POLITICS
10/30/2013 01:51 pm ET

Mitch Daniels: I'm 'More Devoted To Academic Freedom' Than Critics In Howard Zinn Controversy

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor

WASHINGTON -- Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) said Wednesday that when he ordered state education officials in 2010 to make sure Howard Zinn's history books were "not in use anywhere" in the state, he was referring to middle school classrooms, and not to universities.

"My only comment was, I didn't think it belonged in an eighth-grade classroom, where there's one teacher, no critical thinking skills developed, I mean one book and young children, and what the teacher says is gospel," Daniels said at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

Daniels is now the president of Purdue University, and said that the flap over emails that surfaced this past summer "had nothing to do with academic freedom on campus."

"Anything that anybody wants to do on our campus is absolutely fine with me, because at a college campus there's more than one book, and ideas are freely debated, and the students have some level of -- we hope -- of critical thinking," said Daniels, who was in the nation's capital for an education-related conference.

The 64-year-old former politician, who was a top presidential prospect for the GOP in 2012 before he decided not to run, took a shot at some of his critics in the Zinn affair.

"I'm probably more devoted to academic freedom than some of the folks in that dispute," he said.

Daniels' emails, first reported by the Associated Press this summer, began with a note he sent to aides on Feb. 9, 2010, roughly two weeks after Zinn died at age 87 of an apparent heart attack. In an email with the subject header, "Howard Zinn," Daniels wrote:

"This terrible anti-American academic finally passed away. The obits and commentaries 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?"

When informed that Zinn was being taught in an Indiana University humanities class for which state school teachers could receive professional development credits, Daniels wrote: "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."

In a subsequent email, Daniels wrote, "Sounds like we need a cleanup of what is credit-worthy in 'professional development' and what is not."

His focus in the last email remained on professional development for state teachers, and did not mention removing Zinn's book from the college classroom.

Zinn said that his works of historical writing were biased in an attempt to "look at history from the perspective of the slaughtered and mutilated." His People's History was first printed in 1980, and has sold nearly two million copies, according to Zinn's obituary in The New York Times.

"To describe it as a revisionist account is to risk understatement," the Times wrote of A People's History. "A conventional historical account held no allure; he concentrated on what he saw as the genocidal depredations of Christopher Columbus, the blood lust of Theodore Roosevelt and the racial failings of Abraham Lincoln. He also shined an insistent light on the revolutionary struggles of impoverished farmers, feminists, laborers and resisters of slavery and war."

Daniels said on Wednesday that Zinn's point of view was "extreme," and argued that perspective on his work is in line with the "overwhelming judgment of historians."

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