from The Textbook Letter, Volume 12, Number 4

A good publication for your professional library

The Language Police
How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn
by Diane Ravitch. Paperback edition, 2004. 271 pages. ISBN: 1-4000- 3064-1.
Vintage Books, 1745 Broadway, New York City, New York 10019.

Get This Alarming Book Just as Soon as You Can

Anne C. Westwater

Are you an educator? An educator-in-training? A member of a school board? A parent of a public-school student? A journalist who reports on educational affairs? A citizen who wonders why public education in this country has degenerated so badly? If you are any of those, I strongly suggest that you read Diane Ravitch's book The Language Police just as soon as you can get a copy of it. Getting a copy will be easy, because Vintage Books has issued a paperback edition priced at $13.00.

The subject of The Language Police is censorship -- a formal, pervasive system of censorship that warps the content of schoolbooks, state-sponsored tests, and other educational products until they have little connection with the real world. The information in The Language Police helps to explain why many students find their curricula and schoolbooks irrelevant and uninteresting, and it explains, in part, the disturbing spectacle that we see in many parts of the United States: While the cost of public education rises higher and higher, the quality of that education continues to be low. What you will read in The Language Police should infuriate you, and it may even make you want to scream. Go ahead! I did.

Why has The Language Police upset me so? Because Ravitch has laid bare "an elaborate, well-established protocol of beneficent censorship, quietly endorsed and broadly implemented by textbook publishers, testing agencies, professional associations, states, and the federal government" that steadily and stealthily reduces schoolbooks to packages of pabulum. The arbiters of political correctness on the left have joined with the fundamentalist guardians of morality on the right to foster a censorship apparatus that serves the political and social agendas of both, scorns the interests of students, and ensures that students will not be exposed to anything that might bother anyone, anywhere, for any reason.

Ravitch has given the name "the language police" to the pressure groups that exploit this apparatus and the censors that run it.

Say Hello to "Bias and Sensitivity Review"

Diane Ravitch, a distinguished historian of education, first encountered the language police while she was a member of a nonpartisan federal education agency called the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB). She was nominated to that agency by President Bill Clinton and began her service in 1998.

The NAGB had been charged with creating questions for use in a broad program of national educational testing, and Ravitch was assigned to a committee whose job was to choose written passages that would test 4th-graders' reading and reading-comprehension skills. The committee did its work, but some passages which the committee approved were later excluded by the corporation that had been hired to put the 4th-grade reading tests together. Why? Because those passages had been condemned by the corporation's "bias and sensitivity review" panel. When Ravitch and the other members of the NAGB's 4th-grade committee obtained copies of the "bias and sensitivity review" panel's judgments, they saw things that astounded them. For example:

These cases, along with others like them, provided Ravitch's introduction to "bias and sensitivity review."

A Grossly Fictitious World

I have been a teacher for more than 25 years. During all this time I have known that schoolbook-writers sanitize their products by avoiding certain words (such as evolution) and certain concepts (such as cannibalism, infanticide, or the religious beliefs held by Mormons); and lately I have become increasingly aware of how schoolbook-writers use lumpy, politically correct euphemisms in place of real English -- enslaved African Americans in place of black slaves, for example [note 2]. But not until I read The Language Police did I recognize the extent, the complexity and the rigor of the censorship system that degrades and impoverishes both the literary characteristics and the conceptual features of the books that students read in our schools. The language police have created a grossly fictitious, extremely odd world of their own, and they are foisting that world onto students as if it were real.

In that odd world, everybody is normal, and nobody is old or elderly, because the language police have abolished the words abnormal, old and elderly. That odd world doesn't have any lumberjacks or gypsies or pagans or tribesmen or jungles, nor does it have a Middle East, because the language police have banned the terms lumberjack, gypsy, pagan, tribesman, jungle and Middle East. Likewise, it doesn't have any cowboys, draftsmen, dwarfs, diabetics, fanatics, hordes, horsemen, huts, illegal aliens, lunatics, masterpieces, midgets, snow balls, snowmen, waitresses or yachts. Indeed, it lacks thousands of things that are common in the real world and that appear every day in the real world's books, news media, and entertainment media.

"Some of this censorship is trivial," Ravitch writes, "some is ludicrous, and some is breathtaking in its power to dumb down what children learn in school."

