Ronald Radosh: 92 Professors Go After Mitch Daniels

tags: Howard Zinn, Mitch Daniels, Ronald Radosh, Minding the Campus, Rosenberg case



Ronald Radosh is author or co-author of more than sixteen books, including The Rosenberg File, Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, and A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel. He is Adjunct Fellow at The Hudson Institute and a columnist for PJ Media.

The vultures in academia are out to get Mitch Daniels Jr., the president of Purdue University and former governor of Indiana. Inside Higher Ed reported last week that in e-mails he sent out while Governor, Daniels tried to get Indiana universities to stop using the best-selling A People’s History of the United States, written by the late uberleftist professor Howard Zinn.  Now, the site reported on Monday, historians nationwide are demanding Daniels be called to task for his position. In one e-mail that especially offended the online higher education magazine, Daniels wrote: “This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state. No student will be better taught because someone sat through this session. Which board has jurisdiction over what counts and what doesn’t?”Daniels quickly posted an explanation for his position on Purdue University’s website. Daniels wrote:

My emails infringed on no one’s academic freedom and proposed absolutely no censorship of any person or viewpoint. In fact, the question I asked on one day in 2010 had nothing to do with higher education at all. I merely wanted to make certain that Howard Zinn’s textbook, which represents a falsified version of history, was not being foisted upon our young people in Indiana’s public K-12 classrooms.

After establishing that serious historians think little of Zinn, he added: “I want to be equally clear that if Howard Zinn had been a professor at Purdue University, I would have vigorously defended his right to publish and teach what he wanted. Academic freedom, however, does not immunize a person from criticism and certainly does not confer entitlement to have one’s work inflicted upon our young people in the K-12 public school system.”

The Reading List

Daniels’ statement was not sufficient for the historians, including 92 professors in various fields teaching at Purdue. Daniels got in touch with Inside Higher Ed’s editors, and told them that he simply did not want his teachers exposed to “falsifications” of history, and that his position had no “implication for academic freedom.” On that, as we learned last week from my PJ Media colleague Roger Kimball, Daniels is also correct.

The historians offer the following arguments. Prof. Robert J. Helfenbein, who teaches something called Urban and Multicultural Education–whatever that might be–says he tries to teach future social studies teachers in high schools “multiple perspectives,” and that even those who disagree with Zinn “see a worth in reading a historian take on this very different perspective.”

Let me pose a hypothetical question to Prof. Helfenbein. If he taught biology and evolution, would he assign a creationist textbook to his students, informing them that the perspective and theory had to be considered, alongside those authors who wrote from a Darwinian perspective? I think we all know the answer. It is the same one given to the claim by Holocaust deniers that their point of view too must be considered. As Prof. Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University has often argued, one should not debate such a purveyor of untruth, and thus give legitimacy and credibility to unscientific and false arguments that have no merit whatsoever. There are no grounds whatsoever that all arguments have to be considered, no matter how many followers, in this case, that Howard Zinn has.

In a separate statement offered by historian Michael Kazin of Georgetown University, who authored his own harsh critique of Zinn–which Daniels actually cited as evidence of how even left-wing historians had disdain for Zinn–Kazin wrote that Daniels “should be roundly condemned for his attempts to stop students from reading Zinn’s big book and for calling Zinn a liar.”  In so doing, Kazin the leftist undermines his own well-known case against Zinn, as he tries to prove that when under attack, “there are no enemies on the Left.”

Zinn Wanted to Change the Future

Daniels was not saying students should not read Zinn’s book–thousands unfortunately do–but only that it was harmful to have his so-called history used as a text particularly in elementary and high schools. Kazin goes on to say that while it is true he does not “think much of Zinn’s interpretation of US history,” it is nevertheless “an interpretation.”

Kazin should know better. Zinn himself believes, as I pointed out in these pages some time ago, that history was not about “understanding the past,” but rather, “about changing the future.” That statement alone should disqualify anyone from ever calling him a historian again.  Yet Kazin then argues that when Daniels says that Zinn is a “biased writer,” it “just shows how little he understands how history is now and has always been written.”

Yes, historians do have a “point of view” that is their starting point for understanding the past. What Zinn does, as his numerous detractors have pointed out, is to create cardboard heroic stick figures as heroes who fought oppression, in order to give today’s radicals the courage to press forward as they identify heroes from the past they can be inspired by. This is not history, but rather old style CP agit-prop. This is hardly surprising, since Zinn was a long-time Communist Party member, who only left its ranks when he felt the CP had become soft and was not extreme enough.

If that is not enough, the American Historical Association, the main organization of U.S. historians, released an official statement that they “consider any governor’s action that interfered with an individual teacher’s reading assignments to be inappropriate and a violation of academic freedom.” They went on to argue that hence they disagree with the “spirit and intent” of Daniel’s actions when he was Governor.

Now, 92 of Daniel’s own faculty have issued an open letter condemning their own University chief official. First, the professors start out with a statement which is easily proven to be completely false. They write: “Whatever their political stripe, most experts in the field of U.S. history do not take issue with Howard Zinn’s facts, even when they do take issue with his conclusions.”

