The Language Police Live Inside of My Head

Last year I was previewing a textbook that I was about to use in a Human Development course I was teaching. The book was the usual flamboyant montage of facts, grids, and pictures, but then I suddenly ran across a most unusual sentence. It read, 'As a folksinger once sang, how many roads must an individual walk down before you can call them an adult.' I was stupefied.

Of course, I realized that they were quoting from a Bob Dylan song that was a hit on its own and later one for Peter, Paul, and Mary. The lyrics in actuality are: 'how many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man.' At first I wondered how they could legally get away with doing what they did, but then I noticed that they had not identified the singer or used quotation marks around the line they cited. I wondered why anyone would do such a thing. I quickly realized that their rationale for brutally changing the words of one of our finest songwriters was due to their desire to be 'inclusive' and not exclude women from the realm of adulthood by saying 'man' alone. This kind of 'Pamperfication' (my term) of students and treating them like Faberge eggs is now very prevalent across our educational landscape. The desire of textbook makers and assessment companies to never challenge a student's preexisting sensibilities is very much the reason that Diane Ravitch wrote her new book, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn.

Dr. Ravitch is a former member of the first Bush administration's Department of Education. She is currently a professor at New York University . Despite her past political affiliations, I'd like to firmly state that this is not a 'conservative' book. The author painstakingly documented that censorship, or pressure, upon textbook manufacturers comes from both the right and the left. Indeed, she has separate chapters devoted to analyzing censorship from both sides of the political spectrum. This book is not in any way a polemic. It is instead a professional, objective account of what has happened to the educational resources industry within the United States .

This is a fine work of scholarship, as Dr. Ravitch relies on primary source materials as a means of bolstering her conclusions about the current milquetoast world of instructional decision making. She personally examines the textbooks, diagnostic devices, and publishing house guidelines of the companies she investigates. The results will be particularly disturbing to the layman who has little knowledge of the workings of educrats and educationese.

I recommend this work to the reader, as it is a fountain of rare and useful information, but I would like to mention that, at least to this reviewer, it was far from a page turner. It principally deals with dry subject matter. In fact, you might say that it is the vocation of publishing and assessment companies to be as bland in their creation of products as is humanly possible.

The current state of affairs regarding the materials used in the public schools is that 'what began with admirable intentions has evolved into a surprisingly broad and increasingly bizarre policy of censorship that has gone far beyond its original scope and now excises from tests and notebooks words, images, passages, and ideas that no reasonable person would consider biased in the usual meaning of that term.' So, the publishers have decided to fix, through censorship, a problem that was not actually a problem in the first place.

Her examples are frankly horrifying. We see that perfectly intuitive assumptions are stricken from the texts due to their presumed insensitivity. An example is a passage concerning a blind person being at a physical disadvantage when he or she attempted to climb a mountain. To the education industry, blindness is just another personal attribute like hair color or weight and conveys no inherent disadvantage to those afflicted by it. Also of note is the issue of 'regional bias,' which states that children should only be expected to read questions or passages that are not alien to their geographic locale. You can't include items about deserts, as most children do not live near them, so, by this ridiculous anti-reasoning, an unfamiliar child would immediately shut down if they stumbled upon the word 'desert' while taking a test. If that were true then an exponential amount of school children would never have been exposed to the grandeur of Tolkien's middle earth or The Chronicles of Narnia.

Jobs and gender are also a touchy subject for these publishers, as textbook writers are advised not to depict men as plumbers or women as receptionists. I personally have never met a female plumber, or a male receptionist, in my entire life. I should thus conclude that either I have led a very sheltered existence or that these gate masters are intentionally asking pupils to ignore the world around them. More delusions are proffered by Dr. Ravitch. Boys should not be depicted as playing sports because that could endanger the stability of'who knows what.

The funniest of all was that one company outlawed Asian-Americans as being described as 'very intelligent, excellent scholars.' The outrage at having such a thing said about one! Let's schedule a duel for tomorrow! Why it's practically endorsing apartheid to call one intelligent or scholarly. This provides yet more proof that some minorities aren't really minorities in the eyes of the politically correct elites. Did it ever occur to these social engineers that their heavy-handedness may instill skepticism in later life within their brainwashees? I certainly hope it will, and the author states: 'Denying reality is a common feature of writing against stereotype.' She could not be more accurate.

The news gets even worse. It seems that no literature or writing from before 1970 can be trusted. This speaks volumes about my own work and the contrarian opinions I embody. You see, I was born in 1969 and therefore missed the 'sensitivity/banality' cutoff date. You might be wondering why an arbitrary date like 1970 was chosen. Well, before that year, women were often referred to by 'wife' as opposed to 'spouse' and men were depicted as household breadwinners who often performed manual labor. In the mind of the educrats, this is pass'. The reader is only deluding themselves when they deny that the majority of modern day women are welders, oil rig workers, and sewer maintenance personnel.

The truly 'laugh out loud' portion of The Language Police can be found in her 'Glossary of Banned Words.' I recommend reading this first as you'll have conversation for the rest of the week. None of the words that you'd think would be in there are present (they must be too obvious). We see that 'abnormal' is verboten due to it demeaning those with disabilities. This would seem to negate a semester long graduate course I once took called 'Abnormal Psychology.' I should not be surprised if the class is now called 'Variations of Normal Psychology.' Alas, I spoke too soon, as 'normal,' the antonym of abnormal, has been banned as well. Further, you now cannot use the term 'American' to describe citizens of the United States (I'm not kidding), as it discriminates against those from Canada and Mexico who are also part of the greater 'American' landmass. More moronically, you can't put into print the words 'beast, fanatic, fat, jungle, lunatic, maid, special, strange, yacht' and 'costume' as some bureaucrat behind an AV machine must quiver at their pronunciation as well.

The dear educational publishers and their word enemy list offer an answer to the eternal question of whether one is a man or mouse. It has now been decisively answered that they are the latter, as the merchandisers appear to be sincerely frightened of rodents in general. Dr. Ravitch elaborates, 'It is hard to imagine that a fourth-grade student would be paralyzed by dread by reading a story that included descriptions of mice. Clearly forbidden by such a prohibition is any excerpt from books like E.B. White's Stuart Little or Robert Lawson's Ben and Me.'

Tragically, much of what we know, love, and cherish is now considered unsuitable for young ears. Soon we may be banned as well. Actually, I'm not altogether kidding. I would not be surprised if, in the future, school personnel had to take a formal diversity and multicultural examination before receiving their state credentials. You might regard my statement as being unduly cynical, but my own experience taking the State of Illinois certification exam in 1995 instructs me as to what tomorrow may bring. I sat in the auditorium and attempted to translate one bafflingly politically correct question after another into a language I understood. Ultimately, what the book will leave you with is the same impression that I had after taking the exam, which is '[t]ruth and historical accuracy'are not important values to the bias reviewers.' This is an understatement, as they do not appear to be a priority to our educational establishment on the whole.

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Bernard Chapin's picture
Columns on STR: 33

Bernard Chapin is a writer from Chicago.