Category Archives: History

The Supposed Deterioration of English

“The common language is disappearing. It is slowly being crushed to death under the weight of verbal conglomerate, a pseudospeech at once both pretentious and feeble, that is created daily by millions of blunders and inaccuracies in grammar, syntax, idiom, metaphor, logic, and common sense …. In the history of modern English there is no period in which such victory over thought-in-speech has been so widespread. Nor in the past has the general idiom, on which we depend for our very understanding of vital matters, been so seriously distorted.”
—A. Tibbets and C. Tibbets, What’s Happening to American English?, 1978


“Recent graduates, including those with university degrees, seem to have no mastery of the language at all. They cannot construct a simple declarative sentence, either orally or in writing. They cannot spell common, everyday words. Punctuation is apparently no longer taught. Grammar is a complete mystery to almost all recent graduates.”
—J. Mersand, Attitudes toward English Teaching, 1961


“From every college in the country goes up the cry, ‘Our freshmen can’t spell, can’t punctuate.’ Every high school is in disrepair because its pupils are so ignorant of the merest rudiments.”
—C. H. Ward, 1917


“The vocabularies of the majority of high-school pupils are amazingly small. I always try to use simple English, and yet I have talked to classes when quite a minority of the pupils did not comprehend more than half of what I said.”
—M. W. Smith, “Methods of Study in English,” 1889


Unless the present progress of change [is] arrested … there can be no doubt that, in another century, the dialect of the Americans will become utterly unintelligible to an Englishman ….
—Captain Thomas Hamilton, 1833


Our language is degenerating very fast.
—James Beattie, 1785

The Big Dipper and Ursa Major Across Time and Cultures


On a given night



With stars labelled
Image by Ken Christison



North American interpretation



Shang-di, aka, the Jade Emperor
Stone carving from the Wuliang Shrine, ca. 150 CE



Starry Plough flag of the Irish Citizen Army, 1914



From Abdul Rahman bin Omar al-Sufi’s Pictures of the forty-eight planets, ca. 950 CE



Egypt, from the tomb of Seti I at the Valley of the Kings, ca. 1280 BCE
Photograph by M. Sanz de Lara



Charles’s Wain, aka Charles’s Wagon, Europe, ca. 1500s CE


From Gaylord Johnson’s The Star People, 1921



As part of Ursa Major, described by Ptolemy ca. 150 CE


From Johann Bayer’s Uranometria, 1603

Quotation Quiz

The folks at goodreads love to pollute the Internet with dubiously-sourced quotes from various people. I looked into 21 of their top quotes to see if the person the quote is ascribed to actually said it or was the first to say it. Click below to see if you know who said what and when.

Lincoln

Continue reading Quotation Quiz

Sagan, 22, “Peddling Without a License”

The fall of 1956 temporarily separated Lynn and Carl. Sagan began work at the University of Chicago’s astronomy school in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. This is the home of the Yerkes Observatory. Completed in 1897, the forty-inch Yerkes refractor was housed in a brick-and-terra-cotta domed building. It was by then a storied relic.

Williams Bay had a population of barely 1,000. For city-bred Sagan, it presented a culture shock. For the first time in his life, Sagan encountered anti-Semitism. He also ran into trouble with the law. He attempted to raise funds for the Democratic Party, asking householders for a dollar each. As Sagan told it,

I spent all morning going door to door. And I got the most amazing responses: “The what party?” or “Shh! the master will hear!” or “Wait right here, young fellow, and I’ll get my shotgun.” Finally I was arrested by the sheriff, who had had innumerable complaints, on the grounds of peddling without a license. They figured I was peddling receipts at a dollar each. And I was remanded to the custody of the observatory director, who I don’t think understood anything about it, but just said to me, “Be a good boy.”

—From the bio Carl Sagan, 1999, by William Poundstone

Latinos and Education in Arizona

Like the rest of the US, Arizona has a serious problem regarding educational attainment gaps between white and Latino students. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, whites in 2015 were 46% proficient in reading by grade 4 and 44% proficient at grade 8; Latinos were 21% proficient at both grade levels with similar disparities present in math.* As with the US generally, Latinos are not the only non-white group to fare poorly in school in Arizona. However, as they comprise 31% of the population, Arizona has one of the country’s largest Latino populations.* Many Latinos have an educational experience different from their non-Latino counterparts in that most (73%) speak a language other than English at home.* Does this explain why Latinos experience worse educational outcomes than whites? Can we do anything to close or narrow these outcome gaps?


