In the aftermath of the Lacedaemonian revolution, Thucydides writes, “Words had to change their meanings and take on those which were now given them.” Diane Ravitch’s Language Police explores the complications surrounding the meaning of the word “bias” in the aftermath of an American educational revolution. Now “bias” is used to mean the appearance of any idea or term that references a specific aspect of a non-utopian society in any educational material. Under this bloated definition, anything that could potentially offend anyone must be excised from textbooks and standardized tests.
Ravitch calls out both ends of the political spectrum for their readiness to mold the meaning of bias to fit their political purposes, and then to force textbooks and testing companies to conform to this meaning. The Language Police is a modern, real-life (if slightly bland) Fahrenheit 451, showing each “concerned interest group” as a match-holder greedily circling libraries full of classic literature and undistorted histories.
The materials that are “censored” are not excluded at the whim of a single vigilant textbook or test editor or company. Ravitch shows the exclusion to be a result of a deeply flawed system that stifles competition, and forces “bland pabulum” on teachers and students. Because most states require statewide adoption of textbooks, there is intense competition among the major textbook companies for the business of the states with the largest education systems, especially California and Texas. However, this competition only occurs among the four major publishing houses, each of which has taken over many smaller companies, and only one of which is American-owned. Because of the high cost of developing textbooks that meet the guidelines of the market (large sums have to be spent marketing textbooks to state Boards of Education), there is an effective barrier to entry in the textbook market. Furthermore, since California and Texas are the largest markets for which books are chosen by the state, only publishers who consistently win their approval can remain on the market. Thus, all it takes to forever banish a word or image from schools across the nation is a well-placed, vocal group to lobby the Board of Education in either of these states.
It is in the California market that publishers feel the most pressure from the left. This pressure is to exclude any word that begins or ends with man (mankind, postman, human, etc.) or refers to any racial or ethnic group in a “negative manner,” or seemingly any manner at all. In this case, negative manner expands to include a member of the group engaging in behavior stereotypical of that group. Thus, a story about an Asian person who happened to be a math whiz or a chef would be unacceptable, as would a story about a black athlete or a woman who knits. In Texas, the state board feels pressure from the Christian Right to exclude activities and ideas that are at odds with their own conception of what is proper. This cuts out not only disobedient children or irresponsible fathers, but also references to pre-historic times, which suggest evolution. Certainly in this world there is no drug use, no divorce, no lawlessness, and no homosexuality.
Perhaps you would think that these two sets of standards oppose each other and would cause intense disagreement between two groups that were not so friendly to begin with. However, textbook and testing companies, ever the peacekeepers, were able to satisfy everyone by eliminating, well, everything. Stories may not refer to a specific region of the country because “children should not be expected to read or comprehend stories set in unfamiliar terrain.” Stories may not show “a preference for light over darkness” as it is “a manifestation of bias.” Stories may not refer to animals, places, or symbols that any culture, ethnicity, or religion may find offensive, including Mount Rushmore, as some Lakota Indians consider it a desecration of the holy Black Hills (not that you could say Black or Hills). Thus textbook editors excise all places, customs, and peoples out of fear that exposure to factual content might actually be harmful to children. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to see where the line was crossed from protecting young children from profanity and stopping the reinforcement of discrimination to impeding the intellectual development of children by shielding them from anything but a projection of lobbying groups’ notions of an ideal society.
The chapters on literature and history, entitled “Literature: Forgetting the Tradition” and “History: The Endless Battle,” are the only ones besides the impassioned final pages in which we can find any hint of a solution. In a book about what children can’t and don’t read, the strongest sections are certainly those on what children should read. It is in departing from her catalogue of the sins of Christian fundamentalists, feminist language butchers, and timid publishers that Ravitch finds the voice to say exactly what curricula are missing and why this is a problem. The lack of any content whatsoever, real or imagined, bleeds children’s imagination, and destroys their ability to encounter anything beyond their direct realm of experience (momentarily ignoring the powerful inputs of popular media). Ironically, in trying to expose children to nothing but ideal conditions, educators have probably eliminated their ability to move toward that ideal by failing to develop the skills that allow them to encounter and understand “the other.”
Without an exposure to and understanding of our less-than-perfect world, children cannot shape its future. Even more tragic is a loss of any exposure to the past. We lose the past when we exclude slavery and colonization from history books and when we eliminate any “value system” different from our own from literature. We lose the past when we assume that children will be offended and damaged by anything that doesn’t match the cleanest possible version of the present. Furthermore, we lose the past when we fail to hold children’s attention in the classroom due to a lack of engaging reading material. We lose the past when we relinquish control over its portrayal from expert educators and field specialists to interest groups and political lobbyists. Ravitch’s arguments are compelling, and depressing. However, in the final pages, she turns to optimism and outlines the war against censorship. With effort, she is sure that we can stop censorship and revive schoolchildren’s ability to think by restoring realistic content to their learning materials. If this sounds dramatic, it is because the battle itself is dramatic, and not at all overstated. Succinctly, she says, echoing Thucydides, “by expurgating literature, we teach [schoolchildren] that words are meaningless and fungible.”