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The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn

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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 expose 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.

272 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2003

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About the author

Diane Ravitch

52 books106 followers
Diane Ravitch is a Research Professor of Education at New York University, a historian of education, and a research professor at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. She is the Founder and President of the Network for Public Education.
She was U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education from 1991-93.
She was married to Richard Ravitch from 1960 until they divorced in 1986.
She married Mary Butz in 2012.
Aside from her many books on education history and policy, Ravitch writes for The New York Review of Books and maintains an influential blog on education.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 81 reviews
Profile Image for Scott Rhee.
1,886 reviews74 followers
June 7, 2014
“For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water conversationalist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics.” ---Ray Bradbury, “Fahrenheit 451”

Long before her excoriating examination and dissection of the current state of affairs in U.S. education policy, including a caustic critique of the No Child Left Behind Act (the George W. Bush-era education bill which she herself originally endorsed), in her 2010 book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education”, Diane Ravitch had been ringing warning bells and finding red flags in our incredibly flawed (and some may say broken) educational system for years as an education historian and Research Professor of Education at New York University.

Her resume tells a tale of a hard-working, dedicated leader in educational policy analysis: Under George H. W. Bush, she was a U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education; appointed to the National Assessment Governing Board by Bill Clinton; co-wrote a weekly blog on the Education Week website from 2007 through 2012; and she now has her own blog (dianeravitch.net), in which she discusses anything and everything having to do with education.

In her 2003 book “The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn”, Ravitch uncovered a frightening policy of institutionalized censorship going on right under the noses of everyone working in the field of education. Even more frightening was the fact that it had been going on for decades by seemingly well-intentioned but overzealously cautious members of so-called “bias and sensitivity” committees, who were originally given the daunting task of poring through questions and readings for standardized tests and determining whether they were racially or gender-biased but who, gradually over time, caved to the pressures of right-wing and left-wing groups in order to avoid controversy.

Conducting research into standardized testing and the “cartel-like” industry of cut-throat textbook publishing, Ravitch uncovered a routine policy in which seemingly innocuous and inoffensive text readings were being cut from tests because of language that could, potentially, “offend” or “confuse” a young reader. Examples include:

****A passage about the history and significance of quilting by pioneer women during the mid-nineteenth century was removed because it contained stereotypes of women as “soft” and “submissive” and would give young girls a negative image, despite the fact that the article was historically accurate.

****A passage about a blind mountain climber who hiked to the peak of Mount McKinley was taken out because of “regional bias” (some children may not understand what mountainous terrain was like, owing to the fact that they may not live near mountains) and because it suggested that blind people may be slightly disadvantaged compared to those with sight.

****A historical passage describing life in ancient Egypt was stricken because it included images of the extremely wealthy living in palaces and farmers and city workers living in hovels. To the bias and sensitivity reviewers, this was clearly classist (despite its historical accuracy) and may have offended or upset children living in lower-class dwellings.

According to Ravitch, this ridiculous and dangerous institutionalized censorship is pandemic to the entire testing and textbook industry, creating dull literature textbooks that succeed in making children who already dislike reading hate it even more and white-washed history textbooks that give students a distorted and often completely wrong examination of historical events.

Who’s to blame for all of this? Ravitch points her fingers at two culprits: the religious right and the far left. Both extreme ends of the political spectrum seem to have converged into a perfect storm of censorship.

Censors from the right “aim to restore an idealized vision of the past, an arcadia of happy family life, in which the family was intact, comprising a father, a mother, and two or more children, and went to church every Sunday. Father was in charge, and Mother took care of the children. (p.63)” Social problems---divorce, dishonesty, criminal behavior, homosexuality, etc.---are anathema to a good education, so no mention of any of these subjects must appear in textbooks.

Censors from the left “believe in an idealized vision of the future, a utopia in which egalitarianism prevails in all social relations. In this vision, there is no dominant group, no dominant father, no dominant race, and no dominant gender. (p. 63)” Anything that may hurt a student’s self-esteem or give him or her the impression that there exists inequalities in the world is something that must be avoided in textbooks.

Ravitch provides a three-fold solution to this problem: 1) Eliminate the state textbook adoption process thereby allowing for more competition among publishers. 2) Educate the public by shining a larger spotlight on the issue. 3) Create a system that better educates teachers, making them masters in what they teach.

Anyone who thinks that the censorship that Bradbury was writing about in his dystopic future world in which the government destroys books because of their fear of people getting ideas was simply science fiction is sadly ignorant. Censorship and thought control is a reality. Thankfully, we have whistle-blowers like Ravitch fighting the system from within.
Profile Image for Becky.
1,384 reviews1,650 followers
July 3, 2022
DNF at 17%. I have had this book on my To-Read list since late 2009. At that time, this book was already 6 years old. It's now nearly 20 years old.

And it has not aged well.

I knew, on page ONE, that this was not going to go well for me. Or at least not the person I am now. Though I don't really think that I am a different PERSON now, just a better educated and more socially conscious one. I have read a lot of social justice work, encompassing a lot of marginalized sections of society and how the way society sees and thinks about and talks about these groups, or even the CONCEPTS of them, impacts them in a variety of different ways, and more often than not, negatively.

So, me being that reader, with that understanding, I dove into this. Ravitch states on page ONE that educational censorship "practices began with the intention of identifying and excluding any conscious or implicit statements of bias against African Americans, other racial or ethnic minorities, and females, whether in texts or textbooks, especially any statements that demeaned members of these groups".

MA'AM. History would like a word.
"For much of the 20th century, southern classrooms treated Black history — when they touched the subject at all — as a sideshow to a white-dominated narrative.

Teachers taught students to sing Dixie and memorize long lists of forgettable governors. Civil War battles got described in detail. Textbooks celebrated the violent overthrow of democratically-elected, multiracial governments. Lynching went unmentioned. The evils of slavery got cursory acknowledgments — and quick dismissals.

“It should be noted that slavery was the earliest form of social security in the United States,” a 1961 Alabama history textbook said, falsely.

The same forces that took over public spaces to erect monuments to the Confederacy and its white supremacist tenets also kept a tight grip on the history taught to Southern pupils. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) spent decades shaping and reshaping textbooks to put a strong emphasis on Lost Cause views of the Civil War and Reconstruction, which glorified the white supremacist foundations of the Confederacy and was used to justify segregation and authoritarian Jim Crow governance."
Quote source: The Montgomery Advertiser Dec 2020

Before I move on, I would just like to point out that Diane Ravitch is a HISTORIAN, who according to the SECOND LINE OF THE BOOK, spent "many years of studying the history of education and writing about the politics of education". There is absolutely zero reason she would not know this history.

So why did she not include it? Why does her story begin in 1997 and not 1897? Or earlier? If her concern is the manipulation and restriction of what children learn, surely racist and white supremacist propaganda, including completely inaccurate history about the reasons and causes of the Civil War, would make the cut, would it not?

I seriously considered just returning this to the library at that point. But then I thought that maybe I was being unfair, and maybe her arguments about the more modern policies will make sense and there's a reason for her more narrow focus. So I decided to give her a second chance.

SIGH. Reader - it did not get better.

Ravitch was part of a committee under the Clinton administration who was reviewing reading passages for fourth grade standardized testing. Those passages THEN, to her surprise, went through a bias and sensitivity review, and THAT review can reject passages that don't meet their guidelines. I was very curious to see what they actually reviewed and rejected, but alas, Ravitch didn't include the actual passages, but rather paraphrasings of them.
"I cannot reproduce the stories, because some of them may yet appear one day as test passages. But I will paraphrase the story sufficiently so that the reader may judge whether the charge of bias is persuasive."
I'm sorry, NO. As this author of this book, which clearly takes a negative stance against these kinds of reviews and their subsequent alterations, you'll forgive me if I don't trust that your assessment of THEIR intent is unbiased (irony!) and fairly represented.

