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The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn Hardcover – April 15, 2003

ISBN-13: 978-0375414824 ISBN-10: 0375414827 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (April 15, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375414827
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375414824
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.7 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (103 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,737,725 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The impulse in the 1960s and ‘70s to achieve fairness and a balanced perspective in our nation’s textbooks and standardized exams was undeniably necessary and commendable. Then how could it have gone so terribly wrong? Acclaimed education historian Diane Ravitch answers this question in her informative and alarming book, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. Author of 7 books, Ravitch served as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education from 1991 to 1993. Her expertise and her 30-year commitment to education lend authority and urgency to this important book, which describes in copious detail how pressure groups from the political right and left have wrested control of the language and content of textbooks and standardized exams, often at the expense of the truth (in the case of history), of literary quality (in the case of literature), and of education in general. Like most people involved in education, Ravitch did not realize "that educational materials are now governed by an intricate set of rules to screen out language and topics that might be considered controversial or offensive." In this clear-eyed critique, she is an unapologetic challenger of the ridiculous and damaging extremes to which bias guidelines and sensitivity training have been taken by the federal government, the states, and textbook publishers.

In a multi-page sampling of rejected test passages, we discover that "in the new meaning of bias, it its considered biased to acknowledge that lack of sight is a disability," that children who live in urban areas cannot understand passages about the country, that the Aesop fable about a vain (female) fox and a flattering (male) crow promotes gender bias. As outrageous as many of the examples are, they do not appear particularly dangerous. However, as the illustrations of abridgment, expurgation, and bowdlerization mount, the reader begins to understand that our educational system is indeed facing a monumental crisis of distortion and censorship. Ravitich ends her book with three suggestions of how to counter this disturbing tendency. Sadly, however, in the face of the overwhelming tide of misinformation that has already been entrenched in the system, her suggestions provide cold comfort. --Silvana Tropea

From Publishers Weekly

Textbook publishers are guilty of self-censorship, argues Ravitch (Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform) in this polemical analysis of the anti-bias and sensitivity guidelines that govern much of today's educational publishing. Looking at lawsuits, school board hearings and private correspondence between textbook editors, Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University, shows how publishers are squeezed by pressure from groups on the right (which object to depictions of disobedience, family conflict, sexuality, evolution and the supernatural) and the left (which correct for the racism and sexism of older textbooks by urging stringent controls on language and images to weed out possibly offensive stereotypes)-most publishers have quietly adopted both sets of suggestions. In chapters devoted specifically to literature and history texts, Ravitch contends that these sanitized materials sacrifice literary quality and historical accuracy in order to escape controversy. She also discusses how current statewide textbook adoption methods have undermined competition and brought about the consolidation of the educational publishing industry, leading to more bland, simplistic fare. There is no shortage of colorful examples: a scientific passage about owls was rejected from a standardized test because the birds are taboo for Navajos; one set of stereotype guidelines urges writers to avoid depicting "children as healthy bundles of energy"; editors of a science textbook rejected a sentence about fossil fuels being the primary cause of global warming because "[w]e'd never be adopted in Texas." Readers will likely disagree about whether, on balance, anti-bias guidelines do more harm than good, but Ravitch's detailed, concise, impassioned argument raises crucial questions for parents and educators. Appendixes include "A Glossary of Banned Words, Usages, Stereotypes, and Topics" as well as a recommended reading list for students.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

More About the Author

Diane Ravitch

I was born in Houston, Texas, in 1938. I am third of eight children. I attended the public schools in Houston from kindergarten through high school (San Jacinto High School, 1956, yay!). I then went to Wellesley College, where I graduated in 1960.

Within weeks after graduation from Wellesley, I married. The early years of my marriage were devoted to raising my children. I had three sons: Joseph, Steven, and Michael. Steven died of leukemia in 1966. I now have four grandsons, Nico, Aidan, Elijah, and Asher.

