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The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn [Hardcover]

Diane Ravitch
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 2003 0375414827 978-0375414824 1
Before Anton Chekhov and Mark Twain can be used in school readers and exams, they must be vetted by a bias and sensitivity committee. An anthology used in Tennessee schools changed “By God!” to “By gum!” and “My God!” to “You don’t mean it.” The New York State Education Department omitted mentioning Jews in an Isaac Bashevis Singer story about prewar Poland, or blacks in Annie Dillard’s memoir of growing up in a racially mixed town. California rejected a reading book because The Little Engine That Could was male.

Diane Ravitch maintains that America’s students are compelled to read insipid texts that have been censored and bowdlerized, issued by publishers who willingly cut controversial material from their books—a case of the bland leading the bland.

The Language Police is the first full-scale exposé of this cultural and educational scandal, written by a leading historian. It documents the existence of an elaborate and well-established protocol of beneficent censorship, quietly endorsed and implemented by test makers and textbook publishers, states, and the federal government. School boards and bias and sensitivity committees review, abridge, and modify texts to delete potentially offensive words, topics, and imagery. Publishers practice self-censorship to sell books in big states.

To what exactly do the censors object? A typical publisher’s guideline advises that

• Women cannot be depicted as caregivers or doing
household chores.
• Men cannot be lawyers or doctors or plumbers.
They must be nurturing helpmates.
• Old people cannot be feeble or dependent; they
must jog or repair the roof.
• A story that is set in the mountains discriminates
against students from flatlands.
• Children cannot be shown as disobedient or in
conflict with adults.
• Cake cannot appear in a story because it is not

The result of these revisions are—no surprise!—boring, inane texts about a cotton-candy world bearing no resemblance to what children can access with the click of a remote control or a computer mouse. Sadly, data show that these efforts to sanitize language do not advance learning or bolster test scores, the very
reason given for banning allegedly insensitive words and topics.

Ravitch offers a powerful political and economic analysis of the causes of censorship. She has practical and sensible solutions for ending it, which will improve the quality of books for students as well as liberating publishers, state boards of education, and schools from the grip of pressure groups.

Passionate and polemical, The Language Police is a book for every educator, concerned parent, and engaged citizen.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group; 1 edition (April 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375414827
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375414824
  • Product Dimensions: 24.4 x 17.1 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 785,989 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Acclaimed education historian Diane Ravitch answers the question of how the impulse in the 1960s and 70s to achieve fairness and a balanced perspective in our nation's textbooks went so terribly wrong in The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn.

Author of seven books, Ravitch served as the US Assistant Secretary of Education from 1991 to 1993. Her expertise and her 30-year commitment to education lend authority and urgency to this important book, which describes in copious detail how pressure groups from the political right and left have wrested control of the language and content of textbooks and standardised exams, often at the expense of the truth (in the case of history), of literary quality (in the case of literature), and of education in general. Like most people involved in education, Ravitch did not realise "that educational materials are now governed by an intricate set of rules to screen out language and topics that might be considered controversial or offensive."

In this clear-eyed critique, she is an unapologetic challenger of the ridiculous and damaging extremes to which bias guidelines and sensitivity training have been taken by the federal government, the states, and textbook publishers. In a multi-page sampling of rejected test passages, we discover that "in the new meaning of bias, it its considered biased to acknowledge that lack of sight is a disability," that children who live in urban areas cannot understand passages about the country, that the Aesop fable about a vain (female) fox and a flattering (male) crow promotes gender bias. As outrageous as many of the examples are, they do not appear particularly dangerous.

However, as the illustrations of abridgment, expurgation, and bowdlerisation mount, the reader begins to understand that our educational system is indeed facing a monumental crisis of distortion and censorship. Ravtich ends her book with three suggestions of how to counter this disturbing tendency. Sadly, however, in the face of the overwhelming tide of misinformation that has already been entrenched in the system, her suggestions provide cold comfort. --Silvana Tropea,

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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Sociology from an historian's perspective 26 May 2012
Ultimately I enjoyed this book but for different reasons that I had perhaps anticipated.

