Doing research a few years ago, education historian Ravitch rediscovered McGuffey's and Sanders' Readers—the 19th-century anthologies of American speeches, essays and poems that used to be basic texts for U.S. schoolchildren. Impressed by the freshness of the original voices, Ravitch put together a new reader that would add overlooked writings by women, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Indians and other minorities.
The 200-plus selections—organized from "Colonial Days" to "Contemporary Times"—are fascinating. The classic texts are here: the Mayflower Compact, Washington's Farewell Address, Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death!" speech, Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience," Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream."
But the less-known pieces are equally—if not more—moving. "Chief Logan's Lament" is a letter the Mingo Indians' chief wrote to the Royal Governor of Virginia in 1774, after soldiers massacred his family. ("Who is there to mourn for Logan? Not one.") Black abolitionist David Walker's "Appeal." an antislavery essay written in 1829, was so inflammatory, Ravitch writes, that it led some southern states to make it illegal to teach slaves to read and write.
Ravitch says in her introduction that the paucity of eloquence in recent days made it hard to find contemporary selections. Still, she came up with such inspiring pieces as San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milks plea to revitalize urban neighborhoods and Ronald Reagan's poetic 1988 speech at Moscow State University linking freedom to the technological revolution.
Some may see The American Reader as a dressed-up version of the Anglocentric curriculum whose relevance is under attack. But Ravitch has at least refocused our attention on the moving force of words. Even in the age of the sound bite, Ravitch says, "Language will continue to be indispensable for intelligent communication....No matter how powerful the technology of the future, we will still rely on the power of words and ideas....Those who can command them will be enabled to affect the world." (HarperCollins, $35)