Here's one of the examples (the shortest one, because typing and space):
The bias panel did not like a story about growing up in ancient Egypt. The story contrasted how people's ways of living varied in accordance with their wealth and status. Some lived in palaces, others were noblemen, others were farmers or city workers. The size and grandeur of one's house, said the story, depended on family wealth. To the naked eye, the story was descriptive, not judgemental. But the bias and sensitivity reviewers preferred to eliminate it, claiming that references to wealth and class distinctions had an "elitist" tone. The fact that these class distinctions were historically accurate was irrelevant to the reviewers. In the world that they wanted children to read about, class distinctions did not exist, not now and not in the past, either.
1) I don't know what kind of tone the ACTUAL story represented, because we're getting this paraphrased version of it.
2) Her interpretation of what this panel of reviewers "wants" is so clearly based on her own bias that I cannot take her claim even remotely seriously. She doesn't know what they may or may not want. Maybe they made entirely valid criticisms of HOW the story was written with regards to the DISTINCTIONS between the classes, but we don't get to see what the actual, submitted story was - just her paraphrased version. If the rich were described in positive tones and the poor in negative ones, for example, I would EXPECT for a panel specifically looking for that to call it out. Just because Ravitch didn't see it, or didn't think it mattered, doesn't make their intention in rejecting that story to be that they want to somehow erase the history of class distinctions. Ridiculous argument.

She takes issue with stories about mountains or deserts or specific geographical or regional settings being removed, despite the valid consideration that some children may be issued that question on a test and not be familiar with those areas or things, and may get hung up on the unfamiliarity and not finish the test. (As a student who grew up in Florida, if I was given a test passage about snow, it would definitely have given me pause, because I never saw or experienced snow in my life, and depending on the question(s) may have had to read the story multiple times.) She also argues that much of literature would be rejected by these panels, which was a confusing argument because this section was about questions on a standardized test, intended to be given nationwide to students who would come from a variety of backgrounds and living situations and races and classes and experiences and cultures, to determine their aptitude. She seems to be conflating her own point here, because the purpose of this test is specifically to be as generic as possible to be completed by children of all backgrounds and did not include any "literature" in the passages she mentioned. There was a fable mentioned, but even she admits that it contained gender biased stereotypes - she just doesn't agree with their taking issue with it, or the decision to subvert the stereotypes. "Aesop might be startled to find a woman flattering a man or a guy flattering another guy or a woman flattering another woman" after all.

Maybe she was implying that more specific tests pertaining to said literature would be affected by the rampant rejection of stereotypes or language that has evolved beyond Ravitch's comfort - but if the student is being TAUGHT about the concept or literature in question, why would she think that they wouldn't be TESTED on it? Those are two different things. The teaching and the testing.

So let's talk about the teaching, because here too she has a lot of opinions about textbook publishers having bias and sensitivity reviews, and the standards they set. She takes issue with most of them, including those lobbied for by the religious right, not just the "feminist and multicultural left", should it seem that way because of my review. She takes issue with the guidelines they set, which include things like avoiding abortion, scary or dirty creatures, criminal behavior, evolution, magic, witchcraft, the supernatural, politics, religion, unsafe situations, unemployment, social problems like abuse, addiction, etc, and personal appearance including height and weight.

She doesn't see the need for equal numbers of men and women being included in stories or depictions, of women being depicted or described as strong, of men being described as anything OTHER than strong and brave, of disabilities being used to describe an attribute someone has rather than define them (ie: "people who are blind" rather than "the blind", or "people who were enslaved" rather than "slaves", etc). She includes a whole list of what she claims are the guidelines for illustrators to follow regarding "sex-stereotyped images" and what to replace them with. Examples:
- "Women always wearing aprons must be replaced by males and/or females wearing aprons."
- "Mother sewing while father reads must be replaced by mother working at her desk while father reads or clears the dining room table."
- "Mother bringing sandwiches to father as he fixes the roof must be replaced by mother fixing the roof."
and my PERSONAL favorite:
- "Girls preoccupied with their appearance, playing dress-up, and buying clothes must be replaced by both sexes equally vain, equally concerned about their appearance, with both parents using blow-driers and cologne, and with teenage boys cultivating their beards."

But SURELY the bias and sensitivity panel would deem it unacceptable to not have teenage girls cultivating their beards!

Honestly, these "examples" all reek of her negative reaction and her interpretation and rephrasing. Not a single one is actually quoted from source - she just claims this is what they are and/or mean. There are footnotes - but they just cite the source as being one of a various collection of sets of guidelines (Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley (SF-AW) Multicultural Guidelines, etc), but not the ACTUAL guideline itself. We only have her interpretation of them as to what is said or intended.

Still, all that being said, there were times where I was inclined to agree with her points, at least to some degree. Trying to make historical texts and passages more "politically correct" (my term, not hers), does require either leaving out relevant information, or including outright falsehoods. In the effort to represent equality, we must not try to rewrite history.
"Some of these replacements require writers and artists to tell lies about history. Until the latter decades of the twentieth century, most women who worked were in fact nurses, teachers, and secretaries; not many women were doctors, professors, managers, police officers, sports figures, and construction workers. To pretend otherwise is to falsify the past. It minimizes the barriers that women faced. It pretends that the gender equality of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries was a customary condition of the past."

I mean, I would qualify that statement with a more measured accounting of said equality, since we do NOT have true equality, and actually lost a bit last week, but otherwise I agree with her sentiment. I don't agree with whitewashing the past to make it more egalitarian in appearance.

But then her very next paragraph exploded my brain.
"The MH guidelines express a barely concealed rage against people of European ancestry. They deride European Americans for exploiting slaves, migrant workers, and factory labor; they excoriate the land rapacity of the pioneers and mock their so-called courage in fighting Native Americans: 'Bigots and bigotry' say the guidelines, referring to European Americans, 'must be identified and discussed.' European Americans, the guidelines suggest, were uniquely responsible for bigotry and exploitation in all human history. Like the SF-AW guidelines, McGraw-Hill's advise writers to recognize that 'the very foundation that our country is built upon is modeled in part after tenets of the Iroquois Confederacy,' which is intended to raise Native American self-esteem and bring the European Americans down a few notches."

What. The. Fuck. Is. That. O_O

First of all, DIANE, fuck all the way off, and take your hyperbolic exaggeration with you.

Acknowledging the abhorrent atrocities that WHITE PEOPLE committed for centuries - stealing and enslaving millions of black people, exploiting and using their bodies, by force, in every conceivable way, for the profit of white people; lying to, slaughtering, and stealing from Native Americans, again, for the benefit and profit of white poeple; exploiting the weaker or more vulnerable whenever possible, up to and including present day -- ALL OF THOSE THINGS, AND MORE, DESERVE THE UTMOST DERISION AND DISPARAGEMENT AND SCORN. The fact that this paragraph actually made it to print is the absolute height of fucking absurdity. The fact that this paragraph, written by a HISTORIAN, actually criticizes McGraw-Hill for telling the truth about the vile role of "European Americans" in the history of the founding and expansion of the United States is utterly mind-boggling. Combine this paragraph with the oopsie-daisy "oversight" of the decades of "curated history" from the Daughters of the Confederacy and that was the end of the fucking road for me.

I did skim the next two pages to see if there was anything of interest there, but it was just more repetitions of her disliking societal progress, representation, people-centric language, and subverting stereotypical depictions.

