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The Language Police/Textbook PC

June 13,2003

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Announcer: Additional funding is provided by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

Ben...Hello Iím Ben Wattenberg, are textbooks publishers dumbing down what children learn in school? Some critics say that what began in the 1970ís as a well-meaning attempt to eliminate words and images that were demeaning to women and minority groups has resulted in censorship. But it comes from both the left and the right. Do bias and sensitivity guidelines now rob textbooks of the richness of human experience? Here are some unmentionable words: dinosaur, slave, mouse, peanuts, cake, snowman, America. How widespread is this practice? What is it doing to youngsters? To find out Think Tank is joined by Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at New York University, former Assistant Secretary of Education under the first Bush Administration, later appointed by President Clinton to the National Assessment Governing Board, and author of The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Children Learn.

The Topic Before the House: Textbook PC, This week on Think Tank.

Ben: Diane Ravitch, welcome to Think Tank. Good book, The Language Police. Wonderful reviews. Letís begin, if we could, with a short biography of you, where are you from?

Diane: I was born and....and grew up in Houston, Texas. Uh, Iím third of eight children. Uh, I went to the Houston public schools where I graduated from high school, San Jocinta High School, it doesnít exist anymore. Uh, I then went to Wellesley College and graduated from there in Nineteen Sixty. Got, immediately was married, immediately had children uh, and was a housewife. But at the same time I was a housewife. I guess I was thirty-two when I went to Columbia and began work on getting a Ph.D. in History of American Education. And my first book was published in Nineteen Seventy-five; it was the history of the New York City Public Schools. Uh, I had, by then, two children uh, two sons. And Iíve continued from Nineteen Seventy-five to the present to write about education, to re...study it. And I have published seven books and edited maybe fifteen others.

Ben: Whatís the uh, what the take of The Language Police? What.... whatís the nub of it?

Diane: Well the nub of it is that uh, President Bill Clinton appointed me to something called The National Assessment Governing Board. This is an organization that oversees uh, national testing. And while I was serving on that Board, I discovered um, that thereís a censorship regime in...in the field of testing, standardized testing. I subsequently discovered itís not just standardized testing, itís a censorship regime that exists throughout the entire education publishing industry. Itís not because textbook publishers and testing companies want to censor their material, itís that uh, they respond to pressure groups. And what I documented in my book is that there are pressure groups of the right, pressure groups of the left, feminist pressure groups, uh, all sorts of advocacy groups uh, that want to make sure that certain words donít appear on the books or on the test uh, that certain topics donít appear because itís offensive to these groups.

Ben: Give me some examples of the....the real horribles.

Diane: When I was serving, uh, as I was serving on...on the Testing Board uh, I learned about this censorship process because I discovered that there was something called a íBias And Sensitivity Review Committeeí for every standardized test question. And I was part of a committee that selected questions for fourth graders to read on a test and uh, some while later a whole bunch of these questions were returned to our committee and we were told that they were rejected. Uh, a test question about how the owl finds its prey at night um, which I thought was a kind of a nice social studies type question for fourth graders, it was rejected because it turns out that the owl represents death in certain Native American cultures and is taboo and, therefore, American children should never again encounter owls on standardized tests. Um, a test question about showing women and their daughters making quilts in the Nineteenth Century, which was apparently a commonplace household activity...the historically accurate story, which was how women helped their daughters build a dowry, was unacceptable because it showed women in a gender based role.

Ben: Tell me about the idea that you canít set certain scenes or pictures in certain locales.

Diane: Uh, well in, this is standardized testing. In standardized testing, you cannot use any regional background that would be unfamiliar to the student. Uh, so that one example that I saw was uh, a story about a....a blind mountain climber and he was climbing Mount McKinley in an ice storm and The Bias and Sensitivity reviewers rejected that passage. They said, íThat passage has regional bias because children who are taking the test whoíve never lived in a mountain and never seen an ice storm canít possibly understand what it is. The Bias and Sensitivity Review is a process thatís applied across the board throughout every textbook and throughout every standardized test. Itís done in every state in the United States. Itís...itís ubiquitous; this is called the íindustry standard.í In New York state last year the uh, New York State Board of Regents rewrote classic literature on the state English exam. Uh, they, it was a vigilant parent revealed that by comparing what was on the exam to what was in the original, that the State Education Department had uh, censored and removed passages from Elie Wiesel because it men...he mentioned God. From Isaac Beshevesinger because he was making comparisons between Jews and non-Jews in Poland uh, between the wars. Uh, it, many, many au....well known authorsí works were censored.

