Is Our Education in Danger?

Book Review: The Language Police by Diana Ravitch.  Published by Alfred Knopf.  2003


        Do you have some favorite books and stories from your childhood—how about The Little House books of Laura Ingalls Wilder?  Or how about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn?  And Grimm’s Fairy Tales?  Or Mother Goose Rhymes?  These are only a few that warm my heart and the hearts of my children and grandchildren

        And how about history?  Are you thrilled by stories about Ancient Greece and Rome, the Maya and Inca empires, the empires of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, the builders of the pyramids in Egypt and the Great Wall in China, the art of the Renaissance and the explosion of thought in the Enlightenment—in fact the entire panorama of human achievement over millennia, not to mention our own nation’s development from its multiple other national roots, the tales of immigrant families and the settling of the West?

        If it seems to you that education consists in transmitting the wonders of literature and history as well as the three R’s, you may well be alarmed as I am by the findings of Diane Ravitch in her book “The Language Police”. The book’s sub-title “How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn” aptly introduces you to her theme.

        School textbook publishers are of course eager to sell their textbooks.   In some large states a state school board selects the books for all the state public schools. This board is subject to endless conflicting political pressures from various interests, from religious and  ethnic communities to various political and social groups.  Traditional versus feminist, liberal versus conservative, genetic determinist versus behaviorist—all have their preferred presentations to the student.  Sometimes we wonder what has happened to the idea that young people need full exposure to controversial issues in order to learn to think clearly for themselves.

        The problem began with the laudable intention to remove hateful and disparaging racial and ethnic stereotypes from textbooks, to encourage inclusion of accurate historical presentation of achievements of minorities and women, and to include literature of minorities.  The CIBC (Council on Interracial Books for Children) was founded in 1966 and aimed for the above goals.  However, as the political and cultural climate changed the group became more militant and pressured publishers to avoid, and teachers and librarians to remove from their shelves, any books that violated its guidelines, which became increasingly stringent. Initially the American Library Association reaffirmed that “intellectul freedom …..promotes no causes, furthers no movements, and favors no viewpoints”.  Although the ALA briefly succumbed to the pressure of the CIBC in 1979 within a few years it made a statement decrying censorship, applying a policy called “Diversity in Collection Development” as a positive step towards more inclusive collections.

       Unfortunately state school boards, in view of their elected status, find it more difficult to resist pressure from such groups.  Furthermore, if the publisher loses the textbook market of the entire state of Texas or California, it isn’t enough consolation to have a first-rate book that smaller school districts might select.  Concern  to select books that offend nobody results in publishers being “self-censoring” by appointing “bias and sensitivity” committees to screen all textbooks. And the potential offended groups have multiplied exponentially, to include major and minor religious denominations, multiple ethnic and nationality groups, social and political theorists, in fact anyone who can bend the ear of a state school board or a legislature.  Established contemporary authors have had their works emasculated for inclusion in anthologies—sometimes without their knowledge or consent.  And of course the classic authors, no longer living, cannot defend themselves.

            A few examples of the twenty-nine pages of forbidden verbal images should make it apparent how Orwellian this state of affairs actually is:

                         Women engaged in domestic chores or even wearing an apron

                            Men as bread-winners

                            Grandparents as in any way frail, with gray hair, or hard of hearing

                            African-Americans as musically gifted

                             Foods that are not politically correct, like cookies, candy, soda, coffee or tea

                             Disobedient children


        There are more pages of words which are banned, with suggested substitutes.

                             Not dwarf, but person of short stature

                             Not fat, but heavy or obese

                             Not huts, but small houses

                             Not snowman, but snowperson.


These 29 pages are all examples to be found in guidelines of publishers or state agencies, although there must be more, since Ms. Ravitch was unable to obtain many agencies’ and publishers’ guidelines!

        When it comes to examination materials the rules are even more stringent.  It is not acceptable to test children using reading passages on any subject outside their own experience, such as the ocean or mountains for midwesterners, farms for city children and urban life for farm children, tropical jungles or Antarctic glaciers for dwellers in temperate climates.  To do so would give an unfair advantage to children who had such experience.  A selection about Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who designed the Mt. Rushmore monument was rejected because it might offend the Lakota Indians who wish it were not there.  An inspiring story about a blind man who climbed Mt. McKinley was rejected because it implied that blindness was a handicap and celebrating his achievement constituted bias against visually handicapped people!  These are only two examples of the intention of Language Police to create totally generic scenes, generic characters, and generic actions for testing children.  There is no perception that we share an extensive cultural heritage and that one of the goals of education is to introduce children to this wonderful tapestry of imagination and experience.  And if this is a goal of education, it should certainly be assessed on our tests.

       Does Ms. Ravitch have any suggestions?  Indeed she does.  Individual school boards can encourage their teachers and curriculum directors to select their own textbooks and broaden the teaching with “trade books” like biographies, histories, literature published for the general public.  State boards can establish standards, but should not dictate the choice of books.  Competition will give encouragement to smaller publishers and a wider variety of authors.  Transparency of the process is essential.  Publishers and state textbook commissions have on occasion been sufficiently embarrassed by exposure of their censorship to alter their more ridiculous decisions.  Such  selectors of textbooks should be obliged to publish their guidelines. We must reaffirm that censorship in education “represents a systemic breakdown of our ability to educate the next generation and to transmit to them a full and open range of ideas about important issues in the world.  By avoiding controversy, we teach them to avoid dealing with reality” (quoted from the author).

       Our third line of defense is well-educated teachers., who are masters of their subject, whether it be science, history, or literature.  Such teachers will not tolerate inaccurate or politicized materials.  Aided by good sources reviewing new text or trade books, they will be able to teach creatively, with due attention to the age-suitability of their selections. The current emphasis on professional development of teachers should move us in this direction.  You will be glad to hear that Monroe schools are providing strong support from all parties:  administration, teachers, and school board, for this emphasis.

       It is up to the concerned public and parents to be aware of the hazards of censorship of ideas, however tempting it may be to any individual interest group.  I heartily recommend this book as a fascinating and provocative exploration of the subject.


Mary Frantz, MD

January 25, 2005, published in the April, 2005, issue of Wisconsin School News