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from The Textbook Letter, March-April 1999

A good publication for your professional library

Losing Our Language
How Multicultural Classroom Instruction Is Undermining
Our Children's Ability to Read, Write, and Reason

1999. 288 pages. ISBN: 0-684-84961-5. The Free Press,
1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10020.

An Insightful Examination of Perverted Schoolbooks

In Losing Our Language, Sandra Stotsky lays bare the follies, deceits and cruelties of today's basal readers -- the books that are used in teaching young students how to read. Instruction in reading has been degraded into a vehicle for the preaching of multi-culti ideology, and intellectual development is relentlessly subordinated to the goal of inculcating students with multi-culti social attitudes and political views.

Anne C. Westwater
William J. Bennetta

We have been puzzled and troubled as we have encountered more and more high-school students who cannot read or write English in any acceptable way. Teachers of high-school English haven't been able to provide us with plausible explanations for this, beyond stating two obvious facts: Young students watch too much television, and our schools harbor increasing numbers of students for whom English is a second language.

Now Sandra Stotsky's insightful book Losing Our Language has provided the information and explanations that we have been seeking. Stotsky is a research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In Losing Our Language she presents the results of her intensive investigation of basal readers -- the books that are used for teaching young students to read. She describes how reading is taught in elementary schools nowadays, she analyzes basal readers produced by major schoolbook-publishers (such as ScottForesman, Silver Burdett Ginn, and Houghton Mifflin), and she explains how basal readers have changed, in both content and pedagogy, during the last twenty years.

Stotsky demonstrates that instruction in reading has been degraded into a vehicle for the preaching of sociopolitical ideology -- especially the array of racial and sexual dogmas which travel under the name "multiculturalism" -- and that intellectual development is relentlessly subordinated to the goal of inculcating students with multi-culti views and attitudes. Indeed, intellectual development is deliberately scorned. With abundant help from schoolbook companies, the agents of multi-culti have established a reading curriculum that "fosters an animus against what are perceived as Western values, particularly the value placed on acquiring knowledge, on analytical thinking, and on academic achievement itself," Stotsky says.

For our young people, the consequences are tragic -- and for anyone who cares about public education, those consequences are intolerable. The ultimate goal of education is to provide students with the means and the motivation to become life-long learners, but this goal can never be attained, or even glimpsed, if students don't learn to love reading. Stotsky tells us why many of today's students will not even attain competence in reading, let alone learning to enjoy it.

Many books contain prefaces that are short and dispensable. Losing Our Language has a preface that is long and important. It occupies pages ix through xix, and it demands close attention. Here Stotsky summarizes her investigation and her principal findings, providing an impressive overview of the corruption of contemporary basal readers.

In describing how she conducted her research, Stotsky tells that she was unsuccessful in her attempts to visit classrooms and to interview teachers who use today's basal readers. When she called elementary-school principals and curriculum coordinators, they refused to talk with her or they told her that teachers would not welcome her. To us, those negative responses are disturbing. They suggest that the principals and curriculum coordinators are well aware that what their teachers are doing is highly questionable and even harmful.

Ordinary citizens, on the other hand, know little or nothing about it. "The public is . . . unaware of what has been taking place in the reading curriculum in the past decade," Stotsky writes, "because concerned researchers and teacher educators have not spoken up, in professional settings or in public, out of fear of having the race or sex card thrown at them."

As she concludes her preface, Stotsky warns that the multi-culti travesties which she has discovered in basal readers will not be rectified until more Americans recognize what is happening and undertake to do something about it:

For parents and other citizens who want a liberal education for their children, I offer several suggestions in the final chapter for ways to reorient schools away from social and political goals to intellectual and civic goals. But in order to restore the primacy of intellectual and civic goals in the reading curriculum, the public needs to understand exactly what multiculturalism has come to mean in the reading curriculum in the 1990s, how it constitutes an assault on the development of children's language and thinking, . . . [page xviii]

In the body of her book, Stotsky examines the tactics that the promoters of multi-culti, with the collaboration of schoolbook companies, have used in mounting that assault.

Since the 1960s schoolbook-publishers have continually changed the content of their basal readers, trying to respond to faddish but unsupported criticisms. One body of criticism was built on the charge that the didactic selections in basal readers were not "authentic." Some selections were based on excerpts taken from legitimate literature, but the excerpts had been altered or abridged. Other selections had no literary roots at all: They had simply been invented by schoolbook-writers as devices for teaching the skills of reading. Such "inauthentic" items, it was claimed, stifled children's interest in reading -- but, as Stotsky points out, no evidence was put forth to support that claim.