Getting the Rosenbergs Wrong

Let me give one major example, which as readers know, I am most familiar with. In the latest edition of his A People’s History, Zinn writes:

The Rosenbergs were charged with espionage.  The major evidence was supplied by a few people who had already confessed to being spies, and were either in prison or under indictment.

He continues to challenge the credibility of key witness Harry Gold, whom he asks: “Did Gold cooperate in return for early release from prison?” As for Ethel Rosenberg’s brother David Greenglass, the other major witness, Zinn writes: “Did Greenglass…also know that his life depended on his cooperation?” His implication is clear: the key witnesses lied in order to get themselves a good deal. He also repeats the canard that Greenglass was an “ordinary-level machinist” and “not a scientist” who therefore could not give the Soviets anything of value. He suggests, without evidence, that Gold and Greenglass coordinated their testimony while awaiting trial in New York City’s Tombs prison.

First, the Rosenbergs were charged with “conspiracy to commit espionage,” and not espionage. Second, it is clear that Zinn had not even read the book I co-authored, The Rosenberg File, or Allen Hornblum’s The Invisible Harry Gold: The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atom Bomb, or Steven Usdin’s Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley. Had he been even slightly familiar with these books, he would have easily found that much of what he writes in his few pages on the Rosenberg case are factually wrong, as are his scenarios he so fancifully surmises about with any evidence. Indeed, the rest of his paragraphs read like the old Communist propaganda about the case he had learned in the years after the Rosenbergs’ arrest when he was an active CP member. He does not even take into account any of the recent revelations available while he was still alive. His account, in simple terms, is a blatant lie.

Zinn Dodged Soviet Revelations

Indeed, in the edition he published in 2009 for young readers, Zinn went further. By then, he had ample time to catch up with evidence widely available indicating the Rosenbergs’ guilt, starting with the Venona decrypts, that had been released in 1995! Zinn writes in this last volume that came out the year of his death:

Although the evidence against the Rosenbergs was weak, the government executed them as spies. Later investigations proved the case was deeply flawed. But at the time, everything from movies and comic strips to history lessons and newspapers urged Americans to fight communism.

Reading the above, it is clear that Governor Daniels has very good reason to object to young students learning their “facts” and history from Howard Zinn.

Let us return to the Open Letter by some of Purdue’s faculty. They continue to assert that two of the historians whom Daniels cites in opposition to Zinn, the late Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and the late Oscar Handlin, were part of the “consensus” school whose members believed that they had a right to speak for all Americans, and to leave out the oppressed—of which the faculty members provide us with the list, as if we do not know what groups it is composed of.

Next they turn to positive reviews of Zinn, and they cite in particular the endorsement of him by Columbia University’s highly regarded historian, Eric Foner. They do not pause to note, however, that Foner is a bona fide Red Diaper Baby, who as the late Theodore Draper pointed out in a New York Review of Books article about Foner’s own history of the United States, the only group he unreservedly praised without criticism as a force fighting for freedom, was- you guessed it- the American Communist Party. Draper writes:

Foner shows no such enthusiasm for any other organization in all of American history. His evident resolve to rehabilitate American communism derives from a peculiarly truncated version of the Party’s history. Because Foner gives it so much importance, an innocent reader might think that the period of the Popular Front was the most important and characteristic phase of the Party’s history…. In only one brief sentence does Foner allude to spying for the Soviet Union. He writes: “There undoubtedly were Soviet spies in the United States.” In fact, the spies were American Communists who were managed by resident Soviet agents who were not themselves spies…. Anti-Communists come in for something “perilously close” to defamation. … The section on American communism shows Foner at his most tendentious. The problem is not that he favors the American Communists but that he does so unhistorically.

So the reason Foner praises Zinn is because, he, like Zinn, is pro-Communist, considers the United States to be an enemy of freedom, and agrees with Zinn’s falsified history, or to use the old Trotskyist term, “the Stalinist falsification of history.”

Zinn Needed for ‘Critical Thinking’?

The Purdue professors claim, in their conclusion, that they seek to introduce students to “critical thinking,” and that for that esteemed reason, Zinn must be included in any curriculum. Teachers, they say, have the duty to use “controversial scholarship” if they so choose, so that the “conventional wisdom” of past generations can be challenged.

In making that case, they reveal their own limited and false view of what history offers us. History is a way of learning about the past, so that we can understand from what roots we came. It is not a mechanism meant to provide inspiration for leftist agendas, or for that matter, for conservative ones. If conventional wisdom turns out to be accurate, it should not be overturned. In the case of American communism, which both Professor Foner and the late Howard Zinn believe was a force for good in the fight against the would-be oppressors, they might ask whether or not in that case, the conventional wisdom of the time turned out to be more accurate than the revisionist case made by Zinn and Foner.

It is my hope in that his honest and forthright decision to oppose the teaching of Howard Zinn, President Mitch Daniels, Jr. of Purdue University will stand firm, and continue to teach his faculty and the rest of America a real lesson in the true meaning of academic freedom and courage in fighting against the forces of leftist political correctness.

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