“Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels pledged to promote academic freedom when he became president of Purdue University in January,” the Associated Press reported in breathless, Gotcha! style a few days ago, “but newly released emails show he attempted to eliminate what he considered liberal ‘propaganda’ at Indiana’s public universities while governor.” Many similar reports followed, such as an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education asserting that Daniels “sought to purge a liberal scholar’s writings from classrooms when he was the state’s top executive.”
No, those emails do not show that at all, as National Association of Scholars President Peter Wood shows in painstakingly convincing detail in “Why Mitch Daniels Was Right.” Daniels did not seek “to purge a liberal scholar’s writings from the classrooms” or even eliminate “propaganda” at public universities, even though most would agree that there’s nothing wrong with eliminating “propaganda” that’s posing as legitimate scholarship. (I know, I know; one’s man’s propaganda is another’s profundity, etc.)
Wood points out that Daniels was not trying to ban a book but was questioning the state awarding professional development credit to teachers based on a course relying on A People’s History of the United States. Regarding “propaganda,” Wood quotes a panoply of highly regarded liberal scholars describing Zinn’s enormously and unfortunately popular text as “agitprop” (Sean Wilentz, Princeton), “a Manichean fable” (Michael Kazin, Georgetown and Dissent editor), “a pretty lousy piece of work” (David Greenberg, Rutgers, who describes Zinn as “Agit-Prof”), “dangerous because it invites a slide into intellectual fascism” (Sam Wineburg, Director of Stanford’s History Education Group), ““a scissors and paste-pot job, but even less attractive” (Michael Kammen, Cornell), “the deranged quality of this fairy tale” (Oscar Handlin, Harvard [not a liberal]). Daniel’s view of Zinn’s work, in short, is more than reasonable; it reflects what can fairly be called a professional consensus.
Back in one of my former lives when I was a historian, before post-modernism had been born, I found Zinn’s work useful as a perfect example of a strain of “committed” history whose commitments dictated its conclusions, and it remains useful for that purpose. Zinn, were he still alive, would actually welcome the label of agitprop propagandist. In his view, all history is propaganda, and the only difference between good history and bad history is that good history is an outspoken combatant in the war for progressive causes.
One example, from his The Politics of History (1970), p. 275:
There are two ways in which history has a “meaning.” The actual past has affected the present situation in which we find ourselves; this kind of meaning is out of our hands — it has already been determined. But also, our recapitulation of the past affects what we do about this situation; this much is in our hands. And because there are many ways in which we can tell about the past, we can give it various meanings….
The historian is thus free to give one meaning or another to past events. I can choose, by the way I tell the story, to make World War I seem a glorious battle between good and evil, or I can make it seems a senseless massacre. There is no inherently true story of World War … there is only the question of which version is true to which present purpose. There is only the meaning created by the historian — a meaning represented by the effect on those who listen to the story.
Factual accounts of the past … turn out on inspection to be interpretations of the past (Nietzsche: “There are no facts only interpretations”).
Labeling Zinn a propagandist is not libelous; it is literal truth.