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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn

A Powerful Indictment of American Textbook Publishing

In the endless debates over political correctness, champions of PC like to argue that their foes exaggerate the harm it causes. If you study the issue closely, you’ll find that political correctness is not as bad as you think it is—it’s much worse.

Diane Ravitch found out this unwholesome truth in 1998. A prominent education historian who is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution, Ravitch was asked to serve on a Clinton administration committee that was preparing a voluntary national reading test for fourth graders. The tests were never implemented because of fear that they would result in a mandatory national curriculum. But as Ravitch worked on the standards, she found it curious that certain sorts of stories were no longer considered appropriate for children.

One story was about how owls live. The reviewers said that, since owls were sacred to Navajo Indians, they were no longer allowed in textbooks. Another story about a blind mountain climber who climbed Mount McKinley was outlawed because it suffered from “regional bias.” Children who didn’t live near mountains, the reviewers said, wouldn’t understand the story. A third tale about the creatures who lived in a rotting tree stump nearly made it—until the author said the tree stump was like an “apartment house” for insects. The reviewers thought that this story would hurt the self-esteem of apartment dwellers.

Ravitch was outraged and decided to investigate. She found that since the 1970s, all textbooks have undergone “bias and sensitivity reviews” to eliminate material that anyone might consider offensive. In addition, for the past 30 years, questions on national exams such as the Scholastic Achievement Test have been subject to “differential item functioning,” which eliminates questions that purportedly would give students higher scores because of their race or gender.

Ravitch asked textbook publishers to send her examples of bias and sensitivity reviews. Most refused to comply. But she was able to obtain some of these reviews from smaller publishers, and some documents became available in a 1980s Tennessee court case. From those materials and her own analysis of history and language textbooks, Ravitch has produced a powerful indictment of American textbook publishing.

There are few big textbook publishers, and most of them produce textbooks designed to appeal to the two biggest semi-competitive markets: California and Texas. “Liberals” largely dominate the textbook review process in California, while the religious right has some say over how textbooks are chosen in Texas.

Textbook producers (most are written by committee) try to appease the complainers by eliminating anything that would offend anyone. The religious right is somewhat appeased by elimination of any references to evolution (including all dinosaur references) and Halloween. But the left gets substantially more say through their power to cleanse texts of anything they consider racist and sexist.

The resulting books are politically correct—and extremely boring. Children read vapid literature textbooks, Ravitch argues, and decide that reading is far less fun than movies or television. They look at history textbooks, filled with names, dates, and snappy stories, and decide that history doesn’t matter. “With the teenagers’ usual ability to spot a scam,” Ravitch writes, “they know that much of what is taught to them is phony and not worth remembering.”

“Censorship in the schools, whatever its purpose, is censorship,” Ravitch concludes. “It would be abhorrent to those who care about freedom of thought, to those who believe that minds grow sharper by contending with challenging ideas.”

Ravitch offers several ways parents can fight back against the language police. She offers in an appendix an annotated bibliography of children’s books worth reading, compiled with the assistance of children’s literature specialist Rodney Atkinson. The list, including such classic writers as Emily Dickinson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Robert Louis Stevenson, is one all parents will find interesting; homeschoolers should find Atkinson and Ravitch’s recommendations particularly useful.

The reforms Ravitch proposes—opening up the textbook-adoption process to competition, encouraging teachers to spend less time on textbooks and more time studying original (and uncensored!) texts—would improve matters. But the dominance of the bias and sensitivity reviewers is also a powerful argument for school choice, since the triumph of the language police is only possible in a centralized, bureaucratic state system where there is no diversity in what students learn. Competition in textbooks would be good; competition in schools would be better.

The Language Police is a powerful and important book that provides more reasons why government schools are in trouble.