Friday, July 19, 2013

President Mitch Daniels, Academic Freedom, and Discursive Paradox

In a recent round of reports published in media outlets, we have learned that the current Purdue President Mitch Daniels, former governor of Indiana, directed via email his top education officials to “get rid of” the work of the noted historian Howard Zinn from K-12 classrooms in Indiana. Referring to Zinn’s  People’s History of the United States as ‘truly execrable,’ anti-factual, crappy and dishonest, then governor Daniels ordered his staff to act to make sure that Zinn’s work is not being offered across schools in Indiana.  He wrote: “Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of history?”

Daniels’ order to his top state education officials comes across as an off-the-cuff directive directed at censoring Zinn. Unlike the deliberate engagement that is integral to academic evaluation, Daniels throws a number of serious charges at Zinn but does not care to substantiate them. Nowhere in the email exchange do we witness reasoned consideration of argument, presentation of evidence, engagement in thoughtful analysis, and deliberate consideration of evaluation, aspects of the academic process that are integral to discovery and learning, and to the process of evaluating the quality of a scholar’s work. Unlike Zinn, a widely respected academic who presents extensive evidence to arrive at his critical conclusions in the People’s History of the United States, Daniels, a politician, arrives at his conclusions through appeal to power and position.  

Reading the email exchange between Daniels and his education officials, we get the impression of a powerful governor who has made up his mind that Zinn is objectionable for Indiana students, and therefore, has decided through his power to govern that Zinn texts must be eliminated from Indiana K-12 classrooms. He asks his senior officials for assurance that Zinn’s People’s History of the United States is not in use in Indiana schools. He further instructs his staff to work toward getting rid of the book if it is indeed being used. He instructs his staff, “Go for it. Disqualify propaganda…” If this isn’t an exemplification of censorship, I am not sure what is. In this sense then, the judgment to ban Zinn from K-12 classrooms across Indiana is arrived at through a position of authority and through the exercise of power attached to this authority. According to the media reports of the email exchange, there are no counter arguments offered to Daniels’ directive. Citizens of Indiana and K-12 students in Indiana must be protected because they are not capable of judgment, and the governor as the leader of the State takes up this job in his own hands, seeking to replace Zinn’s useless propaganda with “professional development courseware to upgrade knowledge of math, science, etc.”

Allegations of academic dishonesty and poor quality are thrown around to bolster the decision, once again without the consideration of deliberate evidence and without the engagement with argument. The state educational officials are equally implicated in the heuristic judgment arrived at quickly through a series of email exchanges. In a context where the nature of what is taught to Indiana kids is being determined, one would expect more detailed consideration of evidence rather than the circulation of unsupported allegations as the basis for censorship.

Given that the original emails written by Daniels were apparently triggered by a summer school for high school Indiana teachers taught at Indiana University, it also becomes evident that censoring what gets taught to teachers is the way Daniels seeks to define the scope of debate and conversation in Indiana education.

What is however most striking about the exchange in question is the paradox in the different roles played by Daniels, raising questions about the culture of erasure that continues to occupy US academic discourse in spite of its hyperbolic rhetoric of academic freedom.

Daniels, who as governor potentially violated principles of academic freedom by seeking to censor the reading of a particular text in classrooms is now the leader at the helm of one of Indiana’s hallowed public universities in a role that calls upon him to actively guard the principle of academic freedom. What is striking here is the gap between the high-handed censorship role that Daniels played as Indiana governor in determining what is or is not taught in the classroom and his rhetoric of academic freedom recently articulated in various speeches and writing at Purdue.  Perhaps when in his open letter to the People of Purdue Daniels writes that tenure has become “home to narrowest sort of close-mindedness and worst repression of dissident ideas,” he is expressing his dissatisfaction with the critical ideas that like Howard Zinn challenge the established status quo of American society. What was Daniels’ intent behind the open letter we will not know until he comes out explicitly and explains his claim, articulating the values attached to the claim.

Daniels of course does not see any contradiction in these two roles. In fact, he goes on to clearly delineate the difference between the notion of academic freedom at the University and the role he played as governor in making sure that Zinn’s work was not “inflicted upon” the young people in the K-12 system.  To support his argument that it is irresponsible to assign Zinn as a reading to the young, Daniels cites a small number of scholars who observe that they don’t take Zinn seriously, but is highly selective in his selection of people, conveniently missing out the number of respected scholars who hold Zinn in high regard. Also, Daniels does not present any argument to support his claim. We are told that Zinn presents a falsified version of history but are not offered any evidence as to why this is the case.

Similarly, in a release on the Purdue website, the Purdue Board of trustees share with us that the Associated Press news story is a misrepresentation and the email exchange in question “had nothing to do with academic freedom or censorship.” Once again, we are not offered warrants, backing or evidence supporting the claim. We are not offered a window into the operational definition of academic freedom and censorship in the articulation of the trustees.

Perhaps much like the K-12 students imagined by Daniels, we are too simple minded to process arguments or ask for arguments. I see the instruction by a state governor to ban Zinn from the K-12 curriculum without thorough engagement in deliberation and debate as censorship because it stifles academic expression and limits what can be taught in the classroom.

What is perhaps even more troubling is that in his statement issued on the Purdue website and to AP, Mitch Daniels continues to insist that Zinn’s work was intellectually dishonest and crappy. Once again, Daniels does not really offer evidence. I am also left wondering about the credentials of Daniels that qualify him to make the evaluation about Zinn.

Or is it that Howard Zinn offers a worldview that is inconvenient to the world Daniels seeks to foster through education? As we have seen in earlier instances such as in the cases of critical scholars such as Professor Ward Churchill and Dr. Norman Finkelstein, the question of allegations of intellectual dishonesty and fraud are raised to silence a worldview that does not gel with the received worldview of President Daniels. The silencing of Zinn’s voice contradicts the rhetoric of diversity and multiculturalism that starts sounding more like a hollow public relations ploy.

And this in essence is the fundamental irony in US notions of academic freedom. When used as a bully pulpit to sing the songs of American exceptionalism, the rhetoric of academic freedom works as a public relations tool in the global market. However, when it comes down to the practice of the principle of academic freedom in the US, we discover that it is contested, socially constructed, and contingent upon the positions of power that are intertwined with discussions of academic freedom, censorship practices, and erasure of critical voices.

Acknowledging this contingent and socially constructed nature of academic freedom fosters a space for academics globally to work everyday to uphold the concept of academic freedom, not simply in a narrow sense of the word, but in the wide spirit of what it means to conduct research, produce scholarship, educate, and share knowledge with a wider community. I am delighted to join in solidarity with my colleagues at Purdue to raise my voice. Protecting the integrity of the academic process calls for each of us in academe to stand up to our  principles so that diverse worldviews and diverse ways of doing research are fostered and embraced.

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