State Impact Indiana: Debate Over Academic Freedom

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July 24, 2013 — A group of Purdue professors is questioning former governor Mitch Daniels’ commitment to academic freedom. Ninety professors signed an open letter this week after controversial statements Daniels made back in 2010 came to light. The faculty members say they’re concerned Daniels continues to stand by his comments given his position now as president of an academic institution.  As StateImpact Indiana’s Rachel Morello reports, the incident has other education professionals questioning the role government plays in setting curriculum.


Less than 24 hours after the Associated Press published the emails showing Mitch Daniels’ desire to eliminate the use of Howard Zinn’s book in Indiana classrooms, the former governor called a press conference.

In the emails Daniels called Zinn’s work “propaganda.” Zinn is a self-proclaimed radical historian and his documentation of history is widely considered to be controversial.

But Zinn has his defenders. Deborah Menkart helps run the Zinn Education Project, a Washington, D.C. based advocacy organization that provides resources to K-12 educators who teach “A People’s History of the United States.” She says the point of the book is to tell American history from a different viewpoint –  that of working people, women and people of color — the voices most likely to be omitted from history textbooks. But Daniels is sticking by his 2010 stance that Zinn has no place in K-12 classrooms.

 “No one was censored. My only concern had to do with protecting students in public K-12 education in Indiana against what the whole world agrees is a false version of American history.”

But in the email exchange, when Daniels asked whether Zinn’s book was used in any Indiana classroom, his top education adviser wrote that the book was being used at Indiana University in a course to train teachers. The governor quickly replied: ‘sounds like we need a cleanup of what is credit-worthy for professional development.’

That’s sparked concern that Daniels’ politics could spill over into his new role as Purdue president. So who makes curricular decisions at the university level? The state doesn’t have any authority.  A lot of the decisions depend on the university and the administration.

Stephen Watt is a provost professor of English at Indiana University. He says when choosing curriculum and resources, he trusts the opinions of people with credentials.

“I think people with a reasonable basis of knowledge in an area – and we call those people faculty – are in the best position to be able to suggest what should be taught.”

Peter Wood agrees…sort of. Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars, a network of academics in higher education. He says organizations like his own are constantly tasked with finding a balance between academic freedom and academic responsibility. Wood says he’s happy Daniels is standing by his statements about Zinn.

“There is an administrative function in the state of Indiana in which people are making careful decisions about what should and should not rate as appropriate material for this public purpose, and the public official said I think that there’s something amiss for this, let’s look into it. That’s a responsible exercise of authority by an elected official.”

At the K-12 level, school districts are generally allowed to adopt materials they individually determine as meeting the needs of their students. State Superintendent Glenda Ritz says her department’s role in textbook selection is strictly advisory.

“What we’re looking for really is scope and sequence. Are they meeting the standards? Are they complying with what we want children to know and learn in the state of Indiana?”

But official standards and the public’s opinions don’t always mesh. Wood says although Zinn’s book presents a unique point of view on American history, it is unpolished and therefore not suitable for instructional use.

“To teach this book as history is academic malfeasance. There are historians who recognize that the book is full of error, and nonetheless think that there’s some validity in exposing students to it because it gets students excited. I think that to excite people with things that are falsehoods is not good teaching.”

IU Professor Watt says then perhaps it is time for the state to take a closer look at what schools are teaching.

“If this history book is riddled with errors, somebody needs to identify those errors, somebody needs to rebut those errors.”

Watt says when there is a disagreement, there has to be a dialogue — that’s what academic freedom means.

For StateImpact Indiana, I’m Rachel Morello.

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