A second body of criticism was constructed around allegations that the selections in basal readers were alienating minority-group children and were treating girls unfairly. The critics held that the selections didn't "adequately" portray the ethnic and racial diversity of the United States, didn't give enough attention to non-Western peoples, and didn't provide enough good role-models for females. Again, no evidence was put forth. No evidence was cited to show that women shaped their lives according to what they had seen when they were elementary-school girls learning to read. Nor was any evidence presented to show that the reading abilities of minority-group children were impeded because basal readers failed to use characters and communities that resembled the children's own families and neighborhoods.

Fads, however, don't require evidence and don't even have to make sense. Here is Stotsky's description of the ascendance of multiculturalism, which began in the 1970s:

Most of the recent changes in the content of the elementary readers and in the teaching methods outlined in them have been introduced as part of an approach to the curriculum development called multiculturalism. . . . [Multiculturalism] was proposed as the only approach that could broaden the horizons of American schoolchildren and inculcate respect for racial and ethnic minority groups. It was also proposed as the only meaningful way to address the academic deficiencies of minority children, its basic assumption being that changes in their self-image were necessary if changes in their academic performance were to occur. Most teachers, school administrators, school boards and educational publishers were willing to accept [multiculturalism]. Some did so out of desperation for what was promised as a pedagogical magic bullet, others because they truly believed that such changes were necessary for social equality and that group self-esteem was the foundation for academic achievement. [page 7]

A lot has changed since then. For one thing, the notion that "self-esteem" could function as an educational cure-all has been discredited, and so have the dumbed-down curricula in which esteem-building games were substituted for intellectual development and the acquisition of knowledge. Today the very phrase self-esteem is an object of ridicule and a cliché in comedy routines.

The meaning of multiculturalism has changed too. At first, multiculturalism appeared to be aimed at ensuring that students would learn more about societies in other parts of the world and would learn more about how members of racial minorities have contributed to life in the United States. During the past 25 years, however, it has evolved into what Stotsky calls a "race-based political agenda, one that is anticivic and anti-Western in its orientation." This is the multi-culti that we know today -- a corrosive ideology that now pervades most American schoolbooks, at all grade levels, and that revolves around racial and sexual stereotypes.

The fundamental tenet of multi-culti ideology is the supremacy of group identity over individual identity. For the devotees of multi-culti, any person's essential identity can be determined by asking: What is the person's race, and what is the person's sex? The answers to those questions specify two groups to which the person belongs, and the groups specify the person's worth. What the person does, or how the person lives, or what the person may accomplish doesn't really matter. Race and sex dictate how the person should be viewed and how the person should be treated, in accordance with the multi-culti stereotype system.

The multi-culti stereotype system is essentially hierarchical. Firmly installed at the bottom of the hierarchy are white males, who are stereotyped as vicious oppressors. To the greatest feasible extent, the writers of multi-culti schoolbooks strive to vilify white males, to trivialize or ignore their achievements, and to trivialize or disparage the social, political and intellectual institutions that white males have established. White females are more acceptable. They aren't as good as black or red females, mind you, but they deserve to be sanitized and are even worthy of some glorification: None of them has ever done anything bad, and some of them have distinguished themselves by founding various arts and sciences, by winning Nobel Prizes, by winning World War 2, and so forth. The higher levels of the hierarchy are reserved for people who aren't white. These are stereotyped as noble, wise, inventive, faultless overachievers -- males and females alike. To the greatest feasible extent, the writers of multi-culti schoolbooks must contrive ways to glorify people who aren't white and to depict them with affection and glowing admiration. Their actions and institutions must be exalted, and their superstitions -- no matter how ridiculous -- must be treated as displays of wisdom.

The agents of multi-culti have enjoyed considerable success in promoting those stereotypes, and Stotsky provides some chilling examples of the results. Here is her description of multi-culti antics in an arithmetic class:

A New York City parent reported that his fifth-grade son had an assignment, lasting for an entire week, that went as follows: "Historians estimate that when Columbus landed on what is now the island of Hati [sic] there were 250,000 people living there. In two years this number had dropped to 125,000. What fraction of the people who had been living in Hati when Columbus arrived remained? Why do you think the Arawaks died? In 1515 there were only 50,000 Arawaks left alive. In 1550 there were 500. If the same number of people died each year, approximately how many people would have died each year? In 1550 what percentage of the original population was left alive? How do you feel about this?" [page 8]

Stotsky comments: "Note the 'feeling' question at the end; it is one of the staple questions in multicultural curricular materials, intended to elicit sympathy for a victim group and hostility to those who are to be perceived as oppressors."