Ben: For example? (Diane: Well) Beyond those.

Diane: One good example was uh, there was a Matthew Arnold poem, very famous poem called Dover Beach. Thereís a line in it in which he says, 'Ah love, let us be true to one another.' And the state of New York changed the line to say, 'Ah friend, let us be true to one another.' Now if you ask me whatís the difference, I canít tell you, but the state did that.

Ben: And of course, the uh, the really, the....the big one that gets it on all sides is Huckleberry Finn, isnít it? The...the Mark Twain uh, the book which Ernest Hemingway said all American literature flows from.

Diane: Well Huckleberry Finn uh, I was unable to find any extract from Huckleberry Finn in any of todayís literature textbooks because uh, heís, thatís got to be the most troublesome novel ever written, apparently. Uh, many of, many times when itís been reprinted for the school market uh, the íNí word is taken out; itís replaced with íslaveí or íhandí or ílaborerí or something.

Ben: I mean, weíre....weíre even in the situation where we have to say íthe N word.í

Diane: I say íthe N wordí because I grew up in Houston and my mother ould have been very angry at me if, I canít say it. Randall Kennedy at Harvard can say it, (Ben: Right) I canít say it.

Ben: How do we teach history?

Diane: Well the, I force, I....I use the word íadvisor....advisedlyí I force myself to read through history books. I read world history books, about ten or twelve world history books, ten or twelve American history books. The world history books have a theme and I call it ícultural equivalence.í All cultures were great and glorious, they all had wonderful art and architecture. Uh, in part because the state of California says, íyou must have no adverse reflection on any group,í thereís nothing negative about anybody. Everything is positive and upbeat and all civilizations were wonderful. There is a lot of criticism, however, of the United States uh, in the world history books. Uh, and there is criticism of the west. Uh, there is very gory detail about the uh...

Ben: The west not meaning the American west but west....the Western World.

Diane: Meaning Western Europe, the West.... West, white...white men from Europe, and I went through uh, reading the American history for the middle school circling the term ígreedy.í You know, you watch the pioneers advance across the west and theyíre pushing the Indians out of the way and theyíre enslaving black people and theyíre...

Ben: Well, which is true

Diane: grabbing land.

Ben: Which was true. I mean there....there was remedial work that was necessary for.... for our uh, for our history books and...and for, I mean we.... we did a lot of bad things, but we also did some very great things.

Diane: Right. And.... and I think that in telling the historical story, you have to strive to be honest and you have to strive to tell the good and the bad alike. And the good and the bad alike will be found in the United States, it will also be found in amongst the Mayans, the Incas and the Aztecs who were presented heroically, and it will be found in, you know, every other civilization uh, be it Asia, Africa, India. There....there are wonderful things that have happened, but thereíre also terrible things and the balance is lacking. I think the context thatís missing is after the very brutal time in history, Native Americans were brutal to one another and Europeans were brutal to....to other Europeans. Uh, but there...there tends to be a....a theme in which uh, the white men of Europe were really bad and uh, as they advanced across the west, and this is particular in the Houghton Mifflin books, as you donít.... you (Ben starts to interject) donít see the westward movement as uh, the movement of freedom and opportunity.....

Ben: Thatís the one thatís the uh, or was the um, the assigned history textbook for California?

Diane: Right. The Houghton Mifflin was the only textbook or the Houghton Mifflin history series was the only one adopted for the state of California for several years. Itís still adopted in California and itís a series that includes both American history and world history. And that is, at least from my reading, the most uh, if you want to call it ípolitically correctí that would be the most politically correct of all the history books.

Ben: And...and who was the author of that?

Diane: Uh, Gary Nash whoís now an emeritus professor at UCLA and uh, you know, a very esteemed American historian but his political views are very strong.

