No "heroines," owls, birthdays or pumpkins -- they might offend somebody

In her new bestseller "The Language Police," historian Diane Ravitch rips into the p.c. cops who are ruining America's textbooks in the name of "sensitivity."

Published May 17, 2003 3:04AM (EDT)

In the fairy tale world of educational publishing, there are no heroines.

No blizzards, rats or owls, either.

That's because these words -- along with over 500 others -- have been banned under the mandatory bias guidelines that must be followed by publishers of children's textbooks and tests.

According to these guidelines, heroines are sexist, blizzards demonstrate regional prejudice, rats are too scary and owls are culturally insensitive because they're associated with death in some cultures.

Pressure groups from the far left and right have hijacked children's education, claims educational historian Diane Ravitch, and replaced it with adult politics. What's worse, she says, most parents have no idea this is happening. In her damning new book, "The Language Police," Ravitch, who was an assistant secretary in the Department of Education under former President Bush and served on a board overseeing the development of national tests in the Clinton administration, outlines the byzantine approval process publishers must go through in order not to offend any pressure group, no matter how small. She says that the results of these guidelines are bloodless history textbooks that border on inaccuracy and bowdlerized literature devoid of controversial language or topics.

Salon spoke to Ravitch about the controversy over the word "American," the "sensitivity readers" who approve textbooks, and Harry Potter's dysfunctional family.

I learned how to read through Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales. What would the language police say are the long-term negative consequences of my having loved "The Little Match Girl" as a child?

There would be people from various advocacy groups who would say that your mind had been warped. That you were filled with all kinds of anti-feminist images, and that you'd been miseducated.

But what about the fact that I didn't take "The Little Match Girl" as a role model? Doesn't that count for something?

Well, of course. The thing is, so much of the claims these people make have absolutely no basis in reality. For instance, I give a long list of topics and words that you're not supposed to use on tests -- doughnuts (because they're considered unhealthy), birthdays (because some children do not have birthday parties) and pumpkins (because they are associated with Halloween, a pagan holiday). If they encounter a gender-biased word like, say, "salesman," or scary creatures like rats or mice or roaches, they'll be so distracted that they may not be able to complete the test.

So, let's say they're right. What's wrong with leaving those potentially scary or upsetting words out?

What's wrong with the theory is that there's no evidence to back it up. Sure, kids read stories that contain earthquakes and hurricanes and fires and somebody dies -- they read about all kinds of different situations. But the testing industry has become completely enamored of the notion that children won't be able to test well if they encounter something that upsets them. There's no basis in research for that. I've never seen the studies that demonstrate that there's any truth to that.

No studies at all?

No. The thing that's so alarming about what I documented is that all of these practices are now considered the industry standard. They haven't been debated, there's no literature in educational research publications where people argue about these practices, they're just accepted. They're stringently applied in the test development industry because of this belief that anything controversial will sink the whole test.

In Massachusetts just a couple of weeks ago there was a great flap because it turned out that the state asked the students to imagine what a snow day might be like, and there was a great hullabaloo -- how can you ask students about snow days when they haven't had a snow day, what about students who've just arrived from Latin America, they don't know what a snow day is, etc. So now those students are going to have to retake the test because people argued that large numbers of children cannot imagine what a snow day is.

So how can an educator square a desire to teach multiculturalism, and introduce new ideas to children, with concerns about regional and other biases?

Well, the reason why so much of what I've described doesn't make sense to me is that the ostensible reason for putting forth so much language policing is to promote diversity. But when you look at the so-called stereotypes, some of the ideas within them represent differences that you would associate with diversity. As I say in the book, you can't show people of color sharing a common heritage, including language, dance, music and food preferences. For example, you can't show Native American children playing with toys from their own cultures, but you can't show them playing with toys from the mainstream culture -- what are they supposed to play with?

Language changes in response to social changes. What we don't need is a list. In some cases you can't say landlord, you can't say busybody.

Speaking of the list, which banned word do you find most egregious? Do you have a favorite?

The notion that you're not supposed to refer to "American" or "America" when you refer to people who live in the United States, because that's biased against Latin Americans, Canadians, etc. I mean, that is so commonplace. One rule of thumb that I have is if the New York Times does it, it can't be so bad. And the New York Times uses "American" every day. But if you're writing for the textbook publishing industry, you're not supposed to do that.

I also get particularly incensed about all the stereotypes having to do with older people, and I feel I'm on safer ground complaining about that because I'm now 64, and I can be considered an older person. The natural process of life is that as you get older you do have to use various things like canes and walkers, but you can't portray those images, you can't see those things.

Let's say I wanted to be a sensitivity reviewer. What kind of background would I need to get onto a bias panel?

New York state trains people, and they're called certified New York state sensitivity reviewers -- and they're the people who went through the passages that were going to be used on the New York State English regency test and had the temerity to rewrite Kafka. Of the résumés I looked at, most of the people did not have a background in English literature or in history. They were trained in sensitivity, and trained in the education of minority groups.

Have you gotten any criticism from anyone who's worked for test or textbook publishers?

I have not heard from textbook publishers, but I've heard from people who worked for them. One guy in the testing business, who works for a major firm, just sent me the guidelines that are used in Michigan. And the guidelines in Michigan say that you can't have any reference on the state tests to extraterrestrials or aliens or flying saucers, because they might suggest evolution.


I know. I think it's so funny -- what does an extraterrestrial have to do with evolution?