I LIKE the progress that society is making toward inclusion and acceptance and representation. Diane is entitled to her outdated opinions, but I don't have to, nor want to, read them. Hard pass.

Profile Image for Karen.
80 reviews11 followers
June 16, 2009
Long Story Short: This book makes some excellent observations and arguments about bias, sensitivity, censorship, and textbook publishing, but it makes them in a semi-hysterical and sloppy way.

Why I Chose This Book: I used to be a teacher and I currently work within educational publishing, so the topic interested me personally, and I am always curious to read arguments from both sides of the political correctness movement.

The Book’s Strengths: If the author’s intent was to get a reaction, it succeeded. The book presents a thorough explanation of how the bias and sensitivity standards of textbook censorship have developed over time, and presents a definite insider’s view of the textbook industry and its relationship to the government’s control of school curriculum. Ravitch provides specific examples of the kinds of deselection and excising of materials from textbooks that exist, the names of the companies that engage in it, before and after portrayals of how books and stories have been changed after bias and sensitivity review, the process of textbook adoptions and what states have the largest influence on the market, how individual state standards influence textbook editors and publishers, which pressure groups lean on textbook publishers to make changes, how they effect such changes, and how the idea that bias and sensitivity review is important has become commonplace and remains unexamined by industry participants. After the main body of the text, there are more than sixty pages of appendix materials: a list of banned words and a list of the author’s recommendations for instructional materials to supplement textbooks.

The book feels comprehensive, and it is an easy read. The author uses straightforward, non-academic language that draws you into her emotions and astonishment for a shared experience; she makes you feel you are being personally betrayed, so the reader-text connection is very strong. I think she also does a very good job of writing a history book according to rules she implicitly sets (there’s no outright definition): she presents an interesting topic and makes you want to research it even more so that you can come to your own conclusions of events. The book highlights a real problem, and runs through the steps of providing evidence to support her claim that the problem exists, that it is getting worse, and that it has a profound affect. The author’s credentials and experience lend weight to her claims—she is a historian and an educational publishing consultant at very high levels—and she takes a stand on why this problem matters and what people can do to fix it.

The Book’s Weaknesses: The book really works you up into a right state; I was ready, after reading the prologue, to go get my pipe wrench out of the garage and start smashing cars. The examples she uses of expunged text are probably true and definitely outrageous, but they are so outrageous that it just makes me a little suspicious that she is presenting us the most effective anomalies (cherry-picking data, if you like). Her tone is often snide, and there are very long passages where she overwhelms the reader with too many examples and hammers at the same point over and over again. She paints the villains (feminists, ethnic groups, and religious sects) as giant monolithic groups who behave and think exactly alike across time and geography. For example, at the start of Chapter 4, “Everybody Does It: The Testing Companies” (on pg. 51 in my book), she writes that

Feminist critics maintained that this gap was caused entirely by sexist language.

Not only is this a gross generalization, she provides no sources or references to even one specific feminist who maintained that ALL test score differences were to blame ENTIRELY on sexism in test scores. When authors start to hyperbolize like that, it makes the book seem like its own kind of biased screed. In the middle of Chapter 8, “Literature: Forgetting the Tradition,” on a single page—pg. 118—she implies first that most teachers rely only on textbooks to select materials for their class and then claims that students experiencing grief do not benefit from reading teen novels about adolescents also coping with grief and that they would be better served by the classic poets, yet cites no sources for either. This is on the same page!

In Chapter 9, “History: The Endless Battle,” she gives a very compelling reason that these changes to textbooks are so detrimental to students’ understanding of historical events:

The books frequently quote historical figures or offer data without giving any sources for teachers and students who want to learn more, failing to demonstrate by deed the importance of presenting verifiable evidence. The reader must take it on faith that the information presented to them is accurate, because there is no way to check up on it.

This is very important, and everyone should realize this flaw in the textbook paradigm of the current age. Sadly, Ravitch repeats this problem in her own book, and it makes the book too easy to pick apart and dismiss—even when you feel in your heart that probably every word she says is true.

What Should Have Happened: The book did not need so many examples of textbooks and test items that were expunged. There should have been far fewer lists and far more explanation of why this is a serious problem, and far more data to support the claim that it actually is a problem. Is it true that most teachers rely on the textbook and introduce no other materials? Does it matter if standardized test questions are devoid of artistic or literary content? Is the role of the school to teach classics? Does it matter if students read novels by minority and women authors who will be forgotten in ten years? Her criticisms of how important classics have been “cleaned up” to please pressure groups are justifiably scathing, but she goes off on authors that are outside the established canon without ever really defending the value of the canon. It’s a pretty big assumption that everyone agrees the European classics are basically the best thing for everyone to be reading. At least she should have made the argument that the artistic merit of these works has stood the test of time!

The big question—So what?—needs a much better answer.

Short Story Shorter: I would definitely recommend this book. It’s readable, and it raises awareness to a topic that most people are probably interested in for one reason or another.
Profile Image for Maurean.
905 reviews
April 16, 2008
"I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balsac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil" -W.E.B. DuBois
(great quote)

While I read this book, I wasn't sure rather to laugh or cry. It disturbs me that we, as a society, appear complacent with forfeiting our children's education for the sake of appearing "politically correct".
Speaking as someone who grew up in the hills of western Pennsylvania, I must say that at no time did the mention of alligators (which I had never seen) or the arid desert lands (to which I had never been) give cause for me to become "distracted" or "upset"; Although they were "outside the realm of my personal experience", typhoons, armadillos and faeries where not concepts I felt were difficult to comprehend; And, whilst I am NOT promoting stereotyping, I DO think its perfectly acceptable for our children to know that there ARE women who cook, that there WAS slavery in our history and that older people DO get wrinkles. Is it not, after all, the role of education to expose our children to a world beyond their own personal experiences, and broaden their horizons past their immediate circumstances?
To expect our youth to view the world through some rose-colored glasses, where no controversial subjects arise, is causing them to be ill-prepared for the real world that exists beyond the classroom.
To allow the elimination of Steinbeck, Twain, Hawthorne and Dickens (among others) from their literary exposure is, in my view, very short-sighted, indeed, and adds one more reason why my children will be home schooled.
Profile Image for Kirsti.
2,564 reviews101 followers
March 8, 2008
"As a student in the Houston public schools, I had firsthand experience with the political pressures exerted by extreme right-wing forces. When I was a senior at San Jacinto High School in 1955–56, I worked one class period each day in the library. One day I discovered a pile of books stashed under the main circulation desk, all of which were about Russia and the Soviet Union. When I tried to replace them on the shelves, the librarian stopped me and said that they had been removed from circulation. My curiosity piqued, as soon as I had free time, I went straight for the banned books under the counter and read them. . . . I learned a lot about Russia, more than anyone else in my school, since no one else had access to any books about it."

A concise and highly opinionated explanation of how the right and the left censor textbooks, how we got into this mess, and what can be done about it. I agree that this is a very serious issue, although I disagreed with some of her complaints. For example, Ravitch considers terms such as "confined to a wheelchair" and "wheelchair bound" OK to use. I think anyone who has used a wheelchair or who knows a wheelchair user can understand how illogical those terms are. The wheelchair is the tool you use to get around, not the thing that confines you. If you didn't have the wheelchair, you'd be confined to bed. And what does "wheelchair bound" mean? Tied up in a wheelchair? Headed toward a wheelchair?

Anyway, although I didn't agree with her 100 percent, I enjoyed reading the book. The writing style is clear and no-nonsense. Ravitch even cracks a joke from time to time.
202 reviews8 followers
August 11, 2013
I tend to hate activist writing, because reading a book classed as "nonfiction" for me is meaningless if the author is not trying to be objective, and activists rarely are. Most "nonfiction" writing of people with an agenda has less truth to it than many "fiction" books inspired by real life.

