It matters more than ever who picks what for the classroom.
Emails from then-Gov. Mitch Daniels recently unearthed by The Associated Press could spark an interesting debate in Indiana about censorship and academic freedom. As Purdue University president, Daniels has taken a strong position in opposition to suppression of speech at American universities. But as governor, he actively sought to do a little suppression of his own.
In one set of email exchanges, the governor sought assurances that no Indiana school was using “A People's History of The United States,” a book by historian Howard Zinn that Daniels described as “liberal propaganda” and an “execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page.” In another, he called for an audit and possible funding cut for a program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis run by Charles Little, a strong critic of the governor's education policies.
In an email to AP, Daniels stood by his demand to that Zinn be excluded from classrooms, saying that “we must not falsely teach American history in our schools.” He's on firmer ground on Zinn than he is on he is on Little. As the governor points out, he was referring not to universities but just to K-12 schools, for which the state sets the curriculum. And here's an interesting question for you: If a book is nothing but liberal propaganda distorting American history – and that's exactly what Zinn's book is – isn't that censorship of the worst kind, a suppression of the truth?
The governor's swipes at Little are less defensible, and indeed Daniels said nothing about that case in his email to AP. Appearances matter, and Daniels seems to be trying to punish a critic rather than advance any educational cause. If that perception – that he cares more about personal agendas than academic mission – holds, it could seriously affect his efforts to run a major American university.
But is that really “censorship” in the sense we've come to understand it, the suppression of ideas we don't want debated? Do motives matter? A curriculum can only contain a limited number of books from the myriad available. Somebody has to choose based on something.
Once, this wasn't such a big deal. We were fine with what schools taught, because they tended to reflect the prevailing culture and our common understanding of the world. But today there are warring camps with mutually exclusive views, so it matters very much what is taught who gets to decide. One's side's truth is the other side's propaganda, and wading through all that to provide a decent education for our children is becoming increasingly difficult.