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Or, the Argument for Expatriation

Or even more accurately: The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. By Diane Ravitch. Put out by Alfred A. Knopf, copyright 2003, ISBN 0-375-41482-7. $16.80 on Amazon.

If you are now, or ever have been, party to the American educational system, you should read this book to discover the staggering amount of so-called "politically correct" nonsense that has been interfering with your learning process, or the learning process of someone you love.

In her latest book, NYU Professor Diane Ravitch outlines the once strongly recommended and now pathetically self-imposed censorship guidelines adopted by textbook publishers and test-makers to avoid offending the apparently soap-bubble delicate sensibilities of American youths and their ridiculous parents. What you discover will and should aggravate you, if you have one iota of common sense and have had it up to here--I'm indicating my neck-line--with the progressive, aggressive, oppressive dumbing down of a once bright nation.

As part of the NYU community, I've been exchanging emails with Prof. Ravitch. She's pretty hip, and has even plugged this book on the Daily Show. If that doesn't give her good street credibility, I don't know what does. I offered my services as a soldier in an as-of-yet undeclared war--she cautiously accepted with a subtextualized "buy my book!"

In all seriousness--and this is especially for our younger users--it's genuinely upsetting, all these nefarious machinations, and something has to be done about them. She's more optimistic than I am about solving the problem, but in any case the words--the ones we can still use--need to be gotten out.

How did this happen?

Ravitch, who was part of the first Bush administration's task force on education and thus privy to the procedure from beginning to end, explains it all in clear, simple prose that obviously comes down on the "you're all idiots" side of the lines (the word idiots has been banned from textbooks and tests). It has a great deal to do with--natch--business, and what happens when hyperactive (also banned) activists get involved in arsing up the bottom line.

There is no market competition for text books. A few major presses put them out, and are subject to the whims of state sensitivity review boards. Even a slight amount of controversy is enough to sink a text book--so the publishers, in order to prevent taking massive losses on the immense effort it requires to produce the book and win statewide adoption, have simply stopped challenging the hostile phone calls from both the politcal right and left, which often enough work at cross purposes for the common goal of Orwellian caliber Newspeak. Ravitch subtitles many of her chapters with a snippet from 1984, which in a testatment to irony they still stock on high school library shelves.

But in what form. The major words to look out for in this book are bowdlerized, expurgated, sanitized, censored, banned, avoided, attacked, edited, and deleted. They appear with alarming frequency in connection with books from Harry Potter to Great Expectations to the Miller's Tale in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which an American high school student now stands a good chance of never encountering anyway.

The general aim of all this michigas is, as she puts it, taking the white, European males "down a peg or two" in terms of...everything. American culture--that's actually the culture of the United States of America--is multicultural, and there is no longer a common heritage or national character. What started off with good intentions has become a monster that goes about putting "popular teen literature" on classroom curricula because everything written before 1970 is either too Eurocentric or too difficult for our poor struggling children to comprehend. 1970 is the date she gives. She got it from publishers' guidelines.

What follows is just a taste of the information contained in the book, in easy-to-swallow-but-hard-to-digest form. The politics of test-making, test-taking, and book writing are singularly outrageous, touching every aspect of education. It will have you shaking your head--and your fists--for days.

My favorite page

Page 126 says it all, for me.

"This reluctance to take a stand comes not from the teachers, but from university faculties infected by postmodernism, relativism, and other fashionable -isms, as well as from professors of education who disparage content...Untouched by enduring and inspiring literature, the students are left to be molded by the commerical popular culture."

Agreed, agreed, agreed. Shakespeare stays on the curriculum.

Some scary stuff I learned from reading this book

The whole list would be too long--I'll just jot down a couple of truly frightening tidbits that will make your intellect crawl.

  1. A English language and arts textbook published by Prentice Hall and subtitled "Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes" contains a script excerpt from an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess.
  2. Only eight states out of fifty mention specific works of literature in their state standards. Four of them do so in passing.
  3. There's such a thing as regional bias. Kids in the plains can't answer test questions set in mountainous regions.
  4. None of it works and test scores aren't improving a whit.

So you can't say seven words on TV. Big fucking deal.

There are a lot more you can't use in textbooks and on tests--as well as ways in which you aren't allowed to portray certain groups in print or in pictures. Ravitch gives you the details about why--I'll give you an immensely truncated list of some of the more outrageous ones. They come from her lists of publishers' bias guidelines--real documents actually used.

    Words/Phrases

  • Adam and Eve. Must be "Eve and Adam" to show men don't take priority.
  • blind, the. Offensive. Replace with "people that are blind."
  • brotherhood. You guessed it. Sexist.
  • Devil. Just plain banned.
  • Elderly, the. Ageist.
  • Jungle. That's right. The word jungle.
  • Lady. Sexist.
  • man. In its verb form (man the boats!), wherever it appears as a suffix (chairman, fireman, mailman, snowman), and occasionally as a prefix (mankind).
  • niggardly. The etymology of which predictably has nothing to do whatsoever with the reason it's banned.
  • overcoming a disability. This is insensitive to the disabled. Which word is also banned.
  • And my personal favorite, because doesn't it say OH SO MUCH:

  • Soda. Banned for regional bias, and must everywhere but California be replaced by Coke or Pepsi.
  • The complete list contains just under 400 entries.

    Images/Portrayals

    Here I'll just give one or two from each subcategory:

  • Women portrayed as teachers, mothers, nurses, or secretaries.
  • Boys playing sports
  • Men as lawyers
  • Boys as curious, ingenious, able to overcome obstacles
  • People of color being angry
  • African-Americans who are unaware of their African heritage
  • Native Americans living in rural settings or on reservations
  • Asian Americans as having strong family ties
  • Hispanics who don't care if they're on welfare
  • Jews as diamond cutters, jewelers, doctors, dentists, lawyers, classical musicians, tailors, shopkeepers. Doesn't leave much, does it?
  • Older people who suffer from physical deterioration
  • Gays and lesbians as having emotional problems
  • Narrow-minded, prejudiced working-class people
  • There are up to twenty entries for each gender/racial/ethnic subgroup. And you can't use the word subgroup. Many of the restrictions are rather painfully telling indicators of precisely how everyone actually feels about everyone else.

    Entire subjects to avoid mentioning on tests

    Because if a student is slightly upset or confused by absolutely anything, it's just impossible to get the right answer, poor dears. Here are a few...

  • AIDS or other STDs (that Health class test is going to be pretty thin)
  • Catastrophes (so much for Californian geology)
  • Dinosaurs (because it implies evolution!!)
  • Murder (Good thing you never do your homework while watching TV)
  • Parents quarreling (I hate it when you guys fight!)
  • Pumpkins (association with Halloween)
  • Questioning parental authority (conform, conform!)
  • Vacations in far away places (not everyone can afford them)
  • Yachting (because, well...YACHTING.)

Again, Ravitch's list goes on and on, much like this writeup is doing.

READ THIS BOOK

IT WILL FILL YOU WITH DIVINE RAGE AND MAKE YOU WANT TO GET INVOLVED.

Which is more than I can say for MTV and my high school American history class.

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