However, Ravitch is a rare exception to this rule. Though she obviously has an agenda, it's a pretty benign version of "I want to raise awareness to the dangers of the textbook adoption process to American public education". Crucially, she makes a strenuous effort to avoid as much bias as possible and to cite her extremely broad array of sources, and for that, this rises above most "activist" books, even though it is trying to effect change. If Ravitch doesn't cite a source it's because it was an industry contact who could face career retribution for speaking to her.

With that said, this is the best concise summary of what's wrong with the textbook adoption process in this country that I've ever read. It flies by - I finished it in about a day - but still presents a compelling case for how we as a country are flushing our kids' educations down the toilet for the sake of ridiculous special interests on both left and right, simply because those are the only people who actually participate in the process in any meaningful way. The author also includes an extensive bibliography of literary and historical works that are suggested to supplement curricula at various levels. Overall, a worthy read for anyone who cares about the integrity of American education in the 21st century.
Profile Image for Toby.
73 reviews8 followers
December 27, 2007
Good points about the sanitizing of literature, but would have been better if she didn't make the same points over and over and over, to the point of writing almost identical sentences three or four times in succession.
Profile Image for Benjamin Wetmore.
Author 2 books9 followers
July 28, 2019
I really wanted to like this book. I like the thesis, I think the author is someone with the credentials to say something serious about the field, with personal experience to add to the story along with a solid argument, and decent scholarship. This isn't a Bill O'Reilly 'here's 200p of my opinion' kind of book.

But it's a good example of fundamental dishonesty when an experts pretends to outline a complex abstract social topic and then prescribe solutions.

Where to start?

First, I noticed several glaring factual inaccuracies. Some of these might be due to the book's age, or perhaps the author was otherwise unaware, but X, X, X.

Second, the book really should have been an extended article and not 170 pages. You can tell where the thrust of the book lies, and where she was working overdrive to shoehorn more content and argument to fill pages. The real argument in this book is about 40 pages, the rest is fluff.

Third, there's a stunning amount of false equivalence that she engages in within especially the last half of the book. Conservatives are just as bad as liberals, amirite? It's certainly true and fair to say that both ideologies engage in similar practices. It's fair to say they both have a list of shibboleths they want either ignored or handled a certain way. It's fair to say they learn from each other in tactics, and apply them to dumb down textbook publishers who just want to placate the powerful. It's entirely dishonest to say they are of equal social and political power. Conservatives essentially don't want to pay for a book for their kids to read that teaches bad manners. Liberals want to rework words and concepts so that every kid nationwide becomes liberal. That's such a stunning disparity in goals that to muddy those waters betrays the biases of the author. The conservative family in central Texas who doesn't want blasphemy in their local school district is not the same as the childless SJW in Manhattan who is mandating that kids in central Texas can't use certain words, and dictating how they talk, think and reflect upon certain groups. One is essentially consumerist in orientation, and the other is totalitarian. To be frank, it feels as though the author, Ravitch, wanted to write a book castigating her fellow liberals but in order to avoid permanently ruining her career, she decided to balance it out. The irony that a book about censorship was likely censored in its basic orientation and examination should show you who really rules America, and it's not conservatives in 'flyover states.'

Fourth, the nature of criticism is that it's a complaint. Criticism in one form or another has always existed, but has perhaps exploded in social and political power in the past 2-3 generations. But it's a mistake to say that 'culture wars' were limited to portrayals of lesbian couples. Criticism of the dominant cultural trends is as old as Mencken, Twain, and Diogenes. What's changed is that those criticisms are now largely ignored and the demands implied by those criticisms is accepted uncritically. No one can say "no" and just ignore the gadflies. For some reason, consistency of the mind requires the assimilation of contrarian views and those who are perpetually outraged and aggrieved. The question should then be, at least asked, why can't Americans reject those notions? Why have we lost the social confidence to reject complaints? What if the customer is not always right?

Fifth, the practice of censorship, again, has important roots that go unnoticed and acknowledged. I don't think there's a single reference of wartime censorship during any of America's wars. Now, one might say that seems like a separate issue, but an important part of the censorship was regulating morale and what was said. That practice, and that acceptance by the public, is surely part of the story here. The wartime censorship has certainly bled over into our colleges and into our societies.

Sixth, the nature of the censorship we are witnessing is not merely the restriction of ideas, it's the cementing of a particular worldview. Ravitch gets close to this, but perhaps because of how it would come across she's careful not to cross this Rubicon. The internal inconsistencies of the censorship regime clearly indicate that there's more than just stifling outrage at work. There is a plan, there is a design, and that goal is not neoliberalism. That goal is not the ability to respect and protect all minority interests in the country. This is what the conservatives primarily reject. It's not that they don't think their kids can handle a divergent viewpoint, it's that they reject the agenda and are offended that they are constantly told they have to join the agenda by buying books that subtly advance that agenda. Does that agenda even exist? I think many in the mainstream media would argue that point. If we can't even acknowledge the political and social forces battling one another, how can there be compromise, and even less than compromise, how can there be trust and mutual respect to let book content be uncontrolled? If two opposing ideologues are going to treat textbooks like a steering wheel, why should conservatives let go if the political left is steering with their hands, legs, and controlling the pedals? The capture of the educational institutions by the organized political left has caused conservative parents and politicians struggling for agency over the educational outcomes of their kids. The unspoken principle at work seems to be that left-wing agitators do not think that conservative parents should be allowed to educate and inculcate values in their children. Perhaps recognizing that liberals do not procreate, liberals need to indoctrinate conservative kids otherwise there won't be liberals in a few generations. Therefore both sides are correct in seeing censorship and curriculum control as vital to the preservation of their principles. Censorship, then, is a reflection of this battle. The way the power dynamics line up, it would seem conservatives are at a structural disadvantage and perhaps know it, and liberals are at a decided advantage and similarly know it, and so their impact on censorship is thus disproportionate between the two groups. Explaining that power dynamic would have gone a long way in explaining the situation, but it would have undercut the false equivalence that Ravitch wanted to force in here.

Seventh, for a book called "the language police" the book spends an inordinate amount of time outlining the specific tales and stories that can't be told anymore. There's a connection between the two, sure, but not 35+ pages worth. It felt like she was just trying to hold up Mark Twain as an example of what was wrong here, without going further into the real social policing of grammar and language that we live by today, that frankly has been so internalized that we take it for granted.

Eighth, the book completely missed the pronoun wars of 2016+, and in this was either ignorant or dismissive about what was happening as it relates to language on the colleges. Colleges tend to outpace the culture by about 15-20 years in its inculcation of peculiar orthodoxies, and it would have been fascinating to have that kind of expose in a book like this, that received wide attention and notice.

Ravitch is an interesting public figure, she has an interesting thesis and makes some interesting points. But she's omitting major chunks of context, engaged in false equivalence, and as such, this book doesn't really stand on its own.
Profile Image for Emily.
687 reviews632 followers
November 11, 2009
It was The Language Police, by Diane Ravitch. The matter it discusses will be familiar to New Yorkers because of a recent Regents Exam scandal: the systematic "editing" of test and schoolbook materials to excise any theme, word or implication that might offend anybody. Ravitch presents a searing analysis of publishers' bias guidelines and shows how they became more and more rigid and nonsensical, and how they are the product of publishers and school systems caving in pre-emptively to interest groups on both the left and the right.