Expansion of the United States, Ward et al, 1912

Background on Latinos in the US and Arizona

Arizona’s current proportion of Latinos is relatively high depending on when in the state’s history the comparison is made. In 1930, for example, the state’s Latino population was also roughly 30%. It would fall to closer to 20% from around the 1950s to the 1990s when it began to rise again. However, in 1870, the proportion of Arizonans who were Latino was 60.9%. This high proportion of Latinos stemmed, in part, from the fact that, up to about 1850, most of the Southwest was controlled by the Spanish or by Mexico.*


Hispanic Share of Population by State, 1870-2012, Krogstad and Lopez, 2014

The US granted citizenship to all Mexicans living in territories acquired from Mexico.* By 1900, there were about 500,000 Mexicans living in the US due to labor needs in building the railroad system. Changing economic needs, labor needs, and immigration policies like Operation Wetback influenced the ebb and flow of immigrants across the southern border up to the 1960s. Immigration legislation passed in 1965 led to a surge in Latino immigrants across the country.

Why Arizonans Should Care About Latino Education

People in the US generally might wonder why anyone should care about whether Latinos do well in school. One reason they might care is that most people in the US believe that all people are created equal. In 2015, when asked if they thought that Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that “all men are created equal” is true, 76% of US respondents said that it is.* If people generally begin life on the same footing, it stands to reason that it is largely external forces that prevent them from achieving their full potential. People in the US also generally believe, one, that races are not currently equal and, two, that they should be. A majority of people in the US, 61%, feels that changes are needed to achieve racial equality.*

Arizona also faces the possibility of not being able to meet the needs of the changing job market by not being able to properly educate its large Latino population. According to a report by Georgetown University, by 2020, 68% of jobs in Arizona will require postsecondary education.* Consumer spending is a significant driver of economic growth generally.* In the US, consumer spending makes up two-thirds of the economy.* However, there must also be job growth in order for consumers to have the income to actually spend. If a third of Arizona’s citizens are not well-educated enough to do or qualify to do the jobs that will be available in the near future, they will not generate the income necessary to keep consumer spending up. This will be detrimental to the economic well-being of all Arizonans.

Why Arizona Latinos Are Not Performing as Well as Whites

There are several problems that English Language Learners (ELLs) face that their English-speaking peers do not. One obvious challenge is that they must acquire proficiency close to their peers while they are simultaneously expected to learn the same material, taught in English, as their peers. Given that a proportion of a given group of English-speaking students will struggle with course materials in their native language, the challenge for ELL students is even greater. ELLs do especially poorly in Arizona. According to Department of Education data, Arizona’s rate of graduating ELLs (18% compared to 75.7% for the general population) is the worst in the country.* By contrast, California, which has a similar composition of ELL students, graduated 65% during the same period.*


English Language Learners Versus Total Graduation Rate, Sanchez, 2017

Another major influencer of student success is parental education. More than 65% of Latino adults in Arizona have no educational experience outside of high school.* In a longitudinal study by Dubow, Boxer, and Huesmann, published in 2009, the researchers followed 856 third-graders over a 40-year timespan. They found that their parents’ educational attainment level significantly predicted their child’s educational and occupational success at age 48. The researchers note that lower educational attainment in adults is associated with a host of negative child development outcomes stemming from such phenomena as greater parental stress.*

One other major influencer is poverty rate. Data from the US Census Bureau show a strong correlation between poverty and educational outcomes in the US.* According to those data, 28.9% of people aged 25 and older in 2014 without a high school diploma were living in poverty. This poverty rate is reduced by half (to 14.2%) for those with a high school diploma but with no college.* Given the strong association between poverty and lack of education, it is not surprising that both would impact Spanish-speaking immigrants the hardest. As a group, they are already more likely to be poor as a disproportionate number are more recent immigrants, and such immigrants typically do not leave their home country if they are already financially well-off.


US Census Bureau, 2014

Possible Solutions

In a 2012 report by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development of Victoria and the University of Melbourne, researchers noted the strong impact of reading to children on improving educational outcomes. They found that reading to kids 4–5 years old 3–5 days per week has the same effect on the child’s reading skills as being 6 months older. They also found that increasing the number of readings to 6–7 days per week had the same effect as the child being nearly 12 months older.* This may present a special challenge for parents who speak Spanish only as, one, they may be disinclined to read to their kids in Spanish for fear of worsening their English attainment, and, two, they may be right to fear doing so. One way to overcome this might be to expose children to reading while they are at school or to make children’s books in audio form more widely available to them.