Ben: He....he was the one who was in involved, I...I remember writing a column about it uh, about the, when they tried to set up the history standards.

Diane: Right.

Ben: And I remember talking to him and he said, 'You know, these arenít just my views, we polled the teachers very carefully uh, and this is what American teachers think.'

Diane: Well um, Gary Nash uh, is...

Ben: Which I donít believe.

Diane...as I said, you know, he, I think that.... that he has, again, a very high reputation, deservedly so but his political views are very much to the left. And the books reflect his political views. Now when he said they surveyed many teachers, you know, they did have teachers involved in developing these national standards, but the national, the Voluntary National History Standards reflected such a strong point of view that uh, the U.S. Senate voted ninety-nine to one to uh, censure them. Thatís pretty unusual as....as a, you know, completely almost, well almost unanimous but certainly bipartisan vote.

Ben: How...how much of the fault, I mean you take the idea of teaching history in sort of a one-way track; how much of this situation is the fault of teachers in the sense that most of our teachers go to teachersí college and learns how to teach rather than our history majors who can teach about history and pick which book is best?

Diane: Well I donít think any of it is the fault of the teachers. I think uh, for me the problem is that so many people in, who...who are history teachers havenít studied history. I mean the two fields that have the highest percentage of people who are teaching a field that theyíve never, not studied in college is physics and history. Now why this is so, I canít exactly say because you can see that science and industry demands physicists, theyíre not demanding his.... history-trained teachers. But thereís a very large number of people teaching history whoíve never studied history and the...the consequence of that is that they become very dependent on these textbooks and the textbooks, in my view having forced myself to read them, are very faulty. Uh, theyíre boring, theyíre overwhelmed...overwhelmed with...with graphics; theyíre very gorgeous graphics but very, theyíre very distracting to read. And it...and itís very hard to get any sense of excitement about history because theyíre so superficial and there is a political point of view.

Ben: What about the uh, the pressure from the right? You...you have a very illuminating chapter going back to your high school days about uh, this stuff didnít really start with the left.

Diane: Oh no, definitely, censorship pressures come from all extremes. They come, it...it comes from the left, it comes from the right. The censorship from the right mainly affects two things; one it affects books because the right...right-wing parents really object to books that have uh, sexuality, too...too much, too strident a racial theme. Thereíre all sorts of themes that can upset right-wing parents. If it.... if it offends their religious beliefs, they will object to it. Right-wing parents drove a series out of California called íthe Impression Seriesí which was a.... a commercial textbook reading series. This was in the uh, early Nineteen Nineties. What....what Iíve found with the textbooks and the tests today is that generally the censors of the left go after language and the censors of the right go after topics. So, for instance, censors of the right donít like evolution, they donít like witchcraft, they donít like dysfunctional families, they hate Harry Potter because he has a dysfunctional family and there is witchcraft and sorcery. Uh, so you can, thereíre just many topics where the...the right will demand their elimination. And so the textbook companies and...and the test companies are able to satisfy both the left and the right by eliminating words offensive to the left and topics offensive to the right.

Ben: What.... what do you think is the aim of these groups on the left, on the right? What are....(Diane: Well) what are they.... what are they up to?

Diane: The.... the pressure...

Ben: I mean they.... they canít be saying, íwell I want to, you know, serve up mush and not enrich our children.í I donít know, maybe they are, but what?

Diane: The pressure groups on the left and the right have the same goal. Uh, that is that they donít want to see anything that offends them and they feel it very strongly. Uh, people on the right do not want their children to see disobedient children because they be, honestly believe that whatever their children read will become.... reads will become a role model for them. People on the left also want to have uh, they want to remove whatever offends them because they believe that if their children see uh, differences that are unacceptable, a lack of egalitarian treatment, a stereotype, this will be such a powerful role model uh, that their children will be affected by this, too. So you have two groups coming at it from different angles uh, who together are, have had an immense impact on.... on the publishing industry.

Ben: Isnít there something that is really bizarre about feeding our children this bland mush at the same time that you have a communications revolution, that kids are watching uh, pornography and.... and music that is misogynist and.... and that they, and Harry Potter is the, is uh, is...