As a demonstration of how multi-culti preaching leads students to view people in terms of racial or sexual categories and stereotypes, here is Stotsky's account of the answers that two Massachusetts fifth-graders gave, on a statewide test, when they were asked to tell about an inventor whom they would like to meet:

One student whose response began promisingly with "Eli Whitney was the inventor of the Cotton Gin," went on to add: "I think she was black. In social studies we learned a little about her." Another noted that "smart, black inventor Thomas Edison patented many things" and that "many people liked Thomas even though he was black." [page 21]

It is not surprising that those students invented false identities for Whitney and Edison, turning both of them into blacks and turning Whitney into a woman. Nor is it surprising that the students had little substantive knowledge of either man. In examining current basal readers, Stotsky has found that

Stories about the great achievements in American science, technology, and political life in the past 200 years are missing -- and they are missing, it seems, simply because a story about them would call attention to a white male. The attention accorded [in basal readers] to the achievements of such women as Sally Ride, Nellie Bly, and Amelia Earhart (in American space exploration, journalism, and international flight, respectively) is dishonest when the men who made the original breakthroughs in those fields are completely ignored. Children should be able to read stories about both males and females of distinction. It is highly contradictory for a country that eagerly seeks to develop greater interest in science and mathematics in its youngsters to withhold from them stories about those who were responsible for its most important scientific and technological achievements. [see note 1, below]

Pseudo-literature

Most of Losing Our Language is devoted to Stotsky's analyses of current basal readers (published in 1993 and 1995) that are sold for use in grades 4 and 6, and to comparisons between those readers and ones that were published in earlier decades.

In many of today's basal readers, Stotsky says, good material composed for children has been supplanted by "pseudo-literature." Most of the pseudo-literature selections are probably "authentic," in the sense that they have been reprinted without any alteration or abridgement, but they have little literary value or intellectual merit. They are used, Stotsky believes, for several purposes. First, they help to fulfill quotas: Schoolbook companies can find or generate pseudo-literature about groups of people who would appear rarely (or not at all) if the companies had to rely on genuine literature. Second, pseudo-literature can promote multi-culti stereotypes and can teach children to regard certain social communities or natural environments as victims of prejudiced and exploitative white societies. And third, pseudo-literature "can plant the seeds of contemporary social dogma in children's minds in offhand, unobtrusive, casual ways," Stotsky says.

"Genuine children's literature," she adds, "cannot easily be used for these purposes."

To exemplify pseudo-literature and its uses, she cites a story that has appeared in a ScottForesman reader for grade 4. The story deals with "the Levins," an American family in which no one is "biologically related to any of the others." The narrative focuses on the family's two adolescent boys, Eric Levin and Joshua Levin, who are Korean immigrants and the sons of different mothers. Eric came to America when he was only a few months old, Joshua before he reached the age of three. This piece of pseudo-literature was probably chosen, Stotsky says, because it mentions Asians and because it imparts a bit of social dogma: All that is necessary for a group of unrelated people to be considered a family is the fact that they live together.

The same story also illustrates the notion that students acquire an understanding of a culture by merely reading about some foods -- in this case the Korean dishes bul-go-gee and kim chee. The teacher's guide which accompanies the ScottForesman reader promotes the idea that we should eat foods which reflect our cultural heritage, and it informs the teacher that "Eating Korean foods reminds [Eric and Joshua] of their homeland." Stotsky wonders how Korean foods can remind the boys of a land that they can't remember (because they were so young when they left it). She also finds that the ScottForesman tale projects a vile implication: White people (the adult Levins) have no heritage to offer their children, or their heritage isn't important. If heritage equals food, Stotsky asks, "why aren't bagels given equal time with kim chee?"

Another example that Stotsky examines is "They Will Tear Up the Earth," an inflammatory story that is presented, dishonestly, in a ScottForesman reader for grade 6. Taken from a book called Morning Star, Black Sun: The Northern Cheyenne Indians and America's Energy Crisis, the "Tear Up the Earth" story purports to tell of events that took place in the 1970s, when the Cheyenne clashed with some mining companies over the use of some coal deposits. The story is offered to students as a piece of nonfiction, but it is no such thing, Stotsky explains. It is a semifictional, sensationalized piece of advocacy journalism, cast as an open-and-shut case of villains and victims:

Students are not asked to explore the author's rhetorical intentions for the piece, . . . Advocacy journalism is being used to help students internalize several simplistic political stances: an uncomplicated sympathetic stance toward the Indians and a negative stance toward all the forces depicted as damaging to them.