What do you think the long-term societal consequences of textbook censorship might be? Will future politicians and educators grow up without knowledge of the upsetting bits of our history and world history?

Well, they're getting a very partial view, particularly with world history. What I've found is that the textbook publishers, most of them, will run everything by the group that's being discussed and say, "How do you feel about this and is it OK if we put it this way?" And then they seem to be responding to their advisory committees and trimming and tailoring to avoid getting into trouble.

I think the main consequence of these tactics is that they create a credibility gap for children. I think that kids get bored, and I think they get cynical. Because they find that there's a real world out there and they can learn more about it by watching television or going on the Internet. And they may be getting a lot of falsehoods from those mediums, but at least it's interesting, it's exciting and it's not like these carefully sanitized materials that are presented to them at school.

Did you ever think of this book as being an argument in favor of home schooling?

No, but I've gotten a lot of response from home schoolers. In my view home schooling is a romantic notion. There are only about 1 million kids in the U.S. being home schooled, while there are nearly 50 million who are not. I don't expect that ratio's going to change very dramatically.

But I do think it's a bad thing for parents to assume that once their kids are in school, their responsibility as parents has somehow ended for the day. You do have to be involved, and look at your kids' textbooks, and be concerned about whether they're getting a rich enough history education and literature education to be prepared for college, or just to have a fulfilling life.

You mentioned in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor that the censorship of texts now is worse than it was even right after the Civil War, when educators were teaching one account of history in the North and another in the South. Could you talk a little about that?

Well, that's a hard judgment to make because the textbooks of the time were not very good textbooks. If I had to put them on a scale I would say that I'd rather have today's history textbooks with all of their faults. On the other hand, if I had to choose a literary textbook, I'd choose one of the 1890s every time. Because the literature textbooks from the turn of century always began with an introduction saying "Our purpose is to introduce young people to the best literary gems."

That's not what literature textbooks do anymore. The Heart of Oak series from 1902, and other readers, had Dickens, Shakespeare, wonderful British and American writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Emerson and on and on. Their goal was to train young people to have good taste in literature, and nobody has that goal anymore.

Of course, all the authors you just mentioned are dead white men. To the people who would be offended or upset by that selection of authors, what would you say?

Well, there were not any black writers included in the readers of that time. If I were creating a reader today, there would certainly be black writers, wonderful writers from different cultures. For the reader I edited 10 years ago, called the American Reader, I included black writers and women writers and writers from different American cultures. So I don't have a problem with that.

In the book you talk about the fears from both the extreme right and the extreme left that children will act out what they read, and therefore the selections should present role models. Do you disagree that role modeling and behavior modification should be one goal of education?

Yes and no. Yes in that I think teachers should have standards of behavior and should be good role models of civil discourse and should help young people learn how to talk to each other and express themselves. But literature is not about role modeling. When we read Shakespeare, we read about murders and all kinds of terrible expressions of human emotion, but that doesn't mean that by reading Shakespeare we will become King Lear or Lady Macbeth.

I was doing a talk show yesterday in Florida and the host and I were talking about the Harry Potter series -- which has the distinction of being both the most popular book in the U.S. and, according to the American Library Association, the most banned -- and we were talking about why the series is offensive to people, particularly people of very conservative religious views. I think there are two reasons; one, Harry comes from a dysfunctional family, and two, because of all the witchcraft and sorcery in the book.

In the call-in section of the show, a girl called -- I don't think I'm supposed to call her a girl but she had a very young voice -- and said, " I would recommend that people not read the Harry Potter series, because it teaches witchcraft." And the same people would say, don't read Huckleberry Finn because your children will be disobedient. But the idea that everything you read is somehow going to become the model for your behavior -- gosh, then what are you going to read? You can't read the Bible. There's all that adultery and murder, not a good place to look for role models. So what are you left with? I don't know. Textbooks, I guess.

Which is worse, censorship from the left or from the right?

They're both awful. They hold hands, and together they wreak damage. I don't like either one, and I wouldn't want to choose. All censorship is bad.

Which political party are you affiliated with?

I've been a registered Independent for the past 10 years. A fierce Independent. Before that, I was a registered Democrat.

In the book, you talk about how the educational publishing industry is bound by the state adoption process, that since developing textbooks is very expensive, publishers are under pressure to make sure their textbooks are adopted by the biggest share of the market -- particularly big states such as Texas and California. How can this process be eliminated?

Well, the first thing is to generate public outrage, and that's my part. I'm trying to get the word out there that this process of censorship is widespread, it's become the industry standard, and it should be intolerable. At that point I would hope that an outraged public would go to the state Legislature in Texas and California and say, "Look what's been done to the educational publishing industry -- we've got to reverse this." But the people who are now making textbooks would much rather sell a million textbooks to the state of California, than have to go to a million teachers to sell their books in competition with a dozen other publishers.

Do you have children?

I do. I have two kids who are grown, and two grandkids.

Do you see a difference in how your children were educated and how your grandkids are being educated?

Yes. All four are readers, but my sons -- their teachers didn't use a textbook, their teachers used novels and they were assigned poems that hadn't been rewritten by state officials, and they had a wonderful education. One of them went on to major in literature at Yale.

My grandkids love to read also, but when my daughter-in-law took the reading list from my book -- which included "Selected Tales" by Hans Christian Andersen, "Aesop's Fables" and the Brothers Grimm -- and took it to her school the teacher said, "Oh, so that's what you mean by classic literature!"

By Laura McClure

Laura McClure is assistant news editor at Salon.

MORE FROM Laura McClure

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