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The Language Police--book review - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
The Language Police--book review
I now have a book that I want all the kids to read, and know they won't be bothered to do it.

The Language Police, by Diane Ravitch, gets into what sounds like the most boring subject area possible--the publishing of high school textbooks and standardized tests. I can't even imagine how to make that sound interesting to the kids upon whom these are thrust. But the book deals with the political and social pressures that have put textbook publishing in a real bind, and has led to the shrinking of students' worlds.

If I didn't work in a library, I would flatly refuse to believe this book. Honestly. Ravitch has solid credentials (if conservative ones) and it's well-researched, but could I really believe that editors are instructed to not include in a literature textbook any story in which a child behaves disrespectfully toward an adult, whether or not there is a consequence for this action? Or that a passage for a test about a blind man overcoming the difficulties involved in climbing a mountain was rejected because it implied that being blind was a handicap, and also because it wouldn't be "accessible" to people who didn't live near mountains? Or that another, about the nutritional value of peanuts, was rejected because some students might be allergic to peanuts and be confused by someone extolling their benefits?

I would very much like to not believe this. Unfortunately, I've had editorial assistants coming in, looking for short stories to include in high school textbooks. No fantasy, they say. No science fiction. No, we can't include one that shows a gun. Definitely nothing that involves sex. No, no... that one doesn't have enough minority representation.

And so on.

So I knew, or thought I did, what sorts of limitations might be there.

But Ravitch was on a team put together by President Clinton to create a national test (it never materialized), and when several passages--including the ones about the blind man and the peanuts--were rejected by a bias and sensitivity review board, she got interested, and she started digging. It's quite a Byzantine system that binds up the textbook publishers.

Although Ravitch is somewhat conservative, the right wing is savaged in this book. Would-be censors on the right, apparently, have issues with various ideas appearing. Evolution is controversial, so it is not to appear on standardized tests or be mentioned in non-science textbooks. Yes, that means no excerpts from Jurassic Park. No fantasy (fear of occult). No mentions of abortion, disrespectful kids, you name it. Where the conflict in the stories is supposed to come from is a mystery to me.

Oh, but it doesn't stop with the right, because a body bind really doesn't work when it's only one-sided. No, the left also gets into the act, asking that Aesop's fables become more gender balanced, that women not be shown in "stereotypical" roles, that references to past discrimination are carefully shielded. (Ravitch cites a mention of slaves and the class system in Ancient Egypt, which was to be re-written to make it sound like everyone was on equal footing or some such thing.) The Spanish no longer conquered anyone in Latin America (the various native peoples are just mysteriously no longer in power). Not being able to see doesn't make it more difficult to climb a mountain.

This, in my opinion (and Ravitch's), is double-plus ungood.

I mean, no wonder kids are bored as hell with their school reading.

We just went through Banned Books Week, during which I was happy to pass along the information that it's very, very difficult to actually ban a book in America. Almost everything on those lists from the ALA is just challenged, and is usually popular and easy to get one's hands on. But textbooks? They're controlled very tightly, and publishers censor themselves in order to make large sales to the states that have statewide adoptions (Texas and California are the biggest).

I can't really blame the publishers. They're not in a charity business; they want to make money. And the pressure groups not only sue them for large sums, but they block sales to states by threatening political action, and of course there's the threat of suits against the schools if little Johnny is offended by a passage about legumes. I suppose we could always counter-sue--press suits against groups trying to gut our national literature, threaten lawsuits against publishers caught bowlderdizing classic texts, and so on. Caught between a rock and a hard place--if they'll get sued no matter what they do--publishers might decide to just do what they want to do, which, I assume, is to publish. But that strikes me as both expensive and mean-spirited. Unfortunately, I can't think of any other good ideas, short of the government putting severe limits on litigation. Which isn't necessarily a bad idea, but I don't see it coming down the pike any time soon.

And in some cases, I can almost sympathize--in the day when Huck Finn was published, the word most often cited as a reason for keeping the book out of the classroom had much less impact than it does now, and that means that it may well cause much worse feelings than it would have at the time. The fact that Twain's novel is against racism--quite decidedly--may get lost behind the bad feeling of seeing "the N word" on page after page... and yet, that word was out there. It was once freely used. The fact that a boy who uses it as freely as Huck does is still able to learn to see Jim as a human being and a mentor is exactly what makes the novel extraordinary. And I do love to see women in non-traditional roles, kicking butt. Or men who love to be with their kids and take care of them. Nothing wrong with seeing that. It's just when women are always the ones going out to work and men are always the ones being sensitive that I want to start hitting my head on something.

