Language Police: Same Book, Different Take, but worth a read

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!

Comments

Litigation

Daniel - Glad you enjoyed the book.

You mentioned a word I would like to expound upon, litigation. You're observation of major publishers prostrating to litigation loving lobbies is correct. My question. Can you blame the publishers??

I see little wiggle room here. Textbook publishers, what few there are, invest their capital in hopes of winning a state contract. No contract, no business. The effect can be crippling to the bottom line and stockholder confidence. Couple this with the threat of litigation and whatever hope for creative authorship is dashed. It's no coincidence these textbooks read like a DOT "Rules of the Road" manual.

Your comment "terrified of anything that might sink sales or lead to controversy or litigation" is the issue here. It's dead on correct. Remove state procurement and the lawyers. Add the elixir of free market competition and we are in business (no pun intended). As for learning efficacy or profits, let's be honest. The botton line is the bottom line.

Is there such a thing as tort reform for whining lobbyists with lawyers on retainer??

Now how bout' that Hitchens book? ; )

Re:Litigation

I think we can blame publishers for 1) Not publishing their bias and sensitivity guidelines and 2) Not drawing attention to deletions/alterations when they do use literature not originally written for textbooks. Neither action would land them in court and possibly might be a selling point to states other than California and Texas.In fact, I hope that authors whose published work is altered w/o permission when it goes to a textbook start suing the publishers. It might stop some of the bowlderization going on in the textbook industry.You do have a point about how the larger responsibility lies with the educational establishment not distorting the textbook market with statewide textbook adoptions and their own, secret bias and sensitivity guidelines. Have you written your state legislator or education commissioner lately to complain?I need to investigate the textbook procurement process in Alaska. I think we already let individual districts buy books on their own, but I'm not sure.About that Hitchens book -- I'll make you a deal. I'll share my preconceptions with you, and if you honestly believe I've got the wrong idea about his new book, I'll read the book. You'll have to give me the title again.From what I've read of Christopher Hitchens' over the past few years, I bet his book follows this pattern:1) al-Qaeda and their ilk believe in the exact opposite of what all good, progressive liberals should believe. (Comment - Close enough)2) al-Qaeda and their ilk want all remotely progressive liberals dead, dead, dead! (Comment -- true)3) Progressive forces have zero chance of leading us to the bright liberal future if we are all dead and the West is a smoking ruin. (Comment -- true IF Islamists could destroy the West, which I don't see being possible for generations.)4) Therefore it is imperative that progressives and liberals join forces with those seeking to eradicate radical Islamist groups and the states that sponsor them. This will likely take much military action abroad and some temporary reductions of liberty at home. It is worth it, because we must survive to build the liberal future. (Comment -- This would bring us Checnya on a global scale.)I know you won't be afraid of calling this "synopsis" a close-minded phony trick if that's what it is. But if the above is close to his thesis, I'm not buying. If I'm wrong, I'm willing to read.I've just started ANOTHER book on terrorism recommended by a friend called "Terror and Liberalism" by Paul Berman that may or may not cover similar ground. I'm on page 18, so there's not much to say yet. The back cover of the book says:"The terror war is not an imperialist war. Nor is it a clash of civilizations. The terror war is a new phase of the war that broke out in Europe more than eighty years ago and has never come to an end."When I know more, I'll comment more. Take care.

Re:Litigation

>. Have you written your state legislator or education commissioner lately to complain?

No I haven't and doubt I will. I vote by sending my daughter to a parochial school. (An aside: vouchers also represent a real opportunity for shaking down State Boards of Education however the smart money is still with the NEA and AFT).

Your questions.

>>1) al-Qaeda and their ilk believe in the exact opposite of what all good, progressive liberals should believe. (Comment - Close enough)
No...exact opposite of what all good, civilized people should believe.

>>2) al-Qaeda and their ilk want all remotely progressive liberals dead, dead, dead! (Comment -- true)Half true. They want all Americans dead. They aren't too discriminate about political affiliation.

>>3) Progressive forces have zero chance of leading us to the bright liberal future if we are all dead and the West is a smoking ruin. (Comment -- true IF Islamists could destroy the West, which I don't see being possible for generations.)
I'm sorry, but I don't follow with this talk of "progressive forces". Far left liberals here??? Hitchens does believe that Bush is the best man for this war on "terrorism" (a term he believes should go the way of the Dodo)

>>4) Therefore it is imperative that progressives and liberals join forces with those seeking to eradicate radical Islamist groups and the states that sponsor them. This will likely take much military action abroad and some temporary reductions of liberty at home. It is worth it, because we must survive to build the liberal future. (Comment -- This would bring us Checnya on a global scale.)
Actually Hitchens "calls out" Putin on Chechnya. These are very different issues.

>>I know you won't be afraid of calling this "synopsis" a close-minded phony trick if that's what it is. But if the above is close to his thesis, I'm not buying. If I'm wrong, I'm willing to read.

Daniel, I'm not sure how to respond to these questions after our different takes on the Language Police. My bet is we would read this differently as well. Let me leave you with these thoughts. Hitchens was a former Trotskyist however speaks little of what he is now. I have heard him characterized as a "polemist", which by my definition makes him "nothing". I will tell you that he supports Bush on the war. The rest I defer to your sage judgement.

A Long Short War: the postponed liberation of Iraq by Christopher Hitchens

Regards!

Re:Litigation

I'll take a look at "A Long Short War" just for his comments on Chechnya. It's not in the libraries in town, so I'll have to do interlibrary loan. That won't happen till May as our ILL dept is extremely busy during the Jan-May legislative session.My "progressive forces" term was only meant to reflect Hitchens' tendency to address the liberal community (i.e. Nation readers) in the immediate weeks after 9/11. I honestly haven't read him since.About parochial schools -- I don't have a complaint about them, but where do they get their textbooks from? Can you be sure that you're really escaping the Language Police by sending your daughter there?Catholic Schools are still a good bet. As is homeschooling for those with the time and temperment.

Re:Litigation

>>Can you be sure that you're really escaping the Language Police by sending your daughter there?

I was fortunate to have served as our school board president last year. (too little time this year) Our books (many) are selected with the teachers and are written from a Catholic/Christian perspective. Our Diocese also has an education department and stands willing to assist as well.

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