Textbook publishers do back flips to avoid offense

Several years ago, a bias and sensitivity review panel working on contract for the federal government ruled that, when testing the reading comprehension of fourth graders, any mention of owls ought to be verboten.

The reason - that owls are taboo to the Navajo and might upset someone of that ancestry - may have seemed farfetched, had the panel not made an even stranger decision to eliminate a story about a dolphin. That story was judged to be "regionally biased" and potentially confusing to kids who didn't live near an ocean.

The panel was a division of Riverside Publishing, hired by the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) during the Clinton administration to draft a voluntary achievement test for K-12 students nationwide. Serving on the NAGB from 1998 through 2000, educational historian Diane Ravitch was so dismayed by the bias panel's judgments that she decided to investigate whether such timidity was typical.

In "The Language Police," she documents the extensive bowdlerizing, under the influence of both left and right, of academic tests and textbooks alike, explaining why such meddling has an adverse effect on education.

"The entire process is designed to impose censorship," she writes. "The result of all this relentless purging is dishonesty, a purposeful shielding of children from anything challenging, controversial, or just plain interesting."

Such distortion is nothing new. As far back as the 19th century, school boards in formerly Confederate states demanded that history be more forgiving to the Old South than was acceptable to Yankees, presenting a challenge to which textbook companies responded by publishing separate editions for each region.

Later, pressure came from other quarters - everything from the Daughters of the American Revolution to the American Psychological Association - and gradually textbook and test publishers became as adept at capitulation as at printing and binding. Yet, to surrender to conservative and liberal demands simultaneously has taken a degree of spinelessness beyond even their customary flexibility.

"The publishers want everyone to be happy, or at least not to be unhappy," Ms. Ravitch writes. "Whereas the right gets topic control, the left gets control of language and images."

A glossary of words and subjects routinely eliminated, as compiled from publishers' guidelines by Ravitch, fills an appendix of 30 pages, and covers the gamut of American culture and vernacular. Words banned as potentially offensive include abnormal, bookworm, cult, and dummy. Pollyanna is sexist; polo is elitist; and physically challenged - a euphemism which does back flips just to avoid offense - is "patronizing to persons who have a physical disability."

Then again, restrictions on subject matter leave little opportunity for publishers even to use the limited vocabulary that remains. The terms span the alphabet: anthropomorphism, bodily functions, crime, divorce, evolution.... Add to these the list of forbidden stereotypes (dumb athletes, Irish policemen, old ladies with 20 cats) and it doesn't take a PhD to come to the conclusion that, as Ravitch writes, "So long as books and stories continue to be strained through a sieve of political correctness, fashioned by partisans of both left and right, all that will be left for students to read will be thin gruel."

In fact, if "The Language Police" has a serious flaw, it's that the conclusions are almost universally self-evident, likely to be reached by any sane person upon reading a small portion of her examples. Impressive as her evidence is in quantity, the book is not substantially improved by their sheer number: Having demonstrated that real censorship is taking place, she might do more to consider the societal implications.

Ravitch can seem as averse to taking intellectual risks as those publishers she condemns. But when she does, the insight emerges: "The goal of the language police is not just to stop us from using objectionable words but to stop us from having objectionable thoughts," she writes in the final chapter. "The language police believe that reality follows language usage."

If censors persist in their endeavors, those best prepared to endure the future may not be bookworms but dummies.

Jonathon Keats is a member of the National Book Critics Circle board.

Sanitized texts: 'protecting' or limiting children?

In "The Language Police," you document censorship of textbooks due to pressure from both the left and the right. Which side is gaining ground politically with children?

I don't think either is achieving its goals very effectively, because we live in a society where children can see, on TV and in the movies, anything that the tests and textbooks censor. School can't match that, especially since their bowdlerized materials are so dull.

Do these texts pose a significant danger?

Boredom is the greatest risk. To avoid controversy, publishers eliminate anything that might be potentially interesting.

I was at a Senate hearing recently, and David McCullough was talking about how having to read a history textbook these days is a punishment rather than a reward.

But cynicism is another major risk. If schools are teaching half-truths, and kids can figure that out - from what they see of the world on television and in the newspapers - they're simply not going to pay attention.

Haven't children always been exposed to sanitized information?

I think we've reached a higher level of censorship than even the history book manipulation that followed the Civil War.

Publishers have always exerted editorial control, but it's only in the past 20 years that bias guidelines were written down, bringing the censorship to a more intense and institutional level. Also textbook publishers have consolidated, in response to state textbook adoption.

Texas and California have led the way, and it's fundamentally a bad practice. It's like the government telling you what movies you should see.

What can be done?

The first step is public awareness. My goal is to build consensus. I'll continue speaking out, and I have a website, www.languagepolice.com, where people can send in additional examples of censorship.

But it isn't easy. I know firsthand how hard it is to identify what's missing - because it's not there.

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