And then there are the things that I just plain don't get.

No speculative fiction? No fairy tales? No anthropomorphism? Kids--including very religious kids--have had these kinds of stories for centuries. Now they're suddenly dangerous?

And what's with the no-disrespect-shown sort of thing? I could at least see the discomfort if the disrespectful kid always got his way and was presented as right. I still wouldn't ban it, but I could see it. But no character is allowed to be seen doing this, even if it's clearly presented as wrong, because some child might emulate the "wrong" character, thinking it's glamorous. How can you even get to the moral of the story, or teach that something's wrong if that's what you're after, without naming the thing you're talking about?

Regional bias. I got into this in an earlier post, but finishing up the book has still not helped me figure out why in the name of heaven this is even an issue. The point of reading is to open up your head and be able to imagine things that you haven't seen. By regional bias standards, I shouldn't have been able to read Nancy Drew, as she wasn't from a small farming town, had lots of money, and drove a car. I couldn't possibly have enjoyed Little Men, which--along with the cardinal sin of having more boys than girls present and showing Daisy enjoying her play kitchen--took place in a New England boarding school in the 19th century. I guess I couldn't have obsessed over A Separate Peace either, for similar reasons. I've never been to Australia, or been the victim of an invasion, so John Marsden's Tomorrow series is out. I've certainly never been on an uncharted tropical island, so there goes Lord of the Flies. No American child could enjoy Harry Potter, simply because most of them have never been to Scotland and never will be, and Harry doesn't visit the States.

I don't get it.


Anyway, check out The Language Police. But put cushions on the desk, because you'll get a crease in your forehead from so much :headdesk:ing.
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sonetka From: sonetka Date: October 17th, 2005 05:21 am (UTC) (Link)

Oh lord...

Well, that would explain why the passages on our standardized tests were always so infernally dull. Enough thinking along those lines and you end up reading potted histories of corn production which, while interesting, don't exactly fire up the imagination.

Speaking of "Little Men" - judging by the standards you described, just imagine how many heads would explode if they tried to include the passage where Demi and Daisy sacrifice their toys to the Kitty-Mouse :).

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 17th, 2005 05:23 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Oh lord...

Heh-heh. Everyone's head would explode at that. Oh, I forgot to mention that religion itself is also a forbidden topic.
harriet_wimsey From: harriet_wimsey Date: October 17th, 2005 05:29 am (UTC) (Link)
Ooo, that sounds really interesting. I may, however, be a nerd, so I still don't know that your kids would read it.

As usual, I agree with you. Reading books expands your horizons, and that's a good thing. I have learned so much from books--not just bits of trivia and geography and a much larger vocabulary than most in my age group, but thoughts, ideas and feelings. In my day to day life I will never know what it is like to be a boy in a boarding school, but by reading a whole new part of human existence is opened to my understanding.

I grew up in an evangelical Christian church that by the standards of that community isn't particularly conservative, but it is to the rest of the world. I went to public school all my life until I ended up at a Lutheran university and I read all kinds of books--anything I could get my hands on. And I turned out OK! I turned out so OK, in fact, that a lot of people at church couldn't believe I had never been homeschooled. I was modest, intelligent, obedient (OK, that doesn't sound very modest, but it took some doing not to edit it out)--and not because I'd been kept in a tiny box, but because I was taught to use my mind and my reason. I am in fact still a conservative (although not always stereotypically in the political sense) evangelical Christian and have no desire to be otherwise, but I have the added benefit of understanding and loving the rest of the world.

Sorry for piggybacking off your rant. I didn't know I had so much to say! To put it more succinctly, word.
rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: October 17th, 2005 05:40 am (UTC) (Link)
Well, it does give me a little more sympathy for the "literature based learning" people. Although they argue skipping over phonetics in favor of meaning, at least they push using "real" books.

I had textbooks when I was a kid that I loved dearly...
story645 From: story645 Date: October 17th, 2005 05:41 am (UTC) (Link)
Did I get lucky? I tended to like the passages on all my standardized tests, one of my reading text books had Anne McCaffrey, and most teachers used books anyway. But, wow, scary. No wonder the rest of the world makes fun of our country. We're schizo, and counter-productive.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 17th, 2005 06:01 am (UTC) (Link)
Yeah. I'd recommend this to people who wonder why we don't have national standards and national exams--I remember discussing that with a few people here. This gets into the entirely wacky politics surrounding any attempt to do anything remotely momentous in education. (The whole thing started with Ravitch's adventures in national test making, after all.)
From: inyron Date: October 17th, 2005 05:42 am (UTC) (Link)
and also because it wouldn't be "accessible" to people who didn't live near mountains? Or that another, about the nutritional value of peanuts, was rejected because some students might be allergic to peanuts and be confused by someone extolling their benefits?

