In 1944, when I was a 16-year-old high school student in Missouri who had writing ambitions, I went to the library to check out a book, “Ten Days That Shook the World.” My writing coach said it was well-written. (It’s still on some top 10 best-written lists.) Its American author John Reed had gone to Russia in 1917 to cover the revolution.
It was in the card file but not on the shelf, so I asked at the desk if I could reserve it — get a call when it was returned so I could come check it out.
“What do you want with it?” the lady at the desk asked.
“I want to read it,” I said. (What else? Swat flies with it?)
Then the longtime library director asked me the same question, and I gave her the same answer. She said it wasn’t on the “public” book shelves. They’d stored it away, but after some hemming and hawing, she gave me the OK.
Interesting. Why did I need personal permission to read something? My assumption has always been that she wanted to protect young, little me from turning communist.
And that makes me wonder if she had ever read the book. To anyone who grows up in a democracy, that book is a “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie. Reed narrates how revolutionary leaders were knifing each other figuratively, and their cohorts on the streets were doing it literally. Peasants who dared to protest their own hunger and suffering were mowed down by soldiers. When it came to caring about the Russian people, the revolutionaries were no better than Czar Nicholas’ court. Communist Lenin conspired against and annihilated democratic Kerensky; Trotsky had to flee to Mexico to save his life, which didn’t work, because a secret agent sneaked into Mexico and killed him. Meanwhile, lurking somewhere in the background was a violent college student who had just changed his name to Josef Stalin.
Shocking! As one who was growing up in a truly free place where my life and non-criminal choices were treated with respect, I knew I’d never be a Communist.
There’s another interesting angle to this incident. The library director was a longtime card-carrying member of the American Socialist Party. Her party was as valid as the Democrats and Republicans. As long as she did nothing traitorous or seditious, nor advocated that others do these things, she was legal.
Now comes ex-Gov. Mitch Daniels, who thinks that Howard Zinn’s 1980 book “People’s History of the United States” is “crap” and should be removed from a Purdue University class’s suggested reading list. Instead, he thinks the students should be reading Reagan cabinet member Bill Bennett’s book on public education, “The Last Best Hope.”
Well, here’s my crazy idea: How about Purdue students reading both of them? In a democracy you can find every opinion, because we don’t practice what Daniels is proposing: Censorship. Ergo, you’re going to (supposed to, anyway) respect every opinion whether you agree with it or not. And you’re going to respect the ability of most college students — observant, speculative, young adults — to decide for themselves. They’re preparing for a lifetime of independent thinking and discussion, just as the authors of the U. S. Constitution wanted them to.
When I was studying journalism in Missouri long ago, the university encouraged us to take courses all over the campus on many subjects. In our careers we’d write about everything on earth and authentically present all points of view whether we agreed with them or not.
Now if Purdue has a Modern Germany history class, Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” may be on the suggested reading list. It was when I want to college, and none of us in that class started wearing Nazi armbands.
In short, Daniels insulted American college students’ intelligence. Ironically, he also may have gotten Zinn’s book back on the “best seller” list. Daniels’ comments got full coverage in all varieties of the American news media. Hooray for press freedom. Maybe even more free Americans will go to a free library and check out that book.
Naturally. Decide for themselves. That’s how this country rolls.