Diane: Is the best selling book everywhere.

Ben: Is the best selling. So.... so here are our schools to which we are supposed to look up to serving up goo as if there were no other world.

Diane: Well there is absolutely a ridiculous aspect to all of this. And I think that one of the curatives to this extensive censorship has to be uh, very loud laughter because in fact uh, young people, children, see television uh, they go on the Internet uh, teenagers read the newspaper. They know thereís a world out there thatís not censored the way their textbooks are censored. And I think it creates two phenomenon, two results. One is boredom because what theyíre given is such pabulum. And the other is cynicism because they know that uh, what they read in the books is, has been sanitized and homogenized and itís completely contrary to reality.

Diane: Well there is absolutely a ridiculous aspect to all of this. And I think that one of the curatives to this extensive censorship has to be uh, very loud laughter because in fact uh, young people, children, see television uh, they go on the Internet uh, teenagers read the newspaper. They know thereís a world out there thatís not censored the way their textbooks are censored. And I think it creates two phenomenon, two results. One is boredom because what theyíre given is such pabulum. And the other is cynicism because they know that uh, what they read in the books is, has been sanitized and homogenized and itís completely contrary to reality.

Ben: Has this uh, tendency that you talk about in The Language Police, is this uh, present in our colleges as well?

Diane: Well I havenít you know, I havenít done any surveys and I, one hears anecdotes.

Ben: Well but you have a sense of it.

Diane: I think that most college professors use primary sources or.... or real histories as opposed to these highly condensed and highly bowdlerized and highly sanitized textbooks. So I would think that the problem in the colleges tends to be that there is such a one-sided political balance that, in the college you would have a hard time in a history department finding anyone who said, got up and said, íIím not a Democrat,í or íIím a Republican.í Um, thereíre very few of those in a history department or in a literature department today. And I think thatís a problem but thatís different from looking at the textbooks.

Ben: Um, since your book came out, Diane, have the uh, textbook publishers reacted? Have they become defensive? You.... you told me you talked to a group of them just today.

Diane: Well I spoke to a group of independent publishers today and they were, you know, thrilled with what I had written because they get.... they get totally squashed in this marketplace. Uh, the.... the, there are four major companies that.... that have seventy-five percent of the market. I was talking to the twenty-five percent niche people who would like to see all of this uh, disappear. They know how bad it is Uh, they...they were telling me anecdote after anecdote about uh, guidelines that required them to not.... not tell the truth or to shade the way you portray this group or that group in a particular way. Um, and, but as far as the major publishers go, the only response Iíve gotten is that someone from one of the big companies came on to a talk show with me, and the others all refused, but one came on and all, it was the PR girl.... guy, not a.... not an editor but just a PR person.

Ben: Not a.... not a real person.

Diane: Not a real person but the PR person and he said, all he could, kept saying was íweíre balanced.

Ben: Diane, uh, what is the mechanism by which the textbooks are chosen and what would the role in that process be of a group that would decide to hold a demonstration?

Diane: Well uh, there are currently twenty-two states that uh, where the State Board of Education selects textbooks for the whole state. And the two most important of these states are Texas and California. And the reason theyíre the most important...

Ben: The two biggest.

Diane...are theyíre the biggest. Uh, between the two of them, they have about one out.... out of every five students in the United States. And so publishers will uh, do whatever is required of them in order to pass muster in Texas and California. And over the years, various groups, whether it was feminists or uh, conservative religious groups have gone to the State Board of Education in these two states and have said uh, íweíre gonna hold a demonstration uh, where weíll protest.í They go to the State Board hearings and...and they say, íweíll make this textbook so controversial, if you donít remove these words or remove these entries or these topics um, that you better do it.í And then the publisher immediately tries to comply because to win the prize of Texas or California, itís such a huge economic prize uh, that they quickly comply. Because the greatest fear that a publisher has is controversy so avoid controversy at all costs. Now the secondary effect of this system of state textbook adoptions is that it has encourage and.... and increased tremendous consolidation in the textbook industry. Uh, there are now four big companies that dominate about seventy-five percent of the market. Uh, so itís very tough for the small guys to compete because they have to be prepared to invest millions of dollars up front uh, just to be able to bring a textbook series to one of those big states and itís often impossible.

