Book banning, objectivity central to talk given by David Detmer

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By: BRENDAN MCDANIEL
Staff Writer

Book banning is generally a dangerous practice. While it is important to be aware of potentially controversial or objectionable content that enters print, the act of having a government official or agency attempting to prevent its existence draws close to overstepping the right to freedom of expression granted by the Constitution. This is a portion of the focus of David Detmer, professor of Philosophy at Purdue University Northwest, brings in his book “Zinnophobia: The Battle Over History in Education, Politics, and Scholarship,” and in the talk he gave at IU South Bend on Tuesday, Oct. 23.

Detmer took a closer look at a situation involving a book written by Howard Zinn, who passed in 2010, titled “A People’s History of the United States.” In 2013, then-Governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels was willing to assume the risk of controversy when leaked emails showed that he had attempted to remove the book from use in Indiana schools.

This book, Daniels said in the emails, would lead to “young people [being] force-fed a totally false version of our history,” claiming that it “misstates American history on every page.” But was Daniels actually correct in his assessment of the book’s merit?

Detmer’s book, “Zinnophobia: The Battle Over History in Education, Politics, and Scholarship” was released last month near the end of National Banned Books Week. It examined criticisms leveled against Zinn’s book and its author which informed Governor Daniels, who is incidentally now President of Purdue University, in his fears.

Detmer argues that many of these criticisms were wholly lacking in merit, being based not in objection to Zinn’s abilities as a historian, but in the way in which he handled the retelling of American history in his book. Many critics had “demonstrable falsehoods,” Detmer claimed, in their critiques, which Detmer himself would grade as “below freshman C-” level. In one example, Detmer cites historian Professor Sean Wilentz of Princeton University, who says “Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. You wouldn’t know that from Howard Zinn.”

While the underlying point of Wilentz’s objection holds some water, in that Zinn’s book puts more emphasis on wider cultural behaviors than it does the actions of single individuals, the statement itself is still factually incorrect. Detmer, after showing Wilentz’s statements, proceeded to outline in the text of “A People’s History of the United States” exactly where Zinn writes that “Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.”

The mistaken criticisms, Detmer said, were a result of lazy or incorrectly done critique. Much as there are rules and conventions regarding how to write a book, there are rules and conventions regarding how to analyze one as well. Detmer found numerous technical and logical errors in the works he examined, including but by no means limited to logical fallacies, unsupported assertions, incorrect paraphrasing, misuse of keywords and important terms, misquoting, and so on; errors which are commonly addressed during high school level English classes. Detmer theorizes that much of the criticism and opposition to Zinn’s work comes from an objection to Zinn’s approach to writing history.

In academic writing, there are a number of “ultimate value” conventions, that are assumed to be positives without the need for being proven. These are ideals such as objectivity, academic voice and aligning with established records. Zinn frequently either rejected the methods, if not the motives, of these ideals, or interpreted the ideals in his own way. Zinn’s personal opinions on topics were allowed to be evident in his writings as his own approach to historical objectivity differed from the established understanding, being that to be objective is to either have no opinion on a subject or to form an opinion by taking the middle ground between opposing viewpoints, and he would instead “follow the evidence where it goes,” as Detmer described it. Zinn’s work was, and to an extent still is, highly divisive among academics even after his death. This is the difficulty with books challenged for banning; few are universally recognized as objectionable, and for every person demanding for its removal may be another demanding its continued use as an educational tool. The attempts of Former Governor Daniels to remove the book were met by personal accounts of people who enjoyed “A People’s History of the United States” as a tool in their studies, and his campaign against it eventually died out in the end.

Detmer’s visit was sponsored by the IU South Bend department of Labor Studies, as well as the Civil Rights Heritage Center and the English department.

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