If Diane Ravitch's The Language Police (Knopf, 255 pages, $24) gets the attention it deserves, it could do for the failures of education in the United States what Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin did for slavery. Subtitled "How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn," it is a brilliant revelation of an insidious national disease of public policy.
This book may be the most important document about the future of the American mind in a generation or more. It should be obligatory reading for every citizen concerned with the intellectual, moral, and imaginative life of U.S. children and society as a whole. It should be mandatory for everyone even peripherally involved in education.
Since the 1960s, Ravitch meticulously shows, special interest groups have influenced what the nation's children are taught in school. As she explains, a national cartel, which publishes textbooks and writes testing materials, is hypersensitive to complaints from every ideological, political, social and spiritual flank of American life. Thus the companies -- McGraw-Hill, Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley and others -- make sure that their texts are flaccid and often misleading.
The most powerful of these influences come from the right, particularly the religious right, but the loony left gets almost equal billing. "By institutionalizing this extreme sensitivity to anything that offends anybody," Ravitch writes, "publishers of both textbooks and tests have been turning their products into inoffensive pap for the past generation."
Ravitch's credentials are impeccable. She is one of this generation's leading historians of education. She was assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. President Clinton appointed her to the National Assessment Governing Board, charged with setting educational testing standards. She is research professor in New York University and a fellow of Brookings Institution. She has published six previous books of her own, all on education, and edited or co-authored a dozen other volumes.
It was while on the NAGB that she became seriously concerned. In working to draft test questions for fourth graders, she was exposed to the institution of "bias and sensitivity review."
That process is totally hidden from public examination. Publishing companies, test-writing organizations and quasi-government agencies will not allow access to the reviews on the contention that they have been paid for and are thus proprietary. That secrecy drove Ravitch to get most of those organizations' guidelines, mainly by great detective resourcefulness. She found that any consideration of teaching methods or content, even in science and mathematics, is entirely secondary to "social and political concerns."
She includes 30 pages of lists of interest groups and publishers' codes and hundreds of words, phrases and concepts they ban. Most seem ridiculous -- until you stop to consider how poisonous the process and results are.
Examples: "able-bodied (banned as offensive, replace with person who is non-disabled)." -- Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley Multicultural Guidelines. "Workmanship (banned as sexist, no replacement)" -- National Evaluation Systems, Bias Issues in Test Development (1991). Under the heading "Phrases and Usages That Must Be Avoided in Textbooks: "Do not say, when you shave in the morning (replace with when you brush your teeth in the morning)" -- Educational Testing Service, Sensitivity Review Process; Guidelines & Procedures (1992).
The results are textbooks and tests without muscle, bone or heart -- not to mention perspective. Call it cowardice --though my favorite curse word is pusillanimity.
Ravitch writes that when she was growing up in Texas, the school system was controlled by staunch followers of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Books on Russia, the United Nations and other "socialistic" leanings or subjects were banned. In the early '80s, the anti-Communist zeal was replaced by religious and moral issues. Secular humanism, "New-Age religion," became the bugaboo. From the left came "political correctness," with regimens for racial and gender and social stereotyping. "Self esteem" became an activist fad.
Today, Ravitch writes, publishers totally capitulate to these censorship activists. California and Texas have statewide text-selection authorities and the American Textbook Council in New York is a powerful influence. Texas and California specifically make their choices on the basis of their censorship codes, giving huge power to anyone who objects. Because of the volume of texts these enormous school systems order, they dominate the market. Other states follow their leads.