The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn
by Diane Ravitch
Knopf. 272 pp. $24.00
Diane Ravitch’s account of censorship in educationland is at once unsurprising and stunning. It is unsurprising because many, maybe most, of her readers will start out knowing that the culture wars have long since come to the textbook and testing industries, and do not need to be reminded that educators seek to avoid anything that might be labeled racism, ageism, sexism, or any other hot-button ism, including (in a number of jurisdictions) Darwinism. Indeed Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University and the author of seven previous books on educational themes, has often made these points herself.
But the shocker in the book is its depiction of a censorship system that is widespread, insistently formalized in endless lists of prohibited thoughts, and acquiesced in by all participants. The textbook publishers and test-preparation companies have ceased to look like victims of censorship; they long ago switched sides and have become eager to muzzle themselves. They all conduct “bias and sensitivity” reviews before publishing anything, and they all have advisory boards representing every major national/religious/ethnic background and charged with sniffing out anything offensive to any of them.
Ravitch’s early chapters offer a detailed look at the censorship rules now in place. A major theme is “The New Meaning of Bias,” which is the title of Chapter 2. It appears that the term “bias” now refers to any formulation that might upset a schoolchild. It also appears that educators have utterly insane notions about the emotional fragility of their charges—who are endlessly exposed via television to violence, criminality, child abuse, abortion, unwanted pregnancies, and other real-world downers yet are judged unable to deal with any references to these matters in textbooks or even reading-comprehension tests. Two further chapters elaborate the unmentionables for textbook publishers and test-development companies like the Educational Testing Service. These are followed by chapters comparing censorship from the Right (meaning mainly Christian conservatives) with that from the Left (the political correctniks).
Ravitch suggests early on that many of the prohibitions derive from complaints by the “religious Right,” but I came away sensing that radical political correctness is by far the larger problem. It is true that the Christian-conservative censors are responsible for trying to suppress Darwinian evolution. They have also endlessly complained about literature depicting family conflicts, teenage sexuality, triumphant feminism, and abortion, and generally want the schools to promote their “idealized vision of the past,” in Ravitch’s words. A lawsuit brought against Holt, Rinehart & Winston by Tennessee fundamentalist Christians in the 1980’s accused the firm of publishing elementary-school readers that, among other things, belittled the government, the military, free enterprise, and Christianity.
There is certainly a powerful whiff of philistinism in some of the Christian-conservative agenda. But it seems clear that much of what conservatives are complaining about is the depraved opposing agenda: the one in which censorship has morphed into indoctrination and spawned textbooks exalting single parenthood, Mao’s China, and multiculturalism—and putting down Western civilization. Here is Ravitch on one weirdly anti-American book, a Houghton Mifflin world-history text for middle-school students:
To See a World implies that every world culture is wonderful except for the United States. It lauds every world culture as advanced, complex, and rich with artistic achievement, except for the United States. Readers learn that people in the United States confront such problems as discrimination, poverty, and pollution. Those who came to this country looking for freedom, the book says, found hardship and prejudice; the immigrants did all the hard work, but the settled population hated and feared them.
The proliferation of textbooks like To See a World suggests that the promoters of political correctness have been making far more headway in the culture wars than the Christian conservatives. The publishers clearly despise the conservatives, and have occasionally battled them in court. They also appear to inhabit much the same mental universe as the feminists and activists coming at them from the Left. Documents submitted in the Tennessee suit against Holt, Rinehart & Winston indicate that the company’s editors were privately rather sympathetic to their radical critics. One supervising editor had bitterly attacked the conservatives as totalitarians while characterizing the company’s left-wing critics as “positive pressure groups.”
But even if the textbook publishers had the nerve and inclination to take on their critics, they would almost certainly not prevail. Fighting in court looks to be a losing move: Holt ultimately won the long and contentious Tennessee case in the U.S. Supreme Court, but the series at issue did not survive the bitterness engendered by the process, and was soon out of print. And challenging the critics in the arena of politics is even more problematical.
Preparing a new textbook series is enormously expensive, and makes economic sense only if it sells in a number of the larger states. Texas and California are particularly crucial, since they are the largest of the two dozen states that make statewide purchases. Both Texas and California have education departments that evaluate prospective textbooks and hold public hearings before making any purchases. The Texas hearings have often featured ambushes by conservative activists. In California, the publishers know what to expect from the state’s “social content” guidelines, but meeting them presents challenges.
The California guidelines, which are written into state law, are a fantastic exercise in proportionality—with respect not only to gender and ethnicity but to occupations, all accompanied by two strictly enforced rules: (1) the number of references to each group is expected to match the state’s actual demographic realities, and (2) no adverse reflections on any group. The last thing a publisher needs in this situation is to have its prospective texts denounced at the hearings for violating state standards. And so, inevitably, publishers mercilessly censor their own material in an effort to forestall any possible objections.
The details Ravitch lays on the table here are astonishing. Some are also hilarious: educational bureaucrats in California ruled against one edition of The Little Engine That Could—a long-time favorite in the kindergarten leagues—because the andiropomorphic engine in the illustration appeared to be male. Rated equally risible on my scorecard are the guidelines employed by Holt concerning Jews. It appears that textbooks published by the company for use in California may not depict Jews as diamond cutters, jewelers, doctors, dentists, lawyers, classical musicians, tailors, or shopkeepers. Hard-hitting outfielders appear to be okay.
Three publishers—Glencoe, Houghton Mifflin, and Prentice Hall—employ the same individual, who is based at the Council on Islamic Education, to review all references to Islam. Since criticism is unthinkable in writing about religion, the history texts are, in Ravitch’s words, “tongue-tied when dealing with Islamic fundamentalism.” A Harcourt Brace textbook called World History: The Human Experience blandly explains that the radical Islamists want to “return to Muslim traditions” (the nature of the traditions is not identified), and compares them with conservative Protestants in the United States.
The regulations governing textbook production guarantee not only that the books will be staggering bores, but that they will be expensive to produce. The expense problem is magnified by the common requirement that successive new editions bring things up to date—that modern-history texts take note of, say, the latest President, even if in a passing reference. The heavy investment costs, combined with the special expertise needed to navigate the regulatory requirements, means that th]e barriers to enter the industry are high. Ravitch leaves one persuaded that textbook publishers today are a regulated monopoly, not a competitive industry.
She also believes that better texts would emerge in a deregulated environment, and in a final chapter briefly outlines a three-step proposal for bringing this about. The process would begin with elimination of the statewide purchasing process; feature a “sunshine” program in which both publishers and state education departments would make public their bias-and-sensitivity guidelines; and, finally, encourage an educational system in which teachers are better-trained and less dependent on textbooks.
I did not find this convincing—possibly because the proposal is so brief and sketchy, possibly because Ravitch’s program would require an aroused majority of parents who, so far, at least, show no signs of understanding that the textbooks are so terrible. And possibly because, in the pages leading up to the proposal, Ravitch has so persuasively pointed up the deeply entrenched nature of the censorship regime.