Assuming that this would be a wide and far reaching exposition of censorship and its impact on society at large, I duly purchased this text, only to find it far from met those aims and objectives. Instead what I found was an articulate (if somewhat repetitive) diatribe pertaining solely to the very narrow concern of k-12 textbook procurement for the American school system, or rather that procurement system.

That textbooks are censored is not new, that content is reviewed and edited is not new, that pressure groups push to have their vested interests served (and those of other's excluded) is not revelationary, that language has (thankfully) been kicked into shape regarding overt racist and sexist language simply reflects the shift in what society has elected as being its current set of values. So what's new? Not much really, certainly not much that the average articulate citizen has not guessed at for themselves.

The major flaws in this text are as follows:
i) As the title alludes to, this is an historian's take on an issue which is really outside of her remit, and this quite often shines through,
ii) Dr. Ravitch seems to have forgotten she is seventy-three years old and that children and young adults don't learn like either she does or did, that their pedagogical narrative is a totally different educational paradigm to hers, so why isn't she aware of this elementary fact? She seems totally unaware that whilst she may hate textbooks full of graphics (she constantly harps on about this fact), that textbooks like that are NOT AIIMED AT SEVENTY-THREE YEAR OLD PEOPLE!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Some Opinions are More Equal than Others 5 Aug 2012
By John M. Ford TOP 500 REVIEWER
Diane Ravitch is a historian who worked in the U.S. Department of Education during the George H. W. Bush administration and was appointed to the National Assessment Governing Board by Bill Clinton. In this book she expresses her concerns about censorship of materials used in public school instruction and educational testing. This censorship began with reasonable concerns that female and ethnic minority students not encounter offensive educational material. It "...has evolved into a surprisingly broad and increasingly bizarre policy of censorship that has gone far beyond its original scope and now excises from test and textbooks words, images, passages and ideas that no reasonable person would consider biased."

The book examines the original meaning of "bias" in educational materials and how that meaning has evolved in response to pressures from both ends of the political spectrum. The author's approach is noteworthy because of its even-handed treatment of conservatives and liberals. She shows how groups on the right and the left demand that test and textbook publishers to exclude controversial content from their products. Adoption procedures in the two largest textbook markets--California and Texas--constrain what is available in other states. Conducting "sensitivity reviews" and avoiding negative publicity, publishers produce materials that are simplistic, avoid controversy, and distort cultural and historical facts.

Ravitch warns that these boring textbooks in our schools are having serious effects beyond discouraged teachers and disinterested students. Learning becomes increasingly disconnected from the world students see online, in the media, and around them.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A rallying call for reason 6 July 2003
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a compelling read about the effect of lobby groups on US publishers of educational text books. The right wing (fundamentalist Christian) lobbies for change in content, while the politically correct left lobbies for change in language. The result is English test papers that are specially written to placate all parties and which do not - cannot - draw on the classics of American literature. The dumbing down of language and falsification of history described here are hair-raising. Not all the changes are unreasonable, but enough are so absurd as to be dangerous. There should be a public debate on the issues raised, and an investigation into the 'guidelines' used by UK publishers.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An eye-opening study 11 July 2008
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This excellent (and depressing) study brings to light a serious problem in American education, some signs of which are becoming visible in the UK. All educators should be aware of Ravitch's findings, painstakingly assembled over several years. Of value too is her comprehensive list of literary texts that should be on the curriculum for each age group. It's also one of the best introductions to political correctness.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
This is a stunning indictment of the textbook industry, not only in the United States, but worldwide. The author shows how a multi-million dollar industry stifles learning and renders teachers, students, and writers helpless in the face of the manic search for political correctness. To be fair to the industry, it is primarily an indictment of institutions that hire gatekeepers of knowledge with a myopic vision of lifelong learning.
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