Sunday, July 21, 2013

President Daniels, Please do your homework!

In one of the emails that ended up with the marching orders to ban Howard Zinn from Indiana K-12 classrooms, Mitch Daniels noted, Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" “is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page.” 

These are serious allegations posed by Daniels, then governor of Indiana and now President of a research public University with a strong global reputation for its research integrity. I am sure Daniels understands the grave consequences of such allegations for academics, if proven correct. 

Mitch was governor when he issued the directive to purge Indiana K-12 classes of "A People's History."

The heavy handed involvement of politicians in the sphere of education however is not new.

We have seen for instance how the governor of Colorado used his position of influence to call for the dismissal of then University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill for his observation that the 9/11 attacks were a product of climate of oppression and destruction carried out by the US abroad.

Churchill however could not be dismissed on the grounds of the content of his speech or writing. 

Therefore, grounds were needed to be created for his dismissal. Questions of facticity of the accounts portrayed in Churchill's writing and plagiarism were introduced as the grounds for investigation, and were finally utilised to recommend his dismissal. 

Operating under the rhetoric of academic freedom, an investigating body was created at the University of Colorado with the implicit agenda of going on a witch hunt. Debatable conclusions about accuracy of arguments and self-plagiarism were drawn up by the committee to recommend the dismissal of Churchill from the University of Colorado. The context that drove the witch hunt was the top-down pronouncement made by powerful politicians.

The political establishment and the establishment of the University where he taught, the University of Colorado, did not however engage with the content of his argument that triggered the witch hunt. 

Engaging with the content of Churchill's argument would invite engagement with the idea that the terror attacks of 9/11were integral to the violence of US neo-imperial policies. Irrespective of whether one agrees with the argument or not, engaging Churchill in content would call for reasoned presentation of arguments, evidence, warrants to interrogate the historic and contemporary role of the US in the Middle East.

The Churchill case is a reminder of the tremendous power on Universities that is held by politicians and the status quo they represent. The witch hunt that was initiated by right wing media pundits and the Colorado governor are similar to the propaganda campaign initiated by Daniels.

Daniels does not articulate the grounds on which he engages with Zinn. He does not engage with Zinn's ideas. He does not present evidence. He does not construct arguments. He does not go through the painstaking task of building an argument.

He simply initiates a campaign to malign a noted and much-recognized historian and a teacher.

The substance of Zinn's argument remain unchallenged in the emails composed by Daniels, and in the subsequent email to AP and in the public response on his Purdue website. Similarly, his Board of Trustees, many of whom were nominated by him in his powerful role as governor of Indiana, remain silent on the key arguments or points made by Howard Zinn in his work even as they dismiss the AP story. 

Engaging with "A people's history" would hold Daniels accountable to demonstrate how the mainstream narratives of history are not told by the structures of power and how alternative readings of history from the voices of the margins don't lead us to critical conclusions about the interplay of power and oppression in the construction of the American narrative.

Instead, Daniels claims that Zinn's work demonstrates factual disinformation and therefore, calls for the censorship of Zinn from Indiana classrooms, lest Zinn be entitled to brainwashing the minds of Indiana children with his "execrable" propaganda.

The allegations, painted in broad strokes, are similar to the allegations made by politicians sitting in positions of power to thwart opposing ideas that challenge their narratives ensconced in power, exercising tremendous control on education more broadly and dictating what gets taught within classrooms. Unsubstantiated claims of facticity, disinformation, and poor scholarship are thrown around to support the top-down conclusions and as justification of censorship.

It is however precisely at this point that we academics need to hold politicians like Daniels accountable. Although he is the President of a major research university, let's be very clear about one thing, he is not an academic. And this is reflected in his lack of ability to engage in an academic argument even as he uses academic-sounding language to malign a reputed academic. 

Let's not forget, Daniels is no historian. And he is not trained to engage adequately with the realm of evidence making and argumentation that one expects from academics. Why did he then not engage historians?

Now, reading Howard Zinn has taught me that academe should not be a narrow space for protecting privilege. Rather, Zinn's vision guides my own work toward imagining academe as a space for conversation, debate, and foregrounding of wide diversity of voices, especially those voices that are disenfranchised. In this sense, although Daniels represents the structure that I interrogate in my work, I do believe that his voice has a place. That place however is a place of negotiation, debate, and argumentation. Not one that uses the bully pulpit of power to censor and silence through what appears to be malevolent propaganda.

This then also brings me to the question: How can Mitch Daniels lead a public research University when he does not understand the fundamentals of the academic process, and perhaps as suggested by the email exchanges and his subsequent public response, has little regard for the integrity of the academic process. 

It is time for us to hold Mr. Daniels accountable to the standards of academe. 

What is the evidence on the basis of which he arrived at the conclusions that he did? Did he at all read A people's history? Which part of Zinn's writing did he find to be based on factually incorrect information? And how did he arrive at that conclusion? What was the basis of the argument? What was the evidence in support of the conclusion? Aren't these the sort of questions we ask each other and our students in the classroom? If Daniels would turn in some amalgamation of his emails and his press release as an assignment, these are the kind of questions he would receive as feedback on his essay.

As leader of a public University, what Daniels does and says is intrinsically tied to the reputation of the University and to the integrity of the academic process. So at the very least, we should hold him to the same standards that we hold our students to.

As a starting point then, we should expect President Daniels to please do his homework and demonstrate to us that he has taken the time to read Zinn and to engage with his arguments.

1 comment:

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