Ben: So just briefly, whatís the long-term solution and whatís the short-term solution?

Diane: Well the short-term solution, and probably itís the long-term solution as well, is that teachers should rely less on textbooks when theyíre teaching history or literature. And they should uh, I mean, one would wish that every school had a good school library that was rich with biographies and novels and, of course, you know, appropriate readings for children of the grades uh, that are in the grades in that school so that children could read poetry where nobody has messed with the language or read novels where uh, pieces of it hadnít been cut out by a very sensitive editor.

Ben: And there might even be something about sex in it.

Diane: There could be. And you, Romeo and Juliet should be there as Shakespeare wrote it and not with three hundred lines missing.

Ben: Is that right? Is that what it is?

Diane: Uh, yes. Iíve come to believe, in fact, that uh; maybe we should take the sexy passages in Romeo and Juliet and highlight them to make sure that kids actually do read Shakespeare.

Ben: What.... what do they do with the Bible? I mean, thereís a text full of sex and violence and all sorts of things.

Diane: Well I donít think the Bible is much taught in American schools for reasons of uh, church and state issues. (Ben: Right) But the Bible, if it were ever put up for textbook adoption, would never pass muster because itís filled with adultery, murder, and all sorts of things that are banned from uh, current textbooks.

Ben: Thatís the short-term. And the long-term is...uh...

Diane: Well the answer in.... in some ways is obvious and in some ways is not so obvious.

Ben: The textbook publishers are doing it for money, is that right?

Diane: Right, of course. Well theyíre doing it because they canít sell books unless they do the self-censorship because the State Departments of Education were censoring them and now theyíre saving the stated.... theyíre saving themselves time by doing the censorship themselves.

Ben: And thatís always the most um, stringent censorship is self-censorship.

Diane: Right. So how do we stop this? It would be great if we could just abolish all state textbook adoptions because then instead of one publisher selling a million books to one buyer, which is the government procurement process, youíd have a real marketplace with real consumers, millions of teachers. And uh, they.... there would not be the same concentration of power at this one choke point called the Stated Textbook Adoption Process. Thatís not likely to happen.

Ben: A book at each school district or each school?

Diane: No, Iíd let every teacher buy their own books just like college professors buy their own books. Create a real marketplace. I mean what we have now is no marketplace at all. We have a government procurement process. And uh, thatís not likely to happen because the current arrangement is so beneficial to the publishers who are benefiting from it. Uh, they can make one sale and sell a million books at a time. Thatís, they... they donít want to change that. Uh, what I think is terribly important is, and that can happen, is for uh, the public to demand that everything thatís censored be put on a website, that everything, every list that every publisher has of words and phrases and images and topics that they will never use, must be put on a website. Uh, and anything thatís been removed from a test passage before it was put on a state test should be put on a website. The resumes of people who serve on Bias and Sensitivity Committees on a website where it can be reviewed. And then if they canít defend what theyíre doing, they should be laughed at, in the best of all possible worlds we would not have state textbook adoption. I think thatís a, Iíve come to believe that corrupts the textbooks uh, for all the reasons I explain in my book. And itís, given the.... the quality of the textbooks today, they are gorgeous to look at but the text is very much secondary to the graphics and then the text itself is uh, so often um, compressed uh, sanitized, pasteurized, homogenized. And I think that kids need something much more challenging, they need to be able to engage with controversy, they need to see all the bad things that have happened in the world as well as the good things. They need to see a much broader, richer world so that the school can actually compete with television and the popular culture.

Ben: Yeah, and I want to see those uh, three hundred and twenty-five lines of Romeo and Juliet (Diane laughs). Uh, Diane Ravitch, thank you very much for joining us on Think Tank today. And thank you. Please remember to send us your comments via e-mail. Itís how we make our show better. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.

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Funding for this program is provided by...
(Pfizer) At Pfizer, weíre spending over five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have 12,000 scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer, life is our lifeís work.

Additional funding is provided by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

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