Ravitch gives a brief history of the guidelines' original intent, which was two-fold. First, the guidelines were meant to save children from having to read stories in which every woman was a housewife, all maids were African-American, and the disabled were helpless cripples. Second, they were meant to avoid putting children at a disadvantage (particularly on tests) by assuming specific knowledge that some some of them might never have been exposed to.

This was quickly twisted into a more draconian code: not only should writers and editors avoid portraying all women as housewives, they should actually avoid portraying any of them as housewives. "In the ideal world of education-think, women would be breadwinners; African Americans would be academics; Asian Americans would be athletes; and no one would be a wife or a mother." Old people should be shown doing strenuous activities like jogging, or repairing a roof; and a story like the one lauding a blind man for climbing Mt. McKinley is forbidden because it implies that that feat would be harder for a blind person. A story about a snowman is biased against children from the South, who can't be expected to understand the nature of snow; a story about a regatta, no matter how explanatory, is biased against anyone too poor to own a yacht. Stories in reading books should not present bad behavior such as disobedience or arrogance, even if the characters get their come-uppance at the end. History texts put a positive slant on nearly everything; "some texts present Mao as a friendly, inclusive leader, who listened to the peasants and won their support, just like our politicians." Whenever women were not active in a historical event, which is often, this must be noted disapprovingly.

This book isn't just about bewailing these most outrageous examples, however; the second half contains a fascinating exploration of the textbook adoption process, which shows how the big states (Texas and California) exert disproportionate control, how interest groups hijack the interpretation of the guidelines, and how publishers became so litigation-shy that they succumb to nearly any request. The book's weakest chapter is Ravitch's discussion of what to do about the situation: the practice is so deep-rooted that even she seems flummoxed.

Some readers, going through the appendices of Ravitch's book, will think "well of course textbooks shouldn't use phrases like 'career girl' or 'midget.'" But Ravitch is just reproducing the lists in full, not suggesting that the prohibition of any particular item is unreasonable. She puts everything on the table and allows the reader to decide what is or is not appropriate, which is much more than can be said for the "language police" themselves. What impressed me most about this book is that Ravitch persuaded me that common sense has flown out the window, even though I disagree with her about some of the specifics. (Her list of recommended reading at the end strikes me as too reactively Eurocentric, for example, lacking enough contemporary voices to hold a student's interest.) But perhaps that is because my own education took place under this regime.

I've always found that education is one of those topics that interests nearly everyone. This book also boasts a sharp writing style that makes it a pleasure to read. I would definitely recommend it.
Profile Image for Jason.
386 reviews35 followers
March 20, 2011
I found this book to be fascinating. I've actually participated in a workshop on test passage analysis, which, looking back on it, was basically censorship. We were told if any of the passages could be upsetting to any student, we should eliminate it. I remember one of the passages we were left with that would actually end up on the test was a dumb rhyming poem about a slice of lemon pie.

Diane Ravitch traces the history of censorship on K-12 tests and textbooks in this illuminating book that includes a glossary of banned words and topics. She makes plenty of good points about the insanity of banned items, such as geography bias, which means a passage about the beach would not be fair because some students have never visited the beach and therefore would be at a disadvantage. Please. She does seem to go a little too far when she complains that our current textbooks aren't entirely composed of authors from the 18th and 19th centuries. She doesn't seem to agree with NCTE that students need to be exposed to a wide variety of texts--she just wants them reading Hemingway and Poe and Shakespeare. Despite that, I seemed to agree with most of her points.

I would highly recommend this book to any educator.
Profile Image for Kevin.
23 reviews1 follower
July 4, 2020
This book has not aged well in the last 17 years since its publication. Ravitch makes some valid points about academic immunity and the dangers of overzealous censorship, but she is woefully ignorant of the power of language to shape and inform society and thought. By dismissing ideas so simple as referring to someone as a “chairperson” instead of a “chairman” she completely fails to acknowledge how how language not only reflects reality, but re-creates it, too. I’m truly curious to know what Ravitch has to say about the “language police” today in 2020... Without hearing how she’s evolved or perhaps how she editorializes this book in the context of the last 17 years, I’m left deeply suspicious of Ravitch and her ideals that she implicitly exposes in this book.

As a side note: How egotistical (and hypocritical) do you have to be to include an appendix of “classic” literature titles edited by yourself in a book that lambasts “language police”? She is—herself—telling us what is quality and what should be read. Is that not exactly what she’s trying to argue against? What a mindfuck of a book. Stick to the history, Diane, and keep your opinions out of it.
Profile Image for Cyndi.
103 reviews
August 25, 2007
It's scary how we are controlled so much in school. I liked this book but I'm considering that ignorance is bliss.
This book discusses how the American government and pressure groups changes things or deletes stuff in our history curriculum to make things more likable and politically correct. What ever happened to learn from the past? Many more topics are covered in the book that make me want to get up and go fight the whole messy process.
Profile Image for Michael.
397 reviews7 followers
December 18, 2019
Read other's reviews on this book, both pro and con. As for me, I'm glad my sons were not influenced by the full force of today's social engineering, albeit they did get a taste of its earlier rise. I think many of today's problems with safe spaces, people not knowing what sex they are, snowflakes, etc, lack of historical understanding, knowledge of this Nation's founding and it's Constitution, all can be partially traced back to the subject matter covered in this book.
Profile Image for Kaethe.
6,452 reviews473 followers
July 17, 2014
Ravitch looks at one aspect of the American Public School Crisis: the lousy curricula. Because apparently EVERYONE has felt the need to tweak it. Maddening stuff.
Profile Image for Jerry.
Author 10 books23 followers
October 17, 2017
In a G.K. Chesterton book I recently read, Heretics, Chesterton quotes a pundit on the topic of the proper role of education:

He says, “Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.” This, clearly expressed, means, “We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.”

Diane Ravitch would recognize that mentality.

Publishers of educational materials do not want controversy (general publishers, of course, love controversy because it sells books in a competitive marketplace). …And the best recipe for survival in a marketplace dominated by the political decisions of a handful of state boards is to delete whatever might offend anyone.

Ravitch does a great job of cataloguing the lengths to which textbooks have dumbed down the content for fear of any political pushback. What she does not do is much in the way of analysis. For example, while she mentions once that there is a difference between censorship and selection, and that schools must exercise selection because they can’t have literally every book, she does not take it the necessary step further, which is, how does a state-run system exercise selection without it becoming censorship?

The book was published in 2003, and uses examples mostly from the late nineties. A good quarter of the book is an appendix with those examples. Most of them seem innocuous on their own, but combined, they create textbooks that don’t actually say anything.

The two biggest offenders are California and Texas, because these two large states dominate the markets that publishers write for. She states that buying textbooks statewide “is cartel-like behavior” which is correct but, again, doesn’t take the conclusion far enough. It is the reason states can have a statewide purchase process that is the cartel-like behavior. That there is a statewide government run education system which parents pay into regardless of where they send their children. This guarantees statewide control, because it guarantees that parents will do the only thing they can afford to do to improve their children’s education and/or protect their children: lobby the people that run the statewide, and increasingly federalized, system.

Her list of the evils caused by the current textbook appropriate and approval system is nothing more than the evils we always get when we create a monopolistic system through law: corruption, skewed priorities, and lack of progress. Her solution for a process that was made possible by a faceless bureaucracy is to create a bigger bureaucracy. But that never works. Sunshine or no sunshine, when responsibility is diluted it is easier to go along with the loudest voices.

The obvious solution is to give parents choice, so that when they disagree with what their children are being taught they can run to another school instead of to their local and state legislatures. The only way that government censorship of school texts will go away is when parents have the choice of where their children go, and a choice of educational emphasis. Until that happens, any attempt at reform will only be hijacked by well-meaning people who have no other way to make their desires for the next generation heard.