When this system of censorship began to take shape, it was justified as way to ensure that educational materials would be free of language and images that were "racist" or "sexist" or "elitist," whatever those terms may have meant. Since then, it has expanded to include bizarre systems of "sensitivity reviews" and "bias reviews" that embody unfathomable notions of what is "racist" or "sexist," along with a deranged concept of what is "elitist." No matter how your dictionary may define elitist or elitism, the language police have decided that elitism simply means material wealth, and that students must not see words or phrases -- such as yacht, polo, junk bonds, cotillion or regatta -- that are associated with the lifestyles of people who are rich. This is part of a larger effort to protect students from the "bias" that they would experience if they had to read about people who were different from themselves, or about things that weren't already familiar to them.

Controlling Both Content and Vocabulary

As she learned more about the censorship system, Ravitch found that it governs not only the composing of tests but also the creation of schoolbooks. Moreover, the censoring of schoolbooks extends far beyond the banning of individual words and phrases. The censors have also outlawed myriad topics, images, and modes of presentation that they don't like, and they thus have gained control of content as well as vocabulary.

In The Language Police, Ravitch focuses on how censorship affects "readers" (books that are used in teaching youngsters how to read), literature anthologies, and history books.

The language police force the writers and editors of textbooks to avoid so many topics that the books are disconnected from the real world that students experience every day. The characters in schoolbook stories must not speak in dialects, ponder suicide, face fire hazards or have poor eating habits. No one is allowed to encounter scorpions, rats, roaches or any other animals that anyone, anywhere might regard as scary or dirty. No one ever exhibits disrespectful or illegal behavior. No one steals, smokes, drinks alcohol, gets into fights, or tells lies. No one talks about politics, religion, unemployment, weapons, violence, child abuse, or animal abuse. Real life doesn't intrude.

There is much more. Stories involving fantasy or magic are forbidden. So are stories set in prehistoric times, because such stories suggest organic evolution. So are stories about birthday parties, which are outlawed because some people don't celebrate birthdays. And even if a birthday party crept into a story, no one at the party would be able to eat the cake: Foods such as cake, candy, French fries or soft drinks have been prohibited in favor of more healthful items like dried beans, yogurt, and whole-grain breads. Real life doesn't intrude.

Do you want more? Then consider some of the rules that the publishers follow to generate "representational fairness." Schoolbooks and other instructional materials must have equal numbers of males and females in illustrations and in written passages, and the males and females must perform the same or comparable activities. (In answer to your question: Yes, pressure groups do take inventory!) Women cannot be portrayed as stay-at-home mothers and caregivers, because such images are "gender stereotypes" that anger radical feminists. Old persons must not be portrayed as feeble or sick, because those are "age stereotypes." Nor can old folks engage in sedentary activities like fishing or baking; they must go jogging or repair roofs. Real life doesn't intrude.

There are rules that govern English usage, too. The feminine pronouns must not be used for referring to countries or ships, and humans must not be compared to other animals. (The boxer Mohammed Ali said that he could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, but his famous boast couldn't appear in a schoolbook.) And any animal other than a human must be designated by the pronoun it, not by he or she. (Imagine trying to read a description of the courtship ritual of a pair of birds, with both the male and the female designated as "it." How could you know who was doing what to whom?)

Schoolbooks that conform to rules devised by the language police are bland, boring, replete with simplistic social, political and religious messages, and stripped of nearly everything that is colorful or that might provoke thought. All that remains is insipid pap. In the real world, Ravitch reminds us, students are exposed continually to powerful stimuli supplied by television, pop music, films, videos and the Internet, as well as the unconstrained language of their peers -- but their sterilized schoolbooks are unable to stimulate anyone. It's no wonder that students show indifference and contempt toward the materials that are presented to them at school!

How Publishers Censor Themselves

Most of the censorship practiced by publishers of educational materials is self-censorship, originated and administered by the publishers themselves. Some state agencies (such as the California State Department of Education) issue regulations that tell publishers how to sterilize their products and how to make those products conform to state-approved religious, social and political ideologies, but such regulations seem less important than the publishers' own censorship rules and censorship mechanisms.

