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Jerry Davich: Former governor’s attack on scholar ‘indefensible’

David Detmer professor philosophy Purdue University Calumet Hammond studied with author Howard Zinn BostUniversity. | Phoprovided

David Detmer, a professor of philosophy at Purdue University Calumet in Hammond, studied with author Howard Zinn at Boston University. | Photo provided

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Updated: October 23, 2013 6:18AM



Has Mitch Daniels ever read anything at length, let alone entirely, by historian Howard Zinn?

“There’s no evidence of it,” said David Detmer, a professor of philosophy at Purdue University Calumet, during a presentation at PUC earlier this week.

Yet it obviously didn’t stop Daniels, Purdue University’s president, from urging his governmental staff during his time as Indiana governor to purge all of Zinn’s work from the state’s educational teachings.

Specifically, Zinn’s credible but controversial book, “A People’s History of the United States,” a 720-page book published in 1980 with a first-print run of only 4,000 copies. Since then, its annual sales have climbed to more than 2 million copies, an unusual twist for any historical textbook.

Zinn was a leftist who suggested in his book, among other things, that Christopher Columbus was less a hero, as our mainstream textbooks have taught us, and more of a ruthless explorer who was involved in the slave trade of the day.

Daniels is a right-wing conservative who penned a book of his own, “Keeping the Republic: Saving America by Trusting Americans.” With a foreword by conservative columnist George Will, you can guess the partisan-patriotic theme of this book.

Here’s the rub: The recent publication of a few emails from Daniels to his staff reveals he wanted to make sure that Zinn’s book would not be in use “anywhere in Indiana.” Or as Daniels told his staff via email, “This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state.”

Detmer, who studied with Zinn at Boston University as an undergraduate, vehemently disagrees. But even more so, he disagrees how Daniels attempted to censor Zinn’s highly respected work throughout all Indiana schools.

“I think most of Daniels’ claims, arguments and actions in this affair are indefensible,” Detmer told me.

I agree completely.

Remember, censorship isn’t executed strictly by burning books in a raging bonfire amid like-minded fanatics, as most of us imagine. It’s executed more efficiently by the suppression of ideas, free speech and inconvenient information, especially by those in a position of power. Like, say, a state governor.

“There are degrees of censorship,” Detmer told the overflowing audience, teeming with PUC faculty, students and outside guests, including me.

Once Daniels was caught with his governor’s hand in the censorship cookie jar, he denied his actions constituted “censorship” of any kind, or that his emails compromised the principle of academic freedom. Uh-huh, right.

Detmer compared what Daniels did to someone who hires a hit man but the result ends with no murder taking place.

“It’s still wrong,” Detmer said, calling Daniels’ actions autocratic and undemocratic.

Regardless, Daniels continued to sharpen his criticism of Zinn, claiming the historian’s search for objective truth “went far beyond American history.” Maybe he meant far beyond our whitewashed, sanitized and selective versions of American history.

As an alternative to Zinn’s book, Daniels suggested another book, “America: The Last Best Hope,” written by — guess who? — a fellow Republican politician, William Bennett. Daniels’ last best hope as governor was that Bennett’s book would become “the textbook of choice in our state.”

Detmer dissected Daniels’ actions in a methodical critique during his thorough 90-minute presentation, complete with an 18-page handout to support his premise. At several points, his abbreviated dissertation provoked laughs at Daniels’ expense.

“I am trying to be fair to Daniels, as hard as this is to believe,” he told guests before noting an alleged case of minor plagiarism by the university’s high-profile president.

“What Daniels argued fails to stand up to the rigors of what we expect from our freshman students,” Detmer said, prompting more chuckles from the crowd. “There’s no evidence of argument or reasoning. It’s just name-calling and summary judgment.”

Detmer’s talk explored several related issues, including academic freedom, propaganda, intellectual standards, objectivity, historiography and the place of politics in scholarly research and teaching.

He also questioned the “fitness” of Daniels as Purdue’s president while noting that eight of the 10 members of the Purdue board of trustees were appointed by Daniels when he was governor.

“He took the job in spite of Indiana’s ‘cooling off’ rule that bars executive branch employees from seeking employment with organizations that do business with the state,” Detmer said. “Is there anyone in the state or on the board of trustees who is independent of him and capable of holding him accountable for his actions?”

Obviously, no.

Sure, Zinn has “lots and lots of critics,” Detmer admitted, but his huge body of work is clear, reasoned and respected by many historical scholars, including Detmer.

“He was a well-read and learned scholar,” Detmer pointed out from first-hand experiences.

And Daniels? He has no significant academic history, Detmer noted, surely educating no one in the room to this inconvenient fact.

“Daniels offers no evidence in support of his dubious claim that the assigning of Zinn’s work amounts to a ‘force-feeding’ of his theories and conclusions, as if teachers and students were incapable of engaging Zinn’s claims thoughtfully and critically,” Detmer writes in his handout.

“Truth,” Detmer writes, “is determined by a reasoned examination of the relevant evidence.”

Using that description as a compass — morally, politically or academically — the truth of this matter is that Daniels should sit in on a few freshman classes at Purdue. Maybe he can learn about objectivity, academic freedom and, ahem, a little history.

Connect with Jerry via email, at jdavich@post-trib.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.



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