Asking the Wrong Questions

‘NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.’

These opening lines of Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times came to mind recently when I read an opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education  written by Peter Wood, the President of the National Association of Scholars. The piece related to the recent news that, when he was governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels (now president of Purdue University) had an email exchange questioning the use of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States in Indiana schools, which Daniels reportedly described as “anti-factual” and a fraud, in his less colorful moments. In his commentary, Woods argued that Daniels was correct in questioning the worth of Zinn’s tome, pointing to a range of reviews of the work from historians teaching at prestigious universities that critiqued Zinn’s construction of his narrative.

Woods, though, failed to question Daniels’ sense of pedagogy. If Zinn’s book presents a biased narrative, Woods and Daniels suggest, then the book should not be used. Woods asserts that using it is “academic malfeasance” for teaching “that Zinn’s book is reputable history.” His assertion assumes that the books used in a course are simply accepted as the final authority. They present the Facts that are poured into the “little pitchers,” as Thomas Gradgrind refers to his students in Hard Times.

For many educators, though, selected texts do not simply provide the facts. Texts provide an opening to discuss issues of representations. Zinn’s work, which self-reflexively acknowledges that his narrative is his own construction, could be employed with great skill to teach students, including educators taking professional development courses, to critique not only the traditional narratives of US history but also Zinn’s own narrative and each student’s individual assumptions. To emphasize the importance of training students to critique narratives as interpretations,” Jonathan Z. Smith quotes John Robert Seeley, a late nineteenth century educational reformer at Cambridge University, who told students “In history, everything depends on turning narrative into problems” (“Narratives into Problems” JAAR 56 (4): 729).

Sadly, it is not surprising that a politician (and university president) holds a view of pedagogy closer to the notion of education that Dickens portrayed negatively in the mid-1800’s than the techniques that Seeley, Smith, and many of us employ in educational institutions of all levels.

8 Replies to “Asking the Wrong Questions”

  1. So what was the pedagogical role of the disparaged Zinn history in the Indiana schools, which got Daniels (and Woods) so riled up?

    1. That is a good question. The point is that they don’t appear to ask what the pedagogical role was. They assumed that using the text means complete acceptance of the text. The role of a politician in policing pedagogical roles is an entirely different question.

      1. I completely agree that a politician policing pedagogy is distasteful, and that Daniels has shown hypocrisy in his various roles in this story. However, perhaps Daniels knew the answer to my question and that motivated his actions? I think it is a mistake to simply question the actions without understanding (or attempting to understand) his motivations.

        1. I teach history. I use Zinn’s text. In Indiana.

          I can assure you the ex-governor knows absolutely nothing about how I use the text.

          If you contemplate the magnitude of the task in gathering such data across the entire state, you can also be assured he knows nothing about how teachers in the aggregate use it, either.

          And, if you read his comments, it seems pretty clear he’s never read Howard Zinn, and knows little about American history, period.

          1. Charlie, I appreciate your point of view. Could you please help elucidate (briefly) how Zinn’s text is featured into your pedagogy? I think it could be helpful to analyze a successful counter example to Daniel’s ignorant approach to its use. Kudos for bringing a primary source to this case study.

        2. I constructed my narrative (which, of course, is an interpretive act open to critique) based on quotes from the emails from Daniels. The AP quoted him emailing, “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 our history” The question about it being in use does not, in my reading, suggest knowledge or interest in the pedagogical approach. Viewing students as being “force-fed” a version of history furthers my sense that he views pedagogy like Gradgrind, pouring facts into empty vessels.

          1. Good thing to note, that the AP quote is a complete record of the relevant facts.

  2. I read “A People’s History” when I was in high school. But I wouldn’t recommend it to someone interested in social history. Instead, I would find an introductory book with primary documents and put that in my interlocutor’s hand. If we on the left seek historians to claim as our own in a shared intellectual vocation, we may opt for the company of a E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawn, David Montgomery, Lizabeth Cohen, Robin D.G. Kelley and many others. “A People’s History” represents an important historical moment, but it is not a work of serious scholarship. However much I like Zinn’s politics, I can’t disabuse myself of the notion that his book exemplifies shoddy historical work.

    I also believe, as an amateur myself, that we need more lay historians of the likes of C.L.R. James. But I don’t think Zinn is in league with autodidacts and insurgent left historians, setting aside the rightfully derided vulgar empiricism with which you open the blog post. As for the question of politicians deciding what gets taught, I heartily disagree with that dogmatic assertion of power and authority. It’s the task of the historian/teacher–not power brokers entrenched in the state– to determine what texts best illuminate social meaning and rouse their students from passive consumption to an active posture of critical reflection.

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