia decree.
The Same Old Song
This empty controversy is reminiscent of the flap over Ward Churchill, the former University of Colorado professor who said that the “Little Eichmanns” working in the World Trade Center on 9/11 deserved to die for America’s foreign-policy sins. Academics rallied to Churchhill’s defense, quoting Voltaire’s inane line, “I am willing to fight to the death for your right to express your belief freely,” as if the right to polemicize defines academic freedom.
All these tedious discussions about chilled academic discourse are framed in terms of the “rights of professors,” as if universities exist to provide ideologues with platforms. What about the rights of students? Isn’t the organizing principle of a university forming students in truth? Don’t university presidents (or governors in the case of the public school system), therefore, have the duty to ensure that students aren’t taught by liars or fools?
The welfare of students is the only meaningful consideration in any discussion about “academic freedom.” But craven administrators almost always ignore it. They conveniently equate free speech with academic freedom (so as to pacify angry, tenured academics) and then pathetically argue that exposure to rancid ideas is a good learning experience for students, a justification they never invoke out when conservative academics are under fire.
During the Ward Churchill controversy, Aaron Brown of CNN interviewed Dahlia Lithwick of Slate.com in a segment that perfectly captured the regnant understanding of academic freedom. Here’s a clip:
Brown: “Just on the face of it academic freedom ought to embrace even dumb things, I suppose. Is that right?”
Lithwick: “That’s sort of the cornerstone of the notion of what university is about, Aaron.”
The founders of Oxford and Cambridge would surely have been surprised to learn that the promotion of irrationality is the university’s purpose. If embracing crank opinions is the cornerstone on which universities are built, the only enemies of “academic freedom” become those who insist on rational standards.
How dare Mitch Daniels deprive students of the opportunity to hear bad ideas? One catches a note of this ludicrous defense from the Purdue professors, who want students to “judge” for themselves Zinn’s polemics and to witness the glorious creative destruction that comes from such bold authors:
Scholarly debates and disagreements create ferment that leavens the study of history. Without vigorous disagreements about the meaning of the American experience, the field would not have moved in such important directions as the study of women’s history, African American history, labor history, the history of sexuality, and so on. Moreover, to insist that Zinn’s critical perspective is anti-American is to miss his commitment to bringing out our better collective selves—living up to the great ideals of egalitarianism and democratic involvement upon which this republic was founded.
In other words, they like his wild take on American history and no longer care a whit about academic standards. Who do they think that they are fooling? This is not a dispute over academic freedom but an attempt by a politicized mob to silence a university president who still cares about truth.
George Neumayr is contributing editor to the American Spectator and co-author of No Higher Power: Obama’s War on Religious Freedom.
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