Milem, Salazar, and Bryan reported in 2016 on findings by the Arizona Minority Education Policy Analysis Center suggesting strategies for improving educational outcomes for English Language Learners in Arizona generally. One recommendation they give is to examine entrance requirements that grant or deny access to ELL services.* The nonpartisan Arizona education analysis organization Center for Student Achievement wrote in 2016 that the precipitous drop in Arizona students being classified as ELL is probably due to too-generous proficiency tests more than to actual proficiency. However, it is difficult to know for sure as data on students reclassified as fluent in English are not readily available.*

In 2000, Arizona’s Proposition 203 was passed, requiring a statewide abolition of bilingual education in favor of Structured English Immersion (SEI).* The proposition stipulates that students are expected to learn English within 1 year.* Prior to implementation, opponents argued that this was, one, an unrealistically short amount of time, and, two, would result in years of cumulatively incomprehensible classroom education.* A 2000 study by Hakuta, Butler, and Witt supports that contention. They found that the time to achieve oral English proficiency is roughly 3–5 years while academic proficiency takes 4–7 years.* These writers suggested that, within the time available during formal school hours, it might be impossible for ELL students to keep up with their peers. They suggest that summer and after-school programs might be needed.*

The Near Future

The evidence is overwhelming that educational attainment among Arizona’s Latinos is a serious issue that will have far-reaching impacts on the state’s economy and on people of all racial and national origins. Although Arizona’s Latinos experience high rates of poverty and, to a much larger degree, have the extra barrier of language, there are, nevertheless, ways that the gap can be closed. However, as this process will take years to show progress, and time has already been lost by not taking the issue seriously enough, Arizona’s leadership will have to work diligently to help its inhabitants prosper in the coming years and decades.

Ona Judge

George Washington and the Slave Who Got Away – History in the Headlines

As America’s most beloved founding father, George Washington has long been credited with having a relatively enlightened outlook on the issue of slavery. Most famously, when he died in 1799, the former president freed all 123 slaves he owned in his will.

As America’s most beloved founding father, George Washington has long been credited with having a relatively enlightened outlook on the issue of slavery. Most famously, when he died in 1799, the former president freed all 123 slaves he owned in his will. But Washington notably did not free the 153 slaves owned by his wife, all of whom remained the property of her inheritors when she died. Three years earlier, one of Martha Washington’s slaves, Ona Judge, had liberated herself, slipping out of the Executive Mansion in Philadelphia and onto a ship bound for Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Though Washington soon tracked her down and tried to get her back, Judge eluded his efforts, and would live out the rest of her days in freedom. She is featured in a new exhibition at Washington’s Virginia estate, Mount Vernon, and is the subject of a new biography published this week.

US Holocaust Museum Poster Gets Patron “Shook”


I’ve been seeing this post floating around a lot lately. I was curious about the origins, so I called the Holocaust Museum. I got transferred to a guy named Luke who I think was in “exhibitions.” I asked if this was still on exhibit. He said it was never on exhibit, but that it was available in the gift shop. He then said that it was no longer being sold in the gift shop. I hadn’t realized the price tag on some of the images. Of course, there it is!

Turns out the list comes from a gentleperson named Laurence W. Britt who fleshed out these points in a March 2003 issue of Free Inquiry magazine. The full text appears to be included here. Britt is referred to there as a political scientist, but there doesn’t appear to be anything available on the web to suggest that he’s more than an aficionado.

He wrote the op-ed in the context of the Bush administration. Here’s the conclusion of an interview he gave to a Rochester paper in December 2004 (worth a read, I’d say):

City: Looking at the world right now, do you consider the US a fascist state?

Britt: No. By definition it’s a democracy. My article is a cautionary tale. This is what I’ve researched; this is what I’ve seen; this is what’s happened in the past. You can draw your own conclusions: No, this has nothing to do with the United States; or, there are some disquieting trends here that we certainly have to be aware of, and the powers that be exhibit many of these characteristics, and we’d better damn well be careful.

One thing I’d add is that most of these attributes would probably be ascribed to the other side by people of any political persuasion who felt disenfranchised to some degree.

Ultimately, I think US politics wastes far too much energy on political maneuvering and expends far too little on governance. If you’re devoting any energy whatsoever to trying to personally discredit an opponent by whatever means available, then you’re wasting energy that should be used on trying to make the city, state, country, and world better.

I think the answer is to let AI run things. We’ve trusted humans with government for far, far too long. Experts from relevant fields should reach a consensus on various policies and these policies should be implemented by computers. The computers should be overseen by other computers. Those computers should be overseen by technicians who have no idea what the computers do so that they cannot consciously or unconsciously influence their functioning.

Humans simply should not be allowed anywhere near the government. We can’t handle it. Maybe in a world where every person undergoes at least two decades of rigorous critical thinking education humans stood a chance. This isn’t that world.