Oh, yeah. We were just talking about this last week, in one of my psychometrics classes. Standardized tests are tricky, since they're supposed to be so far-reaching; everyone is supposed to have a level playing field. SO, one of the issues we brought up was: you have a passage in a reading omprehension test about, say, the ocean. You're going to have kids who live near the ocean, and you're also going to have kids who've never seen one in their lives. Are the kids who have an experiene with the ocean going to do better on that section? Will they not have to read that section as carefully as other kids in order to get the question right? If that's so, is the test really measuring reading comprehension, or something else? How valid is the test?

That's what we were disussing, actually; not bad things to put on tests, but validity, and all the various things that an make a measurement invalid. Oh, we spent so many hours discussing things that could ruin your testing results. Bah.

On HS textbooks, however, I'm 100% behind your rant. Those are the plaes to expose students to new places and ideas.

It was a poem in one of my textbooks, "Original Sin," that made me first start thinking about vegetarianism. Can't find the poem now, sadly, as the title seems to be very popular.

Also: I want to know why everyone else is getting a nice censored education, and I had to read The Painted Bird in my junior HS year. I swear, that book gave me a complex about rabbits.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 17th, 2005 05:47 am (UTC) (Link)
But even if the kids did better on one question, it would be balanced out by other kids doing better on another. (She gets into the kind of analysis you're talking about, and is not friendly toward it.)

More to the point, they're reading comp questions. The kids who live by the ocean could even conceivably be handicapped by knowing too much if the writer happened to be making it up off the cuff. To go back to my favorite essay by Twain, the one about Cooper's literary gaffes, Twain would have been at a real disadvantage if he got a passage from Cooper about taking a boat up and down the river, because it's obvious from Cooper's prose that he's talking about a smallish boat, but because Twain is very familiar with the comparision sizes Cooper uses, he realizes that the passage is garbage in terms of logistics... but if he were taking a test on that passage, it would be Cooper's prose, not his own knowledge, that would supply the answers.
kismeteve From: kismeteve Date: October 17th, 2005 05:50 am (UTC) (Link)
Two or three years ago there was a big to do in New York State about the editing of literature excerpts in the Regents exams. One example was an excerpt of Isaac Bashevis Singer with all allusions to and mentions of Judaism removed. Examples are here.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 17th, 2005 05:58 am (UTC) (Link)
I can't seem to make the link work, but Ravitch talks about that. Someone else, who'd written a whole story based on comparing Sukkot and Thanksgiving, got the same treatment.
From: anatomiste Date: October 17th, 2005 05:54 am (UTC) (Link)
You know, I have major problems with all the restrictions the government puts on us. Don't buy alcohol or cigarettes or rent a car until that magic birthday; don't forget to pay a small percentage of your hard-earned money toward the salaries of hundreds of government workers who are required to deal with that very same tax money; no bonfires for you; obtain the necessary papers from the State in order to marry, give birth, and die; and heaven forbid you make a joke about any of it within earshot of airport security.

But in the end, the nanny state is simply a red-tape manifestation of what we the people do to ourselves anyway.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 17th, 2005 05:57 am (UTC) (Link)
In a lot of ways, the book is talking about the government itself being held hostage by people making obscure demands and threatening lawsuits if those demands aren't met. Make a stink, make trouble at election time... do what we want, or else. And the publishing companies get socked by this, even in states where there isn't statewide textbook adoption, because they can't publish half a hundred different textbooks--it's prohibitively expensive--and they have to meet the standards of the states that do have it.
rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: October 17th, 2005 06:24 am (UTC) (Link)
I should be asleep...

