INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — When former Gov. Mitch Daniels was pushing to keep liberal historian Howard Zinn's readings out of Indiana classrooms three years ago, he had a definite idea of what should be there instead: conservative education leader Bill Bennett's review of American history.
News that the new Purdue University president tried to have Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" kept from classrooms has sparked a surge in demand for the 1980 book at Indiana libraries. It also put Daniels on the defensive over the past month, drawing condemnations from academics nationwide and having him reiterate his support for academic freedom in higher education even as he is steadfast in his belief that Zinn is wrong for lower grades.
Emails obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request show Bill Bennett had much more favor among Daniels and his advisers. In January 2010, when Daniels discovered the board of education had changed the state's textbook rules to allow Bennett's book, he quickly asked how soon his advisers could get copies of "The Last Best Hope" in classrooms.
"This is excellent to hear ... now someone make my day and tell me that his book is becoming the textbook of choice in our state and I'll buy beers for everyone," he wrote in a Jan. 27, 2010, email to then-schools chief Tony Bennett, Bennett's former chief of staff, Todd Huston, and David Shane, a longtime Daniels colleague, Republican donor and school board member.
Bill Bennett has a strong national following, dating from his time as Ronald Reagan's education secretary. And he's been an incredibly popular figure in Daniels' circle of education reformers. Last summer, Tony Bennett looked to national donor Jerry Slusser to fly Bennett to a fundraiser in Jeffersonville.
"I just spoke to Bill Bennett, and he would be happy to come to Jeff to do our reception after the golf outing. We will need to get him here and home (he will be in NC prior to our event). I was wondering if we should see if Jerry Slusser can fly him here and back to DC," the schools chief wrote on June 15, 2012, in an email to his chief fundraiser, Julie Southworth.
She replied that getting Slusser to fly Bill Bennett to the Aug. 14 fundraiser shouldn't be a problem. Slusser, a Republican donor charged $600,000 by federal regulators for defrauding German investors in the late '90s, owns an aviation company.
A little more than a week after Daniels asked how to get Bill Bennett's texts in schools, he wrote an exchange dubbing Zinn "anti-American" and looked for ways to "disqualify the propaganda" he said was being used in teacher preparation courses.
Daniels declined comment for this story. He told WLFI-TV last week that he never meant to trample anyone's academic freedom. He declined to answer questions about Tony Bennett's resignation as Florida schools chief following an Associated Press report showing Bennett and his staff changed Indiana's school grading formula to benefit a charter school run by a prominent Republican donor.
At a glance, history texts, known as much for their dry and plodding language as the broad strokes used to recount the past, might not seem ripe for political warring. But Sam Wineburg, a Stanford University professor who trains history teachers, said there have always been fights over whose version of history is taught to students.
"Textbooks are important not because kids learn anything from them, but it our nation's public record, our 'official' history," Wineburg wrote in an email.
Wineburg has been critical of Zinn for misrepresenting certain key events in American history , but he has also lambasted Daniels for misrepresenting his statements in the days after the 2010 emails were first released last month.
The answer, as he pointed in a 2007 Education Week piece, would ideally be ditching history texts altogether, because they inherently present a biased view of history. But, given that most teachers have very little in the way of education supplies to begin with, critically analyzing the textbooks they have is the more practical answer.
If Zinn's book were taught alongside Bill Bennett's, perhaps they would both get proper scrutiny in that model.
Emails from Mitch Daniels and Tony Bennett: http://apne.ws/13FJVza and http://apne.ws/16ty1hv Follow Tom LoBianco on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tomlobianco