Each schoolbook company keeps track of the demands made by pressure groups, supplements them with guesses about demands that the pressure groups may make in the future, and supplements them further with lists of words, phrases, usages, and concepts that have been attacked during schoolbook-adoption proceedings conducted by state governments [note 3]. The items compiled during this process are organized into a set of guidelines for sanitizing what students will read, and the guidelines are used by the company's internal censors, who have been trained to delete or replace or revise anything that might be considered controversial. The goal of this self-censorship, this "pre-emptive capitulation," is to ensure that the company's books will not contain anything that might upset any student, disturb any parent, cause any trouble during any state's adoption process, or result in the loss of a sale. In other words, the goal of self-censorship is to protect the company's bottom line.

Complementary Spheres of Influence

The pressure groups that terrify publishers, and drive them to engage in self-censorship, come from both the political right and the political left. What they have in common is this: They all believe that reality follows language. They all imagine that if they can stop people from seeing certain words or reading about certain concepts, they can stop people from thinking about or committing the acts that the words or concepts imply.

Ravitch tells that publishers generally have allowed right-wing pressure groups to control topics and content. These groups want schoolbooks to reflect their idealized vision of the past -- an imaginary past in which all families were happy because they had a strong father, a nurturing mother, obedient children, and a firm religious foundation. Crime, violence, divorce, abortion, and homosexuality did not exist in that fantasy-past, so they must never appear in any schoolbooks.

Leftist pressure groups generally hold the power to control vocabulary, to outlaw words and phrases, and to choose the words, phrases, and modes of usage that will be deemed politically correct. The demands made by leftist groups revolve around their vision of a utopian future in which egalitarianism prevails in all social relationships. Ravitch writes:

In this vision, there is no dominant group, no dominant father, no dominant race, and no dominant gender. In this world, youth is not an advantage, and disability is not a disadvantage. There is no hierarchy of better or worse; all nations and all cultures are of equal accomplishment and value. All individuals and groups share equally in the roles, rewards and activities of society. In this world to be, everyone has high self-esteem, eats healthful foods, exercises, and enjoys being different. . . . [Pressure groups on the left] want children to read only descriptions of the world as they think it should be in order to help bring this new world into being.

Ravitch obtained sets of self-censorship guidelines that had been devised by some schoolbook companies, by some state agencies, and by such organizations as the Association of Education Publishers and the Educational Testing Service. From these, she generated an appendix, titled "Glossary of Banned Words, Usages, Stereotypes and Topics," which covers pages 183 through 218 of the paperback edition of The Language Police. Read it. And be prepared to feel your jaw drop and your stomach turn.

As it happens, the lists of words and phrases that writers of instructional materials must avoid include some personal favorites of mine: fisherman, fireman, brotherhood, mankind, bookworm, actress, devil, Eskimo, Sioux, fellowship, senile, freshman, coed, tomboy, soul food, snow cone, Navajo and waitress. If I were to write my autobiography, I would use about a dozen of those words in describing myself at various stages of my life, or in describing events that I experienced. Of course, my autobiography would never be chosen by a schoolbook company for use in an anthology.

Or maybe it would. Schoolbook companies regularly (and often secretly) sanitize stories and essays that they want to include in anthologies, so maybe some company would take my autobiography, delete any banned words, and replace them with words that the language police permit to be used.

In the category of censorship that is "breathtaking" in its power to deprive children of opportunities to learn, the long campaign to outlaw Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is especially disturbing. Ravitch reminds us that since the 1950s, this book has been the leading target of leftists, who revile Twain's repeated use of the word nigger and to his portrayal of Jim, the runaway slave. In school districts throughout the United States, left-wing pressure groups have demanded that Huckleberry Finn be thrown out of school libraries and banned from classrooms.

Ravitch says no. She points out, first, that Huckleberry Finn is central to modern American literature and, second, that Twain was one of the most powerful voices of his age in opposing racism and social injustice. "Teachers and students alike," she asserts, "must learn to grapple with this novel, which they cannot do unless they read it." And they must read it as Twain wrote it -- not in some bowdlerized, antihistorical version which uses words like slave or servant or hand as substitutes for nigger.

Because the editors of literature anthologies are very tightly restricted by pressure-group demands, "bias" rules and "fairness" rules, they must give much of their attention to ensuring that the authors and the literary characters who appear in their anthologies include proper numbers of males, females, representatives of certain races, and representatives of certain ethnic types; this matters more than does the literary quality of the anthologized material. As a result, many great works that we have regarded as elements of our literary heritage have disappeared, quietly and inevitably, from our schools.

