My own school days, kindergarten through 12th grade, were boring in the usual ways. Sleep-inducing teachers. Cool-kid cliques. Gym. (Well, maybe that’s just me.)
But organized education may be more boring today than ever before. Not to mention less educational.
In her new book, “The Language Police,” Diane Ravitch, a professor and historian of education at New York University, takes a hard look at the American school-textbook and testing industry and comes away appalled.
The making and selling of school books is a $4-billion-a-year business, and publishing companies make this money, in large part, by selling their texts to big, statewide school systems. To swing these deals, the companies have to ensure that their textbooks, especially those dealing with history and literature, give no offense. The makers of school tests must be similarly super-sensitive. Not to avoid offending students, you understand, but to forestall the ire of all the special-interest pressure groups, both left and right, that now demand a say in what students are being taught. If “taught” is any longer the word.
Take dinosaurs, for example. Militant religious fundamentalists don’t want to hear any talk about dinosaurs, because their existence — if they ever did exist, that is — would imply that evolution happened. So, no dinosaurs. And, obviously, no fossils, either. Both are banned. As are any references to magic or wizardry. (Fundamentalists are currently doing back flips of indignation over the Harry Potter books.) And let there be no allusions to Halloween, or even to masks and pumpkins (two words that, as Ravitch notes, are “tainted by association with Halloween”).
Politically correct liberals are even more easily upset. “Whereas the right gets topic control,” Ravitch says, “the left gets control of language and images.”
And so gender obsessives have managed to pressure publishers to ban the use of such common terms as “busboy” (substitute “dining room attendant”), “schoolgirl” (“schoolchild” will do, thanks), “cleaning woman” (try “housekeeper,” even if your housekeeper’s a woman) and “manhunt” (how about “hunt for a person”?).
Class warriors have also weighed in on what kids can be allowed to read. “Polo” is out, as are “yachts,” and the “regattas” in which they sometimes sail. Too “elitist.” The things these words describe exist in the real world, but the words themselves have been banished.
The search for “bias,” the rooting out from school materials of demeaning references to racial and ethnic groups and to women, got underway in the 1960s, with the rise of the civil-rights movement and feminist activism. Clearly, as Ravitch says, this campaign was long overdue. But as “The Language Police” demonstrates, the definition of bias has now ballooned to include just about anything that anyone, anywhere, finds objectionable. Or, from the publishers’ jittery point of view, may find objectionable. Because it is religious zealots, PC watchdogs and the hyper-sensitive members of organized grievance groups who largely compose the “bias and sensitivity” committees through which all proposed textbooks and test entries must now pass.
For example, it is considered biased to depict black people as “terrific entertainers” (Missy Elliott? Denzel who?); or as “great athletes” (tell it to the Lakers). Schoolbook and test writers are also cautioned not to depict Jewish people as “doctors, dentists, lawyers” (tell it to my doctor, my dentist and my lawyer); or Asian-Americans as “hardworking” or “very intelligent” or “excellent scholars.” (No, I’ve never met one of those.) Mind you, the injunction isn’t to not stereotype all members of these groups in such ways, but to not depict even individual members as any of the above..
Publishers are also alert to the dangers of “regional bias.” Regional words like “soda” and “pop” never appear in school texts. (“Maybe everyone drinks orange juice,” Ravitch says.) And “snowcones” — well, surely you mean “flavored ice.” Whatever that is.
In addition, as Ravitch suggests, a book like Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” could be in trouble these days. “Old man” is of course problematic to begin with (it could be offensive to, well, old men). But “sea”? Yes. It is thought that inland students who don’t live near an ocean or a lake or even a large puddle could be upset by encountering such an unfamiliar and possibly threatening concept. In the same way, kids in the country’s warmer, flatter precincts would surely fall into a faint at the thought of snow-capped mountains. This is regionalism. Really.
Also suspect nowadays might be a book like John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” We needn’t tarry over “men,” but it turns out “mice” are unacceptable, too. Grade school kids, it’s presumed, will go into an emotional tailspin if confronted with certain icky creatures: a snake; a roach; yes, even a mouse. (So long, Mickey; later, Mighty.)
Ravitch describes all of this as “a regime of censorship” that has been “quietly endorsed and broadly implemented.” Its hallmarks are the gutting of classic literature and children’s tales (Ravitch recalls a publisher once telling her that “everything written before 1970 was either gender biased or racially biased”) and the rewriting and distortion of history. (Some texts, Ravitch says, note the progress in education and health care made during the reign of the Chinese Communist dictator Mao Tse-tung, but omit mention of the fact that he is often considered the greatest mass murderer in history.)
Censors of the right and left claim that their aims are simply to protect students from words and facts and ideas that are, by their respective lights, hurtful and harmful and just plain wrong. But are students still paying attention?
“My hunch,” Ravitch told MTV News, “is that the sanitizing in schoolbooks makes kids hungry for controversy, for raw stuff, which they find on the Internet and on MTV, and elsewhere. It does not kill their appetite for reality. It just makes them realize that they won’t find it in their schoolbooks, which are constructed as an exercise in reality avoidance.
“If you can’t read in school what you can read every day in the daily newspaper,” she says, “something is terribly wrong.”
(Have you come across censorship in school textbooks yourself? You can send a description of it to Diane Ravitch’s Web site, www.languagepolice.com. Ravitch also suggests that people of all ages contact their state education departments and demand that a list of all the things they censor from schoolbooks be put on a Web site for public review and — “the best antidote,” she says — “public ridicule.”)
— Kurt Loder