Tomeboy's posting of a review and excerpts from Diane's Ravitch's The Language Police: How pressure groups restrict what students learn intrigued me enough to check out the book from my local university library and read it.
Diane Ravitch is no Ann Coulter. Overall, this book is a fairly balanced, well documented text of how pressure groups have puree'd our children's textbooks into unreadable mush. A good sampling of her thought can be found on page 111, where she says:
"At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a new status quo emerged in which the textbook industry and the major adoption states became comfortable with one another. They shared the same bias guidelines, which quieted the critics, left and right. Feminists were happy, because the publishers had accepted a nonsexist language code. Ethnic and cultural minorities, people with disabilities, and the older population had no grounds for complaint, because they had won representation. Right-wingers were generally satisfied, because the topics that angered them were excluded.
"The only problem was that all this activism had made the textbooks dull. Studies showed that they also had a simpler vocabularly, that they had been dumbed down at the same time they were being "purified." With everything that might offend anyone removed, the textbooks lacked the capacity to inspire, sadden, or intrigue their readers. Such are the wages of censorship."
Ravitch emphasizes that one of the worst aspects of this "bias censorship" is that it is secretive. Nearly all publishers and state educational agencies will admit to HAVING bias and sensitivity guidelines, but most are not publicizing them.
To combat this secretive censorship, Ms. Ravitch proposes a three pronged solution, described on pages 163-170. Her solution consists of competition, sunshine and educated teachers.
Competition -- drop statewide textbook adoptions and make publishers sell direct to school districts. This will focus them on pleasing more teachers and local administrators and also force the opponents of textbooks to fight one district at a time.
Sunshine -- Force local, state, and federal education agencies and private publishers to publish their bias and sensitivity guidelines in many places, including the Internet.
Educated Teachers -- Ms. Ravitch claims (I haven't verified) that most teachers don't have a major or much coursework in the fields they are teaching, so they sometimes have as much trouble as students separating fact from fiction.
There is a lot of good material in the book, including interesting comparisons of English and History curriculia of the 50 states along with the surprisingly few state reading lists. Try this book out.
MY DIFFERENT TAKE: Where Tomeboy appears to see the evil hand of liberals and the Nanny state in these battles, I see cowardly corporations and the effects of an unfree market and centralized control of education. Essentially, the large textbook publishers are terrified of anything that might sink sales or lead to controversy or litigation. They have to especially worried of anything that makes waves in California or Texas, since those two state account for the bulk of the textbook market. Concern for profits over learning efficacy naturally lead to the elimination of whatever anyone squawks about.
If publishers had greater access to individual districts and if they were required to publish their bias and sensitivity guidelines, people and districts would gravitate to publishers with sensible guidelines and more interesting textbooks. A fully-informed, free market solution.
Finally, I need to point out that while I don't believe ALA has acted on this issue recently, they did take a stand in 1982 with a policy called "Diversity in Collection Development." According to Ms. Ravitch, this statement decried censorship and said that "removing or not selecting materials because they are considered by some as racist or sexist" was and example of censorship." This statement, while still against the censorship that Ms. Ravitch deplores, is admittedly a weakening of a 1973 statement "Sexism, Racism, and Other-Isms in Library Materials," which stated "intellectual freedom, in its purest sense, promotes no causes, furthers no movements, and favors no viewpoints ... Toleration is meaningless without toleration for the detestable." Still, as far as I know, the 1982 policy stands. Perhaps it needs to be revisited in light of the nationalization of our schools under NCLB, but ALA does have a policy of which it can be proud.
Whew! Until next time!