This is reminding me of a story in a collection called "2041" about some high school kids trying to find a way to do Shakespeare in spite of the censors. Yolen edited, and there are a few copies around.
From: anatomiste Date: October 17th, 2005 06:28 am (UTC) (Link)
Ha, I loved that book in middle school.
beceh From: beceh Date: October 17th, 2005 06:48 am (UTC) (Link)
Wow. I'm glad ours (australia) aren'tthat bad...well i'm guessing they aren't as ive actually read some interesting text books, and ive seen excerpts from fantasy and futuristic books and even the simpsons in state-wide tests....
dudley_doright From: dudley_doright Date: October 17th, 2005 07:43 am (UTC) (Link)
I must admit to being a trifle confused here. I read The Cask of Amontillado in the 9th grade, from a reader. Premature burial seems like it would go out the window a long time before, well, peanuts


They've got the book at my school library (UCI) but it's out right now, due back November 2nd. Bunch of other stuff by the same author though.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 17th, 2005 01:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, that, plus it associates Italians with wine cellars, which is stereotypical. ;)

I'd guess some classics still make it through, and probably some publishers do fight with the ideas. I doubt it can be every textbook.
amelia_eve From: amelia_eve Date: October 17th, 2005 10:32 am (UTC) (Link)
It's no more fun for the publishers who have to try to put these things together, not to mention juggling multiple editions to suit the requirements of the various regions and adopters. And one result is that a lot of books are no longer worth publishing because of all the insane restrictions. Some subjects are only going to have one or two texts to choose from pretty soon.

As for how to get kids to read the book, it seems to me that the philosophy is the same as with Banned Books Week. Kids! TPTB don't want you to know this stuff!
sophonax From: sophonax Date: October 17th, 2005 11:42 am (UTC) (Link)
This is high school? I'm assuming you're talking about literature texts, and I guess compilations and anthologies can be useful for high school learning, but at that point kids really need to be reading primary sources and full-length works rather than excerpt, excerpt, excerpt--and those are harder to censor (although heaven knows people try). I think another thing that's being overlooked is that an important lesson to be learned in literary analysis is what makes something controversial, comparing and contrasting the impact the controversial material has on the characters in the book and on real-life people. Why does character X react the way she does, in the context of the story? How is the context of the story different from current contexts? This is important stuff, and if kids aren't getting it, they're really missing out on a lot of key ideas.
straussmonster From: straussmonster Date: October 17th, 2005 12:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
In the book Lies My Teacher Told Me, there's a chapter entitled "The Invisibility of Slavery in American History," followed immediately by "The Invisibility of Anti-Slavery in American History". Anything controversial, both PC and not, is censored out of American history books, making them the most boring things ever--as well as cheating kids out of anything like a deeper understanding of why the world is like it is.
mincot From: mincot Date: October 17th, 2005 05:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
Absolutely. You have no idea how many students--adults, even!! Come to my history classes and tell me "This is so interesting! We never learned WHY --- or even THAT things happened."

I see several dangers in the approach of texts today. One is that students never learn either to write or to think clearly. HOW do you talk about the past without talking about historical agency? But if students don't learn to analyze actions and motivations, then how do they get a clear picture of what happened? More insidiously, aren't they at greater danger of not looking for clear trails of action in current events? (There is a world of difference between "The response to Katrina was not well managed," "The government messed up in the Katrina disaster," "Mike Brown, head of FEMA, did not respond quickly or effectively," and "Mike Brown did not respond .... because ....(insert reason you like here).)

A second issue, besides students' potential ignorance of either historical or modern agency, is that history becomes something flat and static--a tool to promote the cause du jour. Making people believe that the Ancient Egyptians had a fairly equal society is not only not accurate, but turns ancient history into a pale watery reflection of what we want people to think today. Students then do not learn about the uses--and abuses--of the past. They learn neither about the subtleties and varieties of human social organization or about the differences, benefits, and disadvantages of their own society. In fact, often students then don't realize that their own society is constructed, like others are, and hence they tend to reify their own culture and fail to consider that it can change. For example, I have several students who have resisted talking about Hobsbawm;s idea of invented traditions when it comes to their own local culture. Gender roles, social classes, economic inequalities just *are* and can't be changed, for these students.
merlinssister12 From: merlinssister12 Date: October 17th, 2005 12:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
Does this also mean that any play by Shakespeare is out as a literature text? None of them take place anywhere near North America, Most have violence of some sort and He does reflect the attitudes of his age in his characters, so they are full of "stereotypical roles."
Harry Potter is also obviously out as a text because of his disrespectful attitude towards Snape.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 17th, 2005 01:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
After a great deal of ridicule, older texts have started making a comeback. But poor Romeo and Juliet apparently had about 400 lines taken out of it in some school editions!
From: gunderpants Date: October 17th, 2005 12:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
Funny you should mention this, because I just finished 'Death Sentence', which is essentially how the Australian mindset is strangling the intelligence of the younger generation here in Australia through misuse of language. If you can order a copy from an online vendor it really is most interesting, if only because it's applicable to just about everywhere.
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