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Alaskan Range: Textbook Publishers

Greg Hill puts in a passionate plea for the freedom to express unwelcomed ideas and facts.

A Houston Chronicle editorial disparaged the decision of the Texas State Board of Education to remove mention of Thomas Jefferson from its history books. Texas is a huge market for textbook publishers since every public school in Texas uses the same set of schoolbooks.

The Chronicle editor acknowledges that the Board of Education traditionally “has fallen somewhere between ‘embarrassment’ and ‘disgrace.’ But lately it’s reached a new low” by removing references to Jefferson because of his belief in the freedom of religion. “We are a democracy, not a theocracy; a live-and-let-live country where we’re all free to worship as we choose. It’s a crucial idea, and one that separates Texas from the Taliban.”

Historian Howard Zinn must be spinning in his grave. Zinn, who died last January, was a Harvard professor mostly known for writing “A People’s History of the United States,” a history book that looks at events from the workingperson’s perspective, rather than the ruling elites’. Three weeks before World War II ended in Europe, Zinn was a lead bombardier in a raid on Royan, a small town in Western France where some German soldiers were hiding. It was the first time napalm was dropped by the U.S. planes, and over 1,000 French civilians were killed, although the official histories reported that only five died.

Zinn went back to Royan after the war, interviewed survivors and saw the death roles in the local papers, and came way determined to show what history is like to the common man. Over a million copies of “People’s History” have been sold, but with such a radical approach, critical reviews have been quite mixed. As Christopher Phelps wrote in “The Chronicle of Higher Education,” “Professional historians have often viewed Zinn’s work with exasperation or condescension, and Zinn was no innocent in the dynamic … The critics would be churlish, however, not to acknowledge the moving example Zinn set in the civil-rights and Vietnam moments, and they would be remiss not to note the value of “A People’s History,” along with its limitations. Zinn told tales that, while familiar to historians, often remained unknown to wider audiences.”

Some people enjoy telling the rest of us what’s what. The word “boss” is an Americanism from “baas,” an old Dutch word for a ship’s captain. It came to mean “overseer” here, and, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the popularity of “boss” in the U.S. “may reflect egalitarian avoidance of master as well as the need to distinguish slave from labor.” The verb “to boss” has been traced to 1856, and “The slang adjective meaning ‘excellent’ is recorded in 1880s, revived, apparently independently, in teen and jazz slang in the 1950s.”

The industrialization and urbanization in the latter 1800s contributed to the rage for self-improvement that swept Britain and the U.S then. Since college education was prohibitively expensive, and increasing numbers of people wanted the benefits of advanced education, the free public library movement was launched as “the People’s University.” Public libraries remain educational bastions, for education doesn’t start in kindergarten nor end with high school; it’s lifelong.

That’s why Ambrose Bierce wrote “Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults,” a collection of writing dos and don’ts, in 1909. Bierce was an editor most of his life, and, being self-educated himself, he was more persnickety than the strictest grammarian when it came to using words correctly. For example, the word “dirt,” instead of “earth,” is “A most disagreeable Americanism,” “squirt” instead of “spurt” was “Absurd,” and saying you “run” a business, instead of “manage,” is “Vulgar – hardly better than slang.”

Bierce’s mentor was James Watkins, another newspaper editor, who had him read Voltaire, Thackery, Shakespeare, and other traditional literary lions. Consequently, Bierce’s taste in propriety reflected the older, established styles, and the constant stream of new words into the English language gave him fits. His furor was futile, however, because today most of his stylistic prohibitions have become common usage.

You can read it at your public library, along with Zinn’s and Jefferson’s works. As the latter noted, “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”


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