Howard Zinn, Mitch Daniels, and Benno Schmidt’s Call for Academic Responsibility

images-1Benno Schmidt, former president of Yale, offers a thoughtful takeaway from the Mitch Daniels-Howard Zinn flair-up in this July 30 editorial. Namely that “Academic freedom is a right and a responsibility. In recent times, the academy has too often been focused on rights and privileges rather than responsibility and accountability.”

The controversy Schmidt addresses has centered around emails that Daniels, the current president of Purdue, sent while he was still Republican governor of Indiana. In a February 2010 message, Daniels wrote, 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.” He then went on to ask, “Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before any more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”

After the Associated Press broke the story earlier this month, 90 Purdue professors singed an open letter critical of Daniels’ blatant critique of Zinn, whose leftist version of American history is still taught in many high school and college classrooms. (As an aside, I have never been assigned to read Zinn at Swarthmore, though I once heard two students fiercely debating the merits of A People’s History by the campus Post Office boxes). In Daniels’ defense, he was addressing the teaching of Zinn in Indiana’s K-12 schools, not Purdue, though he has continued to critique Zinn as Purdue’s president.

As Schmidt writes

Inquiries of this sort about teaching materials are not unusual in the life of a university president. Presidents take such inquiries seriously and follow up to make sure that the curriculum and materials are of the highest quality. Public scrutiny helps institutions fulfill their mission. It rightly keeps institutions on their toes. Academic freedom is faculty’s freedom to teach. But, more important, it is also students’ freedom to learn.

 Schmidt adds that it’s not up to politicians to craft college curricula, but:

nor should faculty be allowed to engage in indoctrination and professional irresponsibility without being held to account. And yet, over the past 50 years, that is essentially what has happened. The greatest threat to academic freedom today is not from outside the academy, but from within. Political correctness and “speech codes” that stifle debate are common on America’s campuses. The assumption seems to be that the purpose of education is to induce correct opinion rather than to search for wisdom and to liberate the mind.

Schmidt then goes on to cite The American Association of University Professors’ 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom. It is worth quoting in full:

If this profession should prove itself unwilling to purge its ranks of the incompetent and unworthy, or to prevent the freedom which it claims . . . from being used as a shelter for inefficiency, for superficiality, or for uncritical and intemperate partisanship, it is certain that the task will be performed by others.

This is in the spirit of the ordered academic liberty worth reviving at Swarthmore.

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