I want to say that the efforts by Mitch Daniels to abridge academic freedom are a massive embarrassment for our university, a clear indication of his dedication to advancing his conservative ideology from his position as president, and a terrible warning about what he intends to do in his tenure. Even if he has not attempted to forbid the teaching of any particular text on campus, a sitting president singling out a particular text and scholar as uniquely disqualified or biased sets a terrible precedent. The incident is also an indication of the obsequious board of trustees at Purdue, an unaccountable group of individuals who have demonstrated consistent contempt for the actual educators in the university and who have always had a major conflict of interest in their relationship with Daniels.
Because of this controversy, I will be incorporating a selection from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States into my fall syllabus. Not to be read with credulity or uncritically; not to advance a particular ideological position; not because the text comports with my politics. I’ll be assigning it instead because being exposed to a large number of viewpoints and perspectives, including those you find wrong or offensive, is an absolute bedrock aspect of an effective education. I’ll be assigning it because the very purpose of education is to expand your perspective, a process that is very often uncomfortable, and that should be uncomfortable. That’s why, in the Fall of 2012, I had my students watch campaign videos for both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney– neither of whom, by the way, I voted for. It’s why I have many times assigned a pro-war speech by Woodrow Wilson, despite my disagreements and despite the fact that I believe Woodrow Wilson was one of the worst of all American presidents. Students and instructors have the right to maintain our own beliefs; we have no right to not have those beliefs challenged.
I expect my students to read our Zinn selection critically and skeptically, and will encourage them to do so. But I also will expect them to read it with an open mind, not to shut out his arguments or his evidence because he may not fit with their ideological preconceptions. I would ask the same of students reading William F. Buckley. By asking them to maintain a balance between skepticism and credulity, and by relying on them to make up their own minds, I can best position themselves to develop their skills in close reading and critical thinking. That opportunity is precisely what those who would censor controversial works deny to our students, and is why we must maintain a fierce commitment to academic freedom on our campuses, in the face of pressure from powerful elites.