INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - When former Gov. Mitch Daniels was pushing to keep
liberal historian Howard Zinn’s readings out of Indiana classrooms three
years ago, he had a definite idea of what should be there instead:
conservative education leader Bill Bennett’s review of American history.
News that the new Purdue University president tried to have Zinn’s “A
People’s History of the United States” kept from classrooms has sparked a
surge in demand for the 1980 book at Indiana libraries. It also put Daniels
on the defensive over the past month, drawing condemnations from academics
nationwide and having him reiterate his support for academic freedom in
higher education even as he is steadfast in his belief that Zinn is wrong
for lower grades.
Emails obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request
show Bill Bennett had much more favor among Daniels and his advisers. In
January 2010, when Daniels discovered the board of education had changed the
state’s textbook rules to allow Bennett’s book, he quickly asked how soon
his advisers could get copies of “The Last Best Hope” in classrooms.
“This is excellent to hear ... now someone make my day and tell me that his
book is becoming the textbook of choice in our state and I’ll buy beers for
everyone,” he wrote in a Jan. 27, 2010, email to then-schools chief Tony
Bennett, Bennett’s former chief of staff, Todd Huston, and David Shane, a
longtime Daniels colleague, Republican donor and school board member.
Bill Bennett has a strong national following, dating from his time as Ronald
Reagan’s education secretary. And he’s been an incredibly popular figure in
Daniels’ circle of education reformers. Last summer, Tony Bennett looked to
national donor Jerry Slusser to fly Bennett to a fundraiser in
“I just spoke to Bill Bennett, and he would be happy to come to Jeff to do
our reception after the golf outing. We will need to get him here and home
(he will be in NC prior to our event). I was wondering if we should see if
Jerry Slusser can fly him here and back to DC,” the schools chief wrote on
June 15, 2012, in an email to his chief fundraiser, Julie Southworth.
She replied that getting Slusser to fly Bill Bennett to the Aug. 14
fundraiser shouldn’t be a problem. Slusser, a Republican donor charged
$600,000 by federal regulators for defrauding German investors in the late
‘90s, owns an aviation company.
A little more than a week after Daniels asked how to get Bill Bennett’s
texts in schools, he wrote an exchange dubbing Zinn “anti-American” and
looked for ways to “disqualify the propaganda” he said was being used in
teacher preparation courses.
Daniels declined comment for this story. He told WLFI-TV last week that he
never meant to trample anyone’s academic freedom. He declined to answer
questions about Tony Bennett’s resignation as Florida schools chief
following an Associated Press report showing Bennett and his staff changed
Indiana’s school grading formula to benefit a charter school run by a
prominent Republican donor.
At a glance, history texts, known as much for their dry and plodding
language as the broad strokes used to recount the past, might not seem ripe
for political warring. But Sam Wineburg, a Stanford University professor who
trains history teachers, said there have always been fights over whose
version of history is taught to students.
“Textbooks are important not because kids learn anything from them, but it
our nation’s public record, our ‘official’ history,” Wineburg wrote in an
Wineburg has been critical of Zinn for misrepresenting certain key events in
American history, but he has also lambasted Daniels for misrepresenting his
statements in the days after the 2010 emails were first released last month.
The answer, as he pointed out in a 2007 Education Week piece, would ideally
be ditching history texts altogether, because they inherently present a
biased view of history. But, given that most teachers have very little in
the way of education supplies to begin with, critically analyzing the
textbooks they have is the more practical answer.
If Zinn’s book were taught alongside Bill Bennett’s, perhaps they would both
get proper scrutiny in that model.