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The Battle Over History and Howard Zinn

Photograph Source Slobodandimitrov | CC BY 2.0

It is rare to get an intelligent, well-sourced and coherent discussion of issues today such as the role of history in education, politics and scholarship, but David Detmer of Purdue University Northwest has provided such with his new book, Zinnophobia: The Battle over History in Education, Politics and Scholarship.  Detmer has very carefully dismembered much of the right wing’s “intellectual” assault on critical scholarship.

Dr. Detmer, Professor of Philosophy, has used the attack on the historical work of the late Howard Zinn as his entrée to the discussion. And Detmer starts close to home, discussing then-Indiana governor and current President of Purdue University, Mitch Daniels’, efforts to ensure that Zinn’s work not be allowed in any Indiana classroom.  In February 2010, while governor, Daniels sent e-mails to several subordinates, “to make sure that a book he did not like, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United Stateswould not be ‘in use anywhere in Indiana’” (p. 17).  Detmer used e-mails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act by the Associated Press (AP) to examine Daniels’ deplorable behavior.

Daniels’ problem with Zinn?  The heart of it, from a Daniels’ e-mail, “It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page” (18).

Once the e-mails were published by the AP, Daniels and members of his administration tried to mitigate the ensuing controversy by trying obfuscation.  To divert the attention on his efforts, Daniels referred to “Respected scholars and communicators of all ideologies agree that the work of Howard Zinn was irredeemably slanted, and unsuited for teaching to school children” (19).

Detmer has none of it:  he carefully discusses the charges and countercharges and, in this book, also examines the work of his critics, both those Daniels relies on as well as others, to examine the quality of right-wing commentary on Zinn’s thinking and his research.

He starts with Daniels:  “Notice, first, that in the initial emails, Daniels offers no evidence, argument or reasoning of any kind in support or his harsh judgment of Zinn’s work.  Nor does he engage Zinn’s text—no page numbers or specific claims or analyses are cited.”  Obviously, Detmer is not impressed:  “we demand much more of our freshman students in the papers they write for our introductory courses” (21).

Daniels will probably not get this, as the current President of Purdue University has no academic qualifications to even be appointed into this position; as Detmer notes, “[Daniels] did not have a Ph.D. or comparable research degree; he had no teaching experience; and he had never published any peer reviewed scholarly research.”  However, Daniels had an advantage with those who hired him:  “the trustees [of Purdue University] owed their own positions as trustees to him—as governor, he had appointed eight of them to the Board of Trustees, and had re-appointed the other two” (17)  But despite whatever he’s learned since becoming Purdue’s president in January 2013, it is difficult to imagine a more damning condemnation from a Faculty member, comparing Daniels’ work unfavorably to that required of freshman students in an introductory course.

Yet, as Detmer shows again and again in his consideration of Zinn’s esteemed critics—and he respectfully examines and then dissects the work of 25 of them—most of them don’t meet the standards required of Freshman students either:  so Daniels is not alone, as the people upon whom Daniels relies on in his vain effort to discredit Zinn also do an incompetent job when discussing Zinn and his work.

One can have fun reading Detmer’s intellectual devastation of Zinn’s critics—I especially appreciated his dismembering of David Horowitz’ supposed “scholarship” (pp. 271-308)—but, for me the meat of the book is in the second chapter, “Bias and Objectively in History,” where Detmer discusses Zinn’s personal and intellectual history, and his approaches to history.  This is an area where Zinn has been criticized.  Detmer explains:

Generally, the idea of ‘objectivity’ has to do with carrying out activities such as thinking and writing (activities that are subjective in the sense that they are done by subjects—that is, by humans, who have feelings, attributes, desires and biases) in a manner that is maximally faithful to the external objects with which those activities deal.  Objectivity in this sense, is most likely to be achieved when one’s conclusions are based on precise measurements, careful observations, and rigorously logical appraisals of relevant evidence—in short, on a maximally attentive and responsive engagement with the object being investigated (115-116).

While beginning here, Detmer continues, “But the tasks of the historian are very different from those of the tennis line judge, and Zinn argues that objectivity-as-neutrality is neither possible nor desirable for historians.”  He elucidates, “First, historians, unlike tennis line judges, must make decisions about what to include, what to exclude, and what to emphasize” (117).  These choices, accordingly, are based on each historian’s personal values about what is interesting or not, what is important or illuminating.

Secondly, society at any time is moving in some direction, and one can accept, acquiesce to or reject that direction.  Refusing to take sides, according to Detmer’s take on Zinn, is that “the decision to refrain from taking sides does not constitute genuine neutrality, but rather acquiescence to the status quo” (118).

After discussing this, Detmer returns to Daniels:  “We are now in a position to appreciate the jaw-dropping depths of Mitch Daniels’ intellectual dishonesty, in asserting, without any kind of explanation or qualification, that Zinn simply rejected objectivity disdainfully…” (126).  As Detmer explains, Zinn believed that “all of these tools of good scholarship,” which he had previously identified as accuracy, careful observations, precision or intellectual rigor and related efforts, “should be brought to bear on pressing social problems, even if scholarly engagement with such problems might require scholars to take sides on controversial issues” (127).  So, contrary to Daniels’ ideological assertion, Zinn’s work was thoughtful, very seriously researched, and based on serious consideration of evidence that both supported and challenged his own thinking: Howard Zinn and his work deserve respectful appreciation.

At first, however, I was critical of Detmer’s approach to Zinn’s many critics in this book, feeling like it was “overkill”; I would have suggested that he pick out three or four of the most cogent critiques and rigorously examine them—there’s no reason to have examined 25 different critics. Considering the time and energy it took Detmer to do such rigorous examination of the different critics, I can imagine him having much better things to do with his time.  Yet, in reviewing his book, I came to realize that Detmer’s target was more than just Mitch Daniels, or even these critics:  Detmer’s project was to challenge what passes for all-too-many people the cogency of current right-wing thinking in this country, whether in or out of the academy.  To say Detmer “struck gold” would be an understatement, as this book is a very closely researched and well-thought out examination of its subject in various manifestations.

In short, I think it’s fair to say that David Detmer has not only successfully defended Howard Zinn and his work, but assertively embraced Zinn’s approach to historical work.  He certainly has embraced critical thinking and sober reflection over the ideological blatherings of Zinn’s critics and their ilk.  This approach is relevant to much more than a former governor of the State of Indiana, but arguably, should be extended to the current inhabitant of the Oval Office.

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Kim Scipes is a long-time political activist and trade unionist.  He teaches sociology at Purdue University Northwest in Westville, Indiana.  His latest book is an edited collection titled Building Global Labor Solidarity in a Time of Accelerating Globalization.  (Chicago:  Haymarket Books, 2016.)

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