The rhetorical goal of this selection is to cultivate children's hostility toward the U.S. government, big business, white Americans, and developers. [page 102]

The ScottForesman grade-6 reader also has a story in which a youngster who speaks only English is labeled a "monolingual lout." Stotsky infers that the story's chief purpose is to instill the view that there is something wrong with people who speak only one language -- if that language is English. Stotsky has detected this notion in several other basal-reading books, too. Contempt is directed at people who speak only English, but never at people who rely on some other language. People who speak only Chinese or only Spanish are not ridiculed as monolingual louts.

Has multi-culti pseudo-literature given inspiration to minority-group children and impelled them toward academic improvement? Has it at least inspired such children to learn to read and write? Apparently not, if the minority groups are blacks and Hispanics. Stotsky points to reports, issued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, that tell a story of failure. Before the 1990s, there was some narrowing of the gap between the reading scores achieved by black or Hispanic students and the scores achieved by whites, but now both the blacks and the Hispanics evidently have regressed. The 1990s have seen a decline in the reading scores earned by black students in all age groups, and the scores earned by Hispanic high-school students during the 1990s have been no better than the scores that Hispanic high-school students achieved in the 1970s.

"Take Lincoln to the Dojo"

In traditional, effective programs for teaching students how to read English, the number of difficult English words that students encountered was increased substantially from year to year. But when Stotsky examined some current readers, she made alarming discoveries: Current readers teach fewer difficult words than were taught in the readers of just ten or twenty years ago, and current readers don't require students to accelerate their acquisition of new vocabulary as they move through the upper elementary grades.

Instead of exposing upper-elementary students to an extensive, advanced vocabulary in English, current readers offer selections that are cluttered with useless, enigmatic words and phrases taken from other languages -- Japanese, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese and even Swahili. In the pages of a ScottForesman grade-4 reader, students encounter Praia do Forte, Bedouin, sheik, Hamed, macaw, Yucaju, Tenochtitlan, Itzcoatl, Tezozomac and I'itoi, with no indication of how these things should be pronounced. A Houghton Mifflin grade-6 reader offers a story written in Japlish, a mixture of English and Japanese. Try this for Oriental inscrutability:

On the engawa after dinner, Mr. Ono said to Mitsuo, "Take Lincoln to the dojo. You are not too tired, are you, Lincoln-kun? It is almost eight o'clock."

The schoolbook companies' use of mongrelized English turns comical in selections that feature words taken from Swahili. Stotsky points to a Houghton Mifflin selection which requires 4th-grade students to learn the meanings and pronunciations of 33 Swahili words or phrases, and which seeks to connect Swahili with American blacks. But Swahili, as the essayist and social critic Thomas Sowell has pointed out, was the language of Arab slave-traders who operated in East Africa. Moreover, the African ancestors of most American blacks came from West Africa. Why should anyone try to link American blacks with the lingo used by East African slave merchants?

Teacher's Guides and Teacher's Editions

When Stotsky looked at the teacher's guides and teacher's editions that accompany current basal readers, she found more evidence that schoolbook companies have joined in the campaign to employ elementary-school reading courses as mechanisms for teaching multi-culti social attitudes and political views. Publishers furnish pedagogic notes and tips which preach the supremacy of group identity over individual identity and which promote doctrines that call for the redistribution of political power.

Stotsky cites some examples drawn from teacher's editions published by Silver Burdett Ginn. In that company's grade-4 book, students read an excerpt from George Selden's The Cricket in Times Square, and the teacher learns how to use Selden's innocent story about animals as a device for turning 4th-graders into miniature activists. "Because of advanced medicine, people live longer today than they ever did in the past," the teacher's edition observes. Then it says:

There are many elderly people, however, who live in poverty with no one to care for them. Many were unable to save enough money during their working years to provide a good quality of life after they retired. Discuss what students can do to help these people find food and shelter, and provide for their basic necessities.

After 4th-grade students read an excerpt from Mary Poppins, Silver Burdett Ginn tells the teacher to use the excerpt as a springboard for a discussion in which the students will resolve child-care issues:

In the United States, with more women entering the work force and a greater number of single parent households, there is an increasing need for child care centers. Have students discuss this issue and what can be done so that parents can earn a living and still know that their children are being well taken care of. Have students draw up a list of suggestions for dealing with this problem.

Even more astonishing is Silver Burdett Ginn's pedagogic tip that tells the teacher what do after 4th-grade students read a story about visitors from space. The teacher should send the 4th-graders off to "investigate the number of immigrants permitted in the United States over the past decade," then have the students debate "whether or not immigration laws favor certain ethnic groups"!

All those pedagogic directions are absurd, of course, but they comply with a fad that is manifested not only in basal readers but in many other schoolbooks as well. It is faddish nowadays to make students believe that they are achieving something when they vent their juvenile emotions and their uninformed opinions and their ignorant "solutions" to problems that lie beyond their grasp [note 2].

