Policing The Language

, Anna M. Frederick, Leave a comment

In her book The Language Police, Diane Ravitch opens our eyes to the world behind school textbooks, a world ruled by censorship and dictated by the demands of interest groups.

Textbooks have changed tremendously in the past 50 years, and rightly so, since our society has changed tremendously as well. Women have become fixtures in almost every industry imaginable. Barriers between races have fallen and our society is truly a mixture of every kind of person – every age, race, sex, culture, hair color.

It is these everyday differences that are omitted from our children’s textbooks. Censorship has become the rule. In efforts to make sure our children see men and women of all different races living in the new roles they occupy, all references to traditional roles are discarded. Textbook publishers have an elaborate protocol of self-censorship, each with its own list of bias guidelines followed to keep the different pressure groups at bay. Passages, pictures, stories and words are removed in efforts to avoid offending someone, sometimes at the price of dumbing down history and making our children miss out on hearing traditional stories. But who are the publishers trying not to offend with their adherence to these guidelines, the children or the interest groups?

More often than not, the publishers are the victims of the state textbook adoption process. In The Language Police, we learn that almost half of the states in our country buy textbooks for their schools, and securing those contracts is incredibly important to publishers. “Publishers whose textbooks do not get adopted in one of the states sustain an economic blow and must struggle to sell their books to smaller states and individual districts,” explains Ravitch, a former assistant education secretary under George H.W. Bush and now a research professor of education at New York University.

This state textbook adoption process squeezes smaller publishers out of the game because they cannot always afford what’s involved in ridding their books of offensive content— the consultants, the reviews by multi-cultural committees, the hours of searching for appropriate passages for their books.

According to the guidelines, the following are examples of ways girls should not be depicted: as peaceful, emotional, warm, dependent, passive, cooperative, indecisive, nagging, gentle, illogical, silly, frightened, neat, or short. Boys, on the other hand, can not be portrayed as athletic, independent, adventurous, angry, intelligent, curious, logical, quiet, easygoing, or able to overcome obstacles. African-Americans are not to be depicted as athletes or working hard to overcome discrimination, nor Asian-Americans as scholarly or hard-working.

“Not only does censorship diminish the intellectual vitality of the curriculum, it also erodes our commitment to a common culture… our nation has a history and a literature, to which we contribute. We must build on that common culture, not demolish it,” writes Ravitch. In the world we live in, our children grow up in cities and in suburbs, on farms or on the street. When they enter school and open their textbooks, they are not invited into an interesting world of new ideas and intriguing stories that make them think. They read dull stories and see politically correct illustrations, but hey, at least they won’t get any bad ideas from them. In fact, they won’t get any ideas, period.

What should we do to combat, what Ravitch calls, “the numbing nihilism of the contentless curriculum produced by the puritans of the left and right [that] merely feeds the appetite for the exciting nihilism of an uncensored and sensationalized popular culture, skillfully produced by amoral entrepreneurs who are expert at targeting the tastes of bored teenagers”?

· One, eliminate the state textbook adoption process. States should publish specific standards and then let teachers decide what to use in doing their job;

· Two, make the publishers’ bias guidelines (and their authors) available to the public for their own review;

· And three, require teachers to know what they are teaching, minimizing their reliance on textbooks for answers and ideas.

“Let us, at last, fire the language police,” says Ravitch. “We don’t need them. Let them return to their precincts where speech is rationed, thought is imprisoned, and humor is punished.”

Anna M. Frederick is a research assistant at the National Center for Policy Analysis.