Even with the lack of analysis, however, she still manages to predict the future:

We do not know how these trends may yet affect the quality of our politics, our civic life, and our ability to communicate with one another somewhere above the level of the lowest common denominator. The consequences can’t be good.

Indeed not. Preparing students with no sense of history or perspective could produce a lot of the craziness we’re seeing in select college campuses today.

While lacking in any real analysis of the problems, this book is worth reading for the examples she gives from several textbooks and bias review guidelines. It reminds me a lot of Richard Feynman’s essay about taking part in the textbook review process in Surely You're Joking (which is why I picked it up) but with more details and wider scope.
Profile Image for Lisajean.
222 reviews40 followers
June 23, 2020
It made me think about this poem by Billy Collins:

The History Teacher
Trying to protect his students' innocence
he told them the Ice Age was really just
the Chilly Age, a period of a million years
when everyone had to wear sweaters.

And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age,
named after the long driveways of the time.

The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more
than an outbreak of questions such as
"How far is it from here to Madrid?"
"What do you call the matador's hat?"

The War of the Roses took place in a garden,
and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom
on Japan.

The children would leave his classroom
for the playground to torment the weak
and the smart,
mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,

while he gathered up his notes and walked home
past flower beds and white picket fences,
wondering if they would believe that soldiers
in the Boer War told long, rambling stories
designed to make the enemy nod off.

Whatever values you want to inculcate into students, liberal or conservative, you have to actually teach them. Censorship in any form is anti-educational. They’ll be exposed to this stuff one way or another, might as well deal with the hard stuff in class with space for discussion and processing.
8 reviews
June 14, 2021
With courageous force, Ravitch details countless disturbing examples of American textbook censorship over the past century. This book echoes what C.S. Lewis wrote 50 years earlier in "The Abolition of Man," how timid thinking castrates young minds. Ravitch fairly exposes the guilt of both left (the radically politically "correct") and right (the prudish and excessively conservative) on this front: all are culpable. "The Language Police" can be tedious and repetitive at times, but it delivers an impactful message about the need for all of us in America to develop thicker skin and let raw words roam.
Profile Image for Emilie.
144 reviews
January 4, 2017
I wanted to like this book more than I did. I am a fan of Ravitch. She gets a bit strong-worded, but its good research and well-organized. I’ve learned so much from her stuff. For The Language Police, I enjoyed the first few chapters. Then there reached a section/handful of chapters which disappointed me. Then this was redeemed with the conclusions. For the beginning, I felt that Ravitch presented the facts well. She connects everything together and gives a clear argument. The chapters after that lacked that same level of credibility and facts. I disagreed with some points, found areas which I felt required more proof, and saw areas in which she misinterpreted information or chose to misrepresent information. This was frustrating for me as I agreed and followed her overall message.

It was those little things that kind of ate away at the book. For example, the chapter about Literature misinterprets NCTE, ELA standards, and the methods of teaching ELA. I know this because I have studied these as a secondary education major and teacher. Essentially she wants us to read “The Greats” (white men) again *eye roll* because kiddos ain’t reading enough Hemingway. If they aren’t reading Hemingway then they just wont understand good literature *gags*. She is very focused on aesthetics of reading, emphasizing content as the priority. This is bad teaching. Like one of the top five basics of teaching English is that you don’t teach a book, you teach a unit. (1) if everyone in the the US read Hemingway, what would that teach? nothing. It doesn't guarantee understanding of the themes or the skills to read deeply and (2) Hemingway sucks. No one really likes Hemingway, let's be honest. Even though she argues that she trusts teachers and wants supports teachers in the conclusion, her chapter about Literature suggests that English teachers don't know what they are doing and are not to be trusted.

I also felt that Ravitch does not address her privilege as an educated, white woman. She makes good points when she points out ridiculous examples of censorship (like calling the night sky black), but there are some other areas where they aren't so 'ridiculous'. She might see it as ridiculous because she grew up with certain mainstream beliefs, but that doesn't mean it is the truth. For example, I recall her referring to Native American beliefs as 'imagination'. It put me in a hard place because now i'm censoring her in a way. I had these feelings multiple times. It made me think "Ravitch never really defines the line. When does something cross the line?" Ravitch is very bent on maintaining the status quo. Although intelligent and critical, she doesn't always acknowledge that what she learned might be wrong. If our version of history and literature has truly been so edited, then we must admit that we have a skewed view of history. This made me often question her, writing "according to who? why" in the margins in response to whenever she declared a book/person/movement as mandatory to learn.

Overall, it is a useful book. Especially the beginning and last chapters. I would just encourage readers to be critical of Ravitch and not accept everything she says as the answer.
Profile Image for Angela.
580 reviews27 followers
June 13, 2011
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 nutritious.

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. (book description from Amazon.com)
Profile Image for Nate.
962 reviews13 followers
July 20, 2018
Language Police is a book describing the various ways left and right pressure groups determine what enters textbooks and curricula with special emphasis placed on California and Texas to their large state organisations and agencies that deal with this for the whole market. Leftist groups, for example, tend to go over board in banning common images and stereotypes like female nurses and poor black people, as some ridiculous ones, and fighting for the inclusion of every negative aspect of US history to the detriment of any positives that are not "inclusive." Right leaning groups on the other hand over emphasise the stereotype of a perfect family home and overpatriotise historical texts. Honestly, both groups sound despicable and help explain why the crap that I had to read in our reading textbooks and reading tests was so bland and useless. There seems to be some effective change, the SAT, for example, now including real scientific passages and historical documents of great relevance, but still this needs to be stopped. I really liked that Ravitch included a list (60 pages!) of every single thing banned by a textbook and test maker with the company being indicated. The book can be a little repetitive however because, after a while, you just want to strangle the groups for being ridiculous, and every example within the book itself (appendix being a separate source of frustration) loses its place among so many. Although I disagree with her on certain points like the inclusion of slurs in texts not written in the era when they were acceptable, she makes a very good case against both sides, moreso against the left, because science is sadly not really included in here, so there was little description on how certain right groups fight against evolution and other scientific concepts. Additionally, I wish she cited things a lot more thoroughly because while the appendix and quotes are cited, I do wish there was empirical data in here as well citations for paraphrased anecdotal evidence, as it would have made the book more scholarly and stronger. I'm also really glad that she included her recommended reading list for each grade because I thought it was well balanced in terms of content and difficulty.
Profile Image for Alanna.
30 reviews7 followers
June 3, 2018
TL;DR version: If you're interested in the subject matter, pick up Joan DelFattore's What Johnny Shouldn't Read instead.

I'm actually upset that I didn't like this book, but it just isn't good. False equivalencies abound. Ravitch spends six pages complaining that high schoolers don't read enough of the canon (read: dead white guys) then says she isn't saying we should canonize. She implies that students aren't as influenced by textbooks as people think, then later says students will be confused if their textbooks don't match up exactly with reality. She fails to define what she considers a great or good history standard, aside from, apparently, detailing EXACTLY which historical figures are to be mentioned. The so-what question is barely addressed.

I could go on (saying that a Donne sonnet is better for grief than "teen fiction about a death in the family is just weird), but I'll just leave it by saying that Joan DelFattore's What Johnny Shouldn't Read is much better-written and actually goes into facts and events that Ravitch spends little time on, rather than focusing on example lists.
Profile Image for Chelle.
40 reviews4 followers
March 13, 2012
As a teacher this book was an eye opener. Yes, I new textbooks are not the end all and always seek to supplement but I had no idea it was this pervasive. I wish I had read this while going through my teacher education classes. I will certainly look closer at the texts I use in my classroom.