In her chapter titled "How Did the Contents of Reading Series Change So Quickly?" Stotsky identifies the groups who, she infers, have been chiefly responsible for the degradation of basal readers. The culpable groups include professional organizations (such as the National Council of Teachers of English) that have absorbed multi-culti ideology, as well as state education agencies that have gone multi-culti or that don't have sufficient courage to resist multi-culti pressure groups. But perhaps the most heavily influential faction, Stotsky says, consists of the people who teach in schools of education and who promote multi-culti indoctrination.

These multi-culti ed-school professors propagate their social, political and racial notions in two ways: They shape the training of teachers, school administrators, curriculum specialists and other educators, and they function as advisors to schoolbook-publishers. Stotsky describes how publishers hire well known multi-culti professors and display their names on the title pages of basal readers, billing them as "consultants," "senior consultants" or "multicultural consultants." This presumably renders the books attractive to textbook-adoption committees that have embraced multi-culti ideology. One of Stotsky's examples seems particularly noteworthy: The consultants hired by Houghton Mifflin have included Asa G. Hilliard III, who engineered the infamous African-American Baseline Essays hoax [note 3].

The multi-culti professors and the schools that employ them, Stotsky charges, have led the way in transforming our education system into one that has become academically bankrupt, has failed to produce the results that were promised when multiculturalism was introduced in the 1970s, and has now sunk in a tide of anti-intellectualism. The depth of Stotsky's scorn for the ed-school establishment is evident when she writes:

Schools of education are the major force behind this tide. Their track record is so bad that in any other profession such a record would raise questions about professional competence. Not only have those promoting today's social and political goals failed to come up with ideas that work, they have resorted to the demonstrably false but patently self-serving defense that the schools are doing better than ever and that the public is wrong in whatever it believes. [page 278]

What about parents? Unlike state education agencies or the multi-culti luminaries who work in ed schools, parents have little influence on the content of basal readers. Parents who object to multi-culti curricula are categorized and dismissed as "conservatives" or "fundamentalists," Stotsky says.

In the eleventh and final chapter of Losing Our Language, Stotsky warns that we can't expect pedagogical institutions to combat the anti-intellectual tide that is engulfing our schools, because the tide flows from those very institutions. To parents and other citizens who are concerned about the academic quality of public schools, she offers a number of suggestions. As examples: Make sure that elected officials understand what "multiculturalism" has come to mean nowadays, and why. Examine the readers used in local schools. Promote academically sound curricula, such as Core Knowledge [note 4]. Promote the inclusion of historians and literary scholars on textbook-evaluation committees. Promote the appointment of scholars to state committees that oversee teacher-training programs, teacher-certification requirements, and the development of academic standards.

Stotsky ends her book with this exhortation:

If enough parents and other citizens make the effort to communicate their concerns about the contents and pedagogy of the most basic subject in the elementary school curriculum to their local and state school boards, we may be able to avoid the creation of a new divide in American public life: the gap between those citizens who can use the language of this country to participate in public affairs and those citizens who have been deprived of the opportunity to learn it.

After reading Losing Our Language, we no longer have to wonder why so many high-school students have difficulty in reading and writing English -- but we are more troubled than ever. Losing Our Language is one of the most important books that we have seen in years, and we recommend it to everyone who cares about children and public education.

Notes

  1. See "Losing Our Science" on page 7 of this issue. [return to text]

  2. See, for example, the reviews of Glencoe's Merrill Life Science (1993) in TTL for January-February 1993, the review of Prentice Hall's Electricity and Magnetism (1993) in TTL for November-December 1993, the reviews of Addison-Wesley's Science Insights: Exploring Living Things (1994) in TTL for September-October 1995, and the review of Glencoe's Merrill Life Science (1995) in TTL for May-June 1996. The glorification of ignorance and the scorning of knowledge are important elements in the multi-culti mob's attack on education in general and on science education in particular -- and corrupt schoolbook companies have enthusiastically joined in this attack. W.J.B [return to text]

  3. See "Recalling the Portland Hoax" in TTL for May-June 1998. [return to text]

  4. This curriculum was developed by the Core Knowledge Foundation, which is based in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Foundation has a Web site at http://www.coreknowledge.org. [return to text]


Anne C. Westwater retired in 1997 from a twenty-year career as a science teacher, including some fifteen years as a teacher of biology, earth science and environmental science at Napa High School (in Napa, California). She now lives at The Sea Ranch (in Sonoma County, California) and works as a consultant in the application of brain research to educational practice.

William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

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