The Language Police

By Diane Ravitch

This book is the third selection of the International League of Skeptical Readers Book Club. If you’ve read the book, we should have a pretty good discussion starting on it any day now, and welcome all new perspectives! Please drop by the thread at the ILS Discussion Forum. We are a pretty friendly bunch, and even quite international in other topics. I’m having trouble getting a cohost for this book club, much less one from another continent, so the books I’m choosing are the ones that have been published in America (and thus more readily available to American members, who can get their hands on the books and participate more than the people from elsewhere). I am cognizant of the disconnect between the membership roster and the group name. I choose to find the humor in it.

The Review

The Language Police:
How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn

Long Story Short: This book describes the cultural bias and sensitivity review process that textbooks undergo to make them politically and morally acceptable to special interest groups, and the effects watered-down curriculum has on student populations.

Why I Chose This Book: I used to be a teacher and I currently work within educational publishing, so the topic interested me personally, and I am always curious to read arguments from both sides of the political correctness movement.

The Book’s Strengths: If the author’s intent was to get a reaction, it succeeded. The book presents a thorough explanation of how the bias and sensitivity standards of textbook censorship have developed over time, and presents a definite insider’s view of the textbook industry and its relationship to the government’s control of school curriculum. Ravitch provides specific examples of the kinds of deselection and excising of materials from textbooks that exist, the names of the companies that engage in it, before and after portrayals of how books and stories have been changed after bias and sensitivity review, the process of textbook adoptions and what states have the largest influence on the market, how individual state standards influence textbook editors and publishers, which pressure groups lean on textbook publishers to make changes, how they effect such changes, and how the idea that bias and sensitivity review is important has become commonplace and remains unexamined by industry participants. After the main body of the text, there are more than sixty pages of appendix materials: a list of banned words and a list of the author’s recommendations for instructional materials to supplement textbooks.

The book feels comprehensive, and it is an easy read. The author uses straightforward, non-academic language that draws you into her emotions and astonishment for a shared experience; she makes you feel you are being personally betrayed, so the reader-text connection is very strong. I think she also does a very good job of writing a history book according to rules she implicitly sets (there’s no outright definition): she presents an interesting topic and makes you want to research it even more so that you can come to your own conclusions of events. The book highlights a real problem, and runs through the steps of providing evidence to support her claim that the problem exists, that it is getting worse, and that it has a profound affect. The author’s credentials and experience lend weight to her claims—she is a historian and an educational publishing consultant at very high levels—and she takes a stand on why this problem matters and what people can do to fix it.

The Book’s Weaknesses: The book really works you up into a right state; I was ready, after reading the prologue, to go get my pipe wrench out of the garage and start smashing cars. The examples she uses of expunged text are probably true and definitely outrageous, but they are so outrageous that it just makes me a little suspicious that she is presenting us the most effective anomalies (cherry-picking data, if you like). Her tone is often snide, and there are very long passages where she overwhelms the reader with too many examples and hammers at the same point over and over again. She paints the villains (feminists, ethnic groups, and religious sects) as giant monolithic groups who behave and think exactly alike across time and geography. For example, at the start of Chapter 4, “Everybody Does It: The Testing Companies” (on pg. 51 in my book), she writes that

Feminist critics maintained that this gap was caused entirely by sexist language.

Not only is this a gross generalization, she provides no sources or references to even one specific feminist who maintained that ALL test score differences were to blame ENTIRELY on sexism in test scores. When authors start to hyperbolize like that, it makes the book seem like its own kind of biased screed. In the middle of Chapter 8, “Literature: Forgetting the Tradition,” on a single page—pg. 118—she implies first that most teachers rely only on textbooks to select materials for their class and then claims that students experiencing grief do not benefit from reading teen novels about adolescents also coping with grief and that they would be better served by the classic poets, yet cites no sources for either. This is on the same page!

In Chapter 9, “History: The Endless Battle,” she gives a very compelling reason that these changes to textbooks are so detrimental to students’ understanding of historical events:

The books frequently quote historical figures or offer data without giving any sources for teachers and students who want to learn more, failing to demonstrate by deed the importance of presenting verifiable evidence. The reader must take it on faith that the information presented to them is accurate, because there is no way to check up on it.

This is very important, and everyone should realize this flaw in the textbook paradigm of the current age. Sadly, Ravitch repeats this problem in her own book, and it makes the book too easy to pick apart and dismiss—even when you feel in your heart that probably every word she says is true.

What Should Have Happened: The book did not need so many examples of textbooks and test items that were expunged. There should have been far fewer lists and far more explanation of why this is a serious problem, and far more data to support the claim that it actually is a problem. Is it true that most teachers rely on the textbook and introduce no other materials? Does it matter if standardized test questions are devoid of artistic or literary content? Is the role of the school to teach classics? Does it matter if students read novels by minority and women authors who will be forgotten in ten years? Her criticisms of how important classics have been “cleaned up” to please pressure groups are justifiably scathing, but she goes off on authors that are outside the established canon without ever really defending the value of the canon. It’s a pretty big assumption that everyone agrees the European classics are basically the best thing for everyone to be reading. At least she should have made the argument that the artistic merit of these works has stood the test of time!

The big question—So what?—needs a much better answer.

Short Story Shorter: I would definitely recommend this book. It’s readable, and it raises awareness to a topic that most people are probably interested in for one reason or another.

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