The Dogma of "Cultural Equivalence"

Censorship distorts the history curriculum by injecting political considerations into interpretations of the past, so that schoolbook "history" is twisted to accommodate the sensitivities of feminist groups, religious groups, racial groups, ethnic groups, and others. As a result, schoolbook "history" has few, if any, ideas or anecdotes or arguments that might excite students or awaken enthusiasm for learning about the past.

Surveying history texts issued in the late 1990s, Ravitch finds that their only coherent narrative is based on "cultural equivalence" -- the dogma that all of the world's civilizations have been great, glorious, sophisticated and highly developed, that all of them have produced grand cultural and material achievements, and that no society has been more advanced or less advanced than any other.

To show how the "cultural equivalence" dogma is reflected in history textbooks, Ravitch tells us how some American Indians are glorified in a high-school text issued by Glencoe/McGraw-Hill:

For example, American Odyssey: The United States in the Twentieth Century describes the Anasazi Indians in mythical terms. The Anasazi lived in the southwest from about 900 to 1300, when they abandoned their homes. There is no attempt to explain how they influenced the United States, which was not established until nearly five hundred years after the Anasazi disappeared. The text implies that the Anasazi were far wiser than we, who think of ourselves as advanced. The Anasazi "fostered an egalitarian culture in which people functioned as equals. Without kings, chiefs, or other official authority figures to compel cooperation, members of Anasazi farming villages built dams, reservoirs, and irrigation systems," as well as four hundred miles of "roads and broad avenues." Because they had "leisure" and "prosperity," they produced "beautiful baskets and pottery, but their greatest creativity flowered in architecture." The book praises the Anasazi's multistoried "apartment complexes" and says: "Until a larger apartment building went up in New York City in 1882, the size of this Anasazi building of the tenth century remained unsurpassed in the world."

Then Ravitch makes these comments:

It is worth recalling that the Anasazi were a prehistoric people who left no written records. How does the author know that they had no kings, chiefs, or other authority figures? Is it credible that a prehistoric civilization constructed roads, dams, and large dwellings with no one in charge? Were Anasazi structures really taller than any other building in the ancient or medieval world?

The last of those questions has a straightforward answer: no. Glencoe/McGraw-Hill's claim is false. Taller buildings had existed in ancient Rome, and medieval Europeans had built cathedrals that were even taller.

Ravitch then turns to a tallest-building claim that she found in World History: Connections to Today, a high-school text published by the Prentice Hall division of Pearson Education:

[The Prentice Hall book] claims that "the Mayan pyramids remained the tallest structures in the Americas until 1903, when the Flatiron building, a skyscraper, was built in New York City." Since no text gives the height of any of these structures, it's anyone's guess which claim is right or why it matters.

Strategies for Ending This Crisis

What can be done to end this monumental crisis of distortion and censorship in schoolbooks? Ravitch makes three suggestions:

I would add a fourth suggestion: Every teacher, every school administrator, every school-board member, and every citizen who cares about the quality of education in this country should read The Language Police. They might not like what they find in Diane Ravitch's book, but they will no longer be ignorant. And censorship will lose its strongest protection.


  1. In her account of why the blind-hiker story was ruled out, Ravitch says: "Blindness, apparently, should be treated as just another personal attribute, like the color of one's hair, or one's height. In the new meaning of bias, it is considered biased to acknowledge that lack of sight is a disability." [return to text]

  2. See Sheldon M. Stern's review of Glencoe's The American Journey in The Textbook Letter, Vol. 9, No. 4, and Michael B. Chesson's review of Prentice Hall's The American Nation in Vol. 11, No. 4. [return to text]

  3. About half of the states of the Union are "adoption states." In each of these, the state board of education runs formal schoolbook-adoption proceedings and declares certain books to be suitable for use in the state's public schools. When educators in an adoption state choose the books that will be used in their classrooms, they usually pick books that the state board has approved. Schoolbook-company censors give special attention to what happens during adoption proceedings in the most populous adoption states -- California, Texas and Florida -- and to demands made by pressure groups in those states. [return to text]

Anne C. Westwater has retired after an extensive career in science education, including some fifteen years as a teacher of biology, earth science and environmental science at Napa High School (in Napa, California).


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