This has made me reflect quite a bit on what I have been taught and now seek to take the best of that and find ways that work well for my students.

Every teacher, especially English and Social Studies, should read this book.

Her tone is easy to follow and doesn't get bogged down. It is engaging and electric. She's also very open about her connections within the educational system and how she went about things. I know we often wonder why students can't engage with the subjects presented them and this prevents one answer, because it's not engaging as presented in their texts. It is so watered down and sanitized that students can't reconcile the world they see in the texts with the one in their everyday lives. Is it a wonder that everyday life wins?
Profile Image for Susan Bazzett-Griffith.
1,781 reviews48 followers
November 4, 2014
Disturbing, discouraging, and thought-provoking book about the culture of censorship in American textbooks and educational materials. The revising of literature, and nationwide lack of standards related to any classic literature at all was particularly troubling to me. I liked this book, but the author can be repetitive in hammering her points, as well as a bit boring in her delivery. That said, she did make this reader get my hackles up and pissed off at some of the things I was completely unaware about when it came to textbook revising and publishing in our country. The book is older, but I would say still completely timely, especially with all the "new standards" being implemented via Common Core. Recommended for anyone seriously interested in educational history and reform-- though the book has information I'd say is valuable to anyone concerned with the state of our nation's education, I don't think it would hold most people's attention unless they are passionate about the topic.
Profile Image for Leah.
39 reviews
January 28, 2010
I think what Diane Ravitch writes about in this book is so important for everyone in the United States to be aware of. Ravitch tells the story of how the textbooks and tests our students encounter every day have been sanitized by pressure groups (from the left, the right and everywhere in between). Our children read "cleaned-up" versions of classical literature and edited versions of history. Bias reviewers comb through everything, finding any and every reason to cut or change text so it doesn’t “offend” anyone. What’s left is often boring and lacks any potential for critical analysis by our students.

I think it is very important for everyone to be aware of the process behind this censorship and the impact it is having on our education system. As enthusiastic as I am about the message, the book only gets 3 stars because she gets very repetitive and overzealous with examples. Some parts you can skim through because it's just one example after another.
Profile Image for Marcia.
867 reviews4 followers
June 6, 2012
There are many shocks to the senses one encounters as someone in her late 50s who decides to finally pursue an undergraduate degree. I’ve arrived at a sort of peace with the body piercings, backwards baseball caps, and every sentence ending as a question, ya know? There is one thing which continues to intrigue me, however, and that is the textbooks. Beyond the fact that they were clearly developed for a generation used to information being summarized in factoid form, the efforts on the part of editors and publishers to present a perfectly unbiased sanitized for social content text are amazing. I set out to find some corroboration for my perception of textbooks and found Diane Ravitch’s THE LANGUAGE POLICE on the library shelves. While her portrayal of textbooks swings the pendulum to the critical extremes, it does raise some interesting questions…questions that are important for anyone interested in how information is being gathered and presented…to any generation of students.
Profile Image for Colleen Rice.
2 reviews
July 17, 2010
I expected this to be about linguistics, but instead it turned out to be a very eye-opening insider look into the censorship of standardized tests and textbooks used in our public schools. What started as a good intention--eliminating archaic, sexist, and racist language in these tests and texts--has snowballed into nothing less than a complete bowdlerization of the language to which children are exposed. In short, the few powerful publishing houses left after countless mergers calling the shots have become pawns of outside pressure groups, and their "editing" decisions are designed to exclude any kind of language that might offend anyone, anywhere, anytime. They have become censors for the sake of the bottom line--and it is the education of schoolchildren that suffers.
Profile Image for Sharon.
3,744 reviews
April 20, 2012
This book is 10 years old, so I don't know if the situation has changed in the interim, but this book is a riveting account of the way that textbooks are heavily censored to meet the demands of both right-wing and liberal interest groups. The result is boring literature texts, inaccurate history books, and dumbed-down tests. Ravitch is an excellent writer who conveys information clearly. I look forward to reading more of her work.(
Profile Image for Joe.
39 reviews4 followers
March 1, 2018
Good overview of how ideologues try to silence opposing perspectives and open dialogue. Always using "common sense" fairness restrictions and labeling words and writing as offensive and biased without regard for context and value.
Profile Image for Tiffany.
969 reviews89 followers
July 28, 2023
tl;dr version: Overall, I feel like whatever argument she's trying to make is valid (maybe...somewhere deep in there), but it's not done/backed up so that it's a valid argument. This book is more of "Oh my God! Oh my God!" and not enough of *why* or explanation of why we should be genuinely concerned about the places to be genuinely concerned, or even which passages/reasonings she agrees with vs. those she thinks are "trivial" and "ludicrous" (3). The premise is great; the book is awful. I wanted to stop reading at around page 20, then again at page 38, but then thought, "Wait, would that make me part of the problem?" so I kept reading, waiting to be enlightened about how my reactions are over the top or wrong. ... And... ?

(5/9/22) I'm only in the second chapter, but sadly, there are quite a few places where I agree with the reasons to *not* include certain reading selections for kids. The first two chapters are about a standardized reading test and the passages to include to test students' comprehension. There are passages that do seem a little unwarranted for censorship (would a student with a peanut allergy honestly be traumatized by reading about peanuts [8]?), but there are others that nowadays, at least in some sectors, people are working to get rid of and replace with inclusive language and person-centered language. For example, Ravitch cites that it is "biased to say that someone was 'a victim of polio'; one must refer instead to 'a person who had polio'" (25), which is how person-centered language today would also recommend phrasing it. However, she notes a passage that was cut in part because it said "African slave," rather than "enslaved African" (9) (which is another change in language we're seeing today); so if that is the only reason to exclude a passage that already existed (i.e., not something written specifically for the test), I could see thinking that that single phrase alone isn't a reason to exclude the entire passage. If you're writing new text to use for the test, though, then yes, you need to use the evolving language.

For some of her other examples, I think perhaps the idea of "Everything in moderation" might be good, and there's a spot where I *think* she's getting at that ("What was once a fairly sensible notion of fairness--don't always show women as homemakers--has turned into a presumption that they should never be shown in that role" [26]), but doesn't come out and say it, so I don't really know... Also, are all of her examples things she finds outrageous? Because there are quite a few that seem like "How would any sane person not find that offensive?" Or maybe it's just 20 years of hindsight and shifting priorities in our culture.

(5/10/22) I'm now up to chapter 4, and... yikes.

In chapter 3 ("Everybody Does It: The Textbook Publishers"), we move away from standardized tests and into the world of textbooks. A few pages in to the chapter, Ravitch just briefly, barely, skims over the point of moderation: "With the best intentions, the publishers have consented to a strict code of censorship" (34). And then we're off again to hellfire and damnation. A few examples from chapter 3:
- "The language code tells how to describe the members of various American Indian groups; they must be identified as specific 'nations'... rather than by the generic term American Indian or Native American. Authors must ask the the representatives of the group itself what name they prefer, rather than relying on historical accounts" (36). This is now becoming standard practice in the 21st century.
- "In describing Asian Americans, the word 'Oriental' is prohibited... as are such words as 'distrustful'... 'sneaky'..." (37). Is she saying I can't call Asians "distrustful Orientals" anymore? I can't lump them together as "Watch out for those sneaky Orientals"? Heavens! Well, if I can't call them all evil spies, there's just no point in being a writer! (sarcasm)
- "European Americans, [a set of guidelines] says, have received too much credit for achievements that really belonged to other cultures" (37). Uh, yeah. So are you saying we don't need to give credit where credit's due? She gives examples about pasta originating in Asia, not Italy, and certain forms of medicine actually starting with Muslims, not Europeans. So... okay, cool. Muslims are all evil terrorists and Asians are all sneaky spies from World War II, and neither group did anything else ever; Europeans are perfect. Right? (sarcasm)
- "Banished too are such words as ... 'hussy' ..." (38). Wtf?!? I can't call someone a hussy anymore?!? Well, at least you didn't include "tramp" on that list! (sarcasm)
- We can't use "midget" or "dwarf" or "special" ("as in 'Special Ed' special," as the middle school joke goes) (39)

Now, I know that some of my commentary above is WAAAAAY going the other way and totally stereotyping cultures in the positive direction, but her examples, or the way she frames them, are going WAAAAAAY the other direction and seem to be saying that we *should* be able to make these stereotypes. She's NOT ACTUALLY saying "in moderation"; she seems to just be making a case for why *every* guideline is wacky.

