The Blind Leading the Blind
The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students LearnDiane Ravitch
(Vintage Books · paper · $13)
Ideologues of all sorts tend to believe that for their ideas to survive, they must be passed on to the young. Hitler subscribed to this notion—so did Mussolini, Mao and Castro. Yet what they found is that it's extraordinarily hard to convince children with the same facile promises and revolutionary doctrines that ensnared their parents. So the dictators turned to schools, and in particular, textbooks.
You might think that their failure to raise a generation of truculent, brainwashed kids would teach modern interest groups a thing or two, but as Diane Ravitch knows all too well, you'd be wrong. As she reports in The Language Police, her devastating and thorough critique of self-censorship among educational publishers, radical groups on the left and right have taken control of American textbooks, transforming them into "a means of role modeling and behavior modification."
For decades, religious conservatives have vocally opposed any mention of divorce, homosexuality and evolution in schoolbooks, while feminists and minority groups screened texts for wayward terms such as "manhood," "niggardly" and "senior citizen." The legacy of their efforts is a preponderance of insane (wait—make that "mentally deficient") materials designed with an eye toward indoctrination rather than education.
My own experience with public schooling in the '90s and the battery of tests, clumsy books and anorexic reading lists that were part and parcel of that ordeal confirms Ravitch's argument. Most of what I read flowed through me like oatmeal and left even less of an impression. Thus it was satisfying, if infuriating, to discover that my lack of engagement with the material might have been the result of a widespread and systematic policy among textbook publishers to avoid anything that could set off the watchdogs of bias and sensitivity.
Make no mistake, this "bias" is not to be mistaken with the commonsense meaning of the term. (Ravitch, in fact, lauds the "sensible principle of removing racist and sexist language.") Rather, it refers to intolerably offensive stories about, for example, a blind man who successfully climbed Mount McKinley. The publisher's sensitivity panel rejected the story because it excluded children who did not live near mountains, and it implied that a blind man would have had more difficulty ascending than a person who could see. Other ridiculous examples abound.
One of the more disheartening parts of the book deals with the sanitization of literature and history. Ravitch writes that when great works, such as Huckleberry Finn, are not skipped over entirely in schools, they often suffer bowdlerization at the hands of religious zealots. In Tennessee, for example, passages were cut from Jonathan Swift's 1726 satire Gulliver's Travels to expurgate references to genitals, and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales suffered the removal of all their charming ribaldry. Furthermore, in history (Ravitch's chosen field), textbooks now gloss over the terrible deeds of men like Benito Mussolini and Mao Zedong, portraying them as popular leaders who effected speedy reform. Political oppression, class warfare and outright murder—Mao's Communist Party killed one million landlords—are treated merely as part of the inevitable ups and downs of any progressive government.
Unfortunately, by the end of The Language Police, most of Ravitch's criticisms begin to sound familiar. Her meticulous research and faultless scholarship sometimes make the book tedious to read; and as a scrupulous writer, her careful avoidance of stretching the argument beyond the obviously supportable takes away from the book's excitement. But for any citizen—particularly parents—concerned with the state of education in our country, The Language Police offers a succinct analysis of just how outrageously politicized our curricula have become.