She also seems to have a problem with representing multiple groups - "Writers must show a broad diversity of religious beliefs and practices, not just one or two religions that are well known to students" (39). Heavens, how dare we force students to inadvertently learn that there are other ways of life!

Now, if writers/passages had to follow EVERY SINGLE GUIDELINE in every single passage (such as including a mix of genders, cultures, family structures, etc.), then yes, these guidelines could be overwhelming and ridiculous. She relates anecdotes about authors and illustrators in the 1960s and in 1986 trying to follow "the shifting mandates" and all of the specifications of character types to include (40-41). But given that a majority of her premise seems to be in the "We can't say 'hussy' anymore!" indignant line, I just don't know how much I believe it.

(5/11/22) Once we move beyond the first three chapters of listing "The sky is falling!!" hysteria, it turns into a much less bad book. Perhaps those first 2-3 chapters should either be moved to the end (with or without some reductions), changed to appendices (with or without reductions), or cut.

(5/12/22) I'm in chapter 8 now, and still, I feel like... some of Ravitch's examples are examples of things that really are concerning, while some do seem to take things too far. Again, moderation. But Ravitch seems to think that ANY concern about biases, misrepresentations, and lack of representation are ridiculous.

In chapter 4 (for example, on p. 51-52), and in an earlier chapter (one of the "The sky is falling!" chapters), she seems to target standardized test questions that need previous knowledge in order to answer them, such as knowing about weather phenomena that are specific to certain regions but not all, or situations that middle-class white students have likely experienced but students from poorer communities might not have. It seems that she thinks that excluding questions like those is absurd, which I don't understand. If a student needs background information to answer a question correctly, you can't expect them to answer the question correctly (and thus you're skewing their test results) if you don't give them that background information. I also don't quite understand what's wrong with including a mix of topics/viewpoints/representations -- or avoiding certain ones -- in tests. It's a test! It's brief! It's not something a student will remember forever! (I can tell you about taking standardized tests in class, I can tell you about taking the AP test off campus, and I can tell you about taking the SATs and the ACTs, but I can't tell you about *anything* that was on the actual tests!), so what does it matter if we try to make the questions the most accessible for all?

She does make a point when she says that "One cannot blame parents for wanting to protect their children's innocence from the excesses of popular culture. However, book censorship far exceeds reasonableness; usually, censors seek not just freedom from someone else's views, but the power to impose their views on others" (77). She then goes on to list things that have been criticized by parents and standards boards, but again includes a lot of examples that shouldn't be outrageous to criticize.

(5/13/22) Chapter 8 includes guidelines for reading comprehension... What's wrong with that? What am I not understanding as being so wrong about wanting guidelines of what a student should be able to accomplish?

In her chapter on history textbooks, she makes a great point about history textbooks never being able to provide The Full Story: "Unfortunately, the very format of the history textbook compels distortions; it presumes that a single book can render objective and decisive judgment on hundreds or thousands of controversial issues. In fact, the only sure truths in the books are dates and names.... Beyond that, there is seldom, if ever, a single interpretation of events on which all reputable historians agree" (134). Similarly, she says that "[t]he sanitizing of world history texts has stripped them of their ability to present a critical, intellectually honest assessment of controversial subjects. On almost any subject relating to today's world, the texts strive so hard to be positive that they are misleading and inaccurate" (147). These are such great points, but she then (again) goes on to make it sound like it's absurd that anyone would think that certain groups are underrepresented or completely left out of history.

Another interesting aspect is when she says "Religion presents a special problem for the texts; they can't avoid acknowledging its significance but they take care not to offend believers" and explains that textbooks use phrases like "as the Gospels say" or "according to [x] belief" or "[x] tradition" to get around making it sound like it's fact (144-145), and that textbooks "seldom discuss the role of religious belief as a source of conflict. In their eagerness to show respect to all religions, the texts soft-pedal religious hatreds and the religious roots of many wars in history" (145, with the topic continuing through p. 147). This is a fine point: in an effort to not offend Christians, for example, textbook companies may neglect to talk about how Christianity has been a reason for wars. I agree that that would be whitewashing history. She does, however, name Holt, Rinehart and Winston's World History: Continuity and Change as an acceptable textbook, not whitewashing controversial issues or bowing to pressure from outside groups. I'm curious what it says. So, okay, this section was fine. We're up to perhaps 10-20 pages out of a 171-page book.

And finally, my biggest "WTF DID SHE JUST SAY?!?" moment: "It must be said, not in defense of the publishers' bias guidelines, but as a way of seeing the climate in which they acted, that their bowdlerizing was in step with larger trends in society. They did not act alone. On hundreds of college campuses, administrators adopted speech codes and sexual harassment codes to punish anyone who told offensive jokes or said something that made another student feel uncomfortable. Students and faculty members were hauled before campus tribunals for saying the wrong thing, whether in jest, in the classroom, or on a date. ... diversity trainers instructed workers and students about the language that they should and should not express" (161). And again, you mean in moderation, right? I'm a huge flirt and I make dumb jokes -- jokes in moderation -- but I do worry sometimes that someone is going to be offended by my dumb attempt at humorous flirting. However, there are serious sexual harassment issues out there: date rape, not understanding that no means no, making others feel uncomfortable, looking someone up and down, leering at certain body parts, making comments about a person's body or things someone would like to do to them. There's definitely a line between my dumb attempt at flirting and others' trying to have power over someone else. Sometimes that line can be fuzzy (maybe my dumb joke at the cute security guard truly made him uncomfortable. Even if I'm a girl who's 2 feet shorter than he is, if it made him seriously uncomfortable, it shouldn't be done), and sometimes it's very obviously done to hold power over another person and/or to make them afraid. Is Ravitch really saying that sexual harassment guidelines that are meant to prevent this power struggle and fear are a bad thing? That all "sexual harassment" rules to protect victims is outlandish? And that these are in part a cause of bias guidelines?

Overall, I feel like whatever argument she's trying to make in this book is valid (maybe...somewhere deep in there), but it's not done/backed up so that it's a valid argument. (The reason I wanted to read this was because she was on The Daily Show to talk about it in 2003, and it sounded reasonable... for the most part. Did she really advocate for being allowed to call people with learning disorders "idiots"?!?) This book is more of "Oh my God! Oh my God!" and not enough of *why* or explanation of why we should be genuinely concerned about the places to be genuinely concerned, or even which passages/reasonings she agrees with vs. those she thinks are "trivial" and "ludicrous" (3). The premise is great; the book is awful. I wanted to stop reading at around page 20, then again at page 38, but then thought, "Wait, would that make me part of the problem?" so I kept reading, waiting to be enlightened about how my reactions are over the top or wrong. ... And... ?
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