I began working on my first book in the late 1960s. I also began graduate studies at Columbia University. My mentor was Lawrence A. Cremin, a great historian of education. The resulting book was a history of the New York City public schools, called "The Great School Wars," published in 1974. I received my Ph.D. in the history of American education in 1975. In 1977, I wrote "The Revisionists Revised." In 1983 came "The Troubled Crusade." In 1985, "The Schools We Deserve." In 1987, with my friend Checker Finn, "What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?" In 1991, "The American Reader." In 1995, "National Standards in American Education." In 2000, "Left Back." In 2003, "The Language Police." In 2006, "The English Reader," with my son Michael Ravitch. Also in 2006, "Edspeak." I have also edited several books with Joseph Viteritti.

My last book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education," was a national bestseller. It addressed the most important education issues of our time. It was read by teachers, parents, and students and was a source of great joy to me.

My newest book "Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools" is a call to arms. It documents the false narrative that has been used to attack American public education, and names names. It also contains specific and evidence-based recommendations about how we can improve our schools and our society.

To follow my ongoing work read my blog at dianeravitch.net, where there is a lively conversation among educators and parents about the future of education.

Diane Ravitch

Customer Reviews

Fortunately, according to Ms. Ravitch, there may be a way out.
Charles Miller
Since even the slightest pretext of offending anyone is to be avoided, we seem to be left with stilted and ridiculous books for our youth!
Hans Castorp
If you care about your childrens education at all you must read this book.
Stephen Stafford

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

102 of 105 people found the following review helpful By J. Martin Rochester on May 1, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Diane Ravitch's The Language Police shines a light on a dark secret in k-12 education, namely the scandalous undermining of content standards in k-12 textbooks due to a collusion between textbook publishers and censors aimed at shielding children from anything that even remotely could be considered harmful or offensive to potential educational consumers. I had heard a few "Ripley's Believe It or Not" stories about this phenomenon -- for example, a university colleague of mine who had written a widely used high school civics text told me recently how he was asked by a California textbook review board to eliminate a diagram depicting the classic "layer cake" model of American federalism, lest it encourage kids to eat junk food -- but only after seeing Ravitch's book did I realize just how far this sort of lunacy had gone. The book meticulously documents its argument with an enormous amount of scholarly evidence, and equally meticulously tries to demonstrate that both liberals and conservatives are at fault for this problem. Ravitch has no ideological axe to grind here. She takes shots at both political correct feminists and others on the left as well as religious conservatives and others on the right, and anyone in-between who would deny our children a subtantively strong, academically sound education. It is a must-read for anyone concerned about the dumbing down of American education and the movement away from serious, free inquiry in our schools.
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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Jason M. Waskiewicz on August 22, 2003
Format: Hardcover
It would be very simplistic to blame all of the problems in America's schools on the textbooks. However, it is realistic to say that the textbooks are a big part of the problem.
Many teachers rely heavily on the textbook to create their course. This is due either to lack of ability or to state law. Certain states (California and Texas among them) mandate the adoption of specific books or, at least, limit the options.
Good books are necessary in such an environment. We need books that the intelligent student can learn from and which will engage the less able student. Unfortunately, our textbooks are almost universally poor.
There are many reasons, and Ravitch has limited her discussion to the writing style of the texts. She focuses mainly on History and Literature.
In order to avoid offending groups at both ends of the political spectrum, textbooks have become heavily sanitized mush. Offensive words or concepts are eliminated.
The right wing conspiracy (of which I'm a member) has complained for years about left wing censorship while happily engaging in the same sort of activity.
The left wing mandates multiculturalism to ridiculous extremes. There must be gender and racial balance in illustrations, stories, authors, and illustrators. At the same time, the right wing demands stories that show children always obeying their parents, no evolution, no sorcery, and other such things.
Taken together, the flavor and interest of textbooks is gone. My students tell me how boring the books are to read, and they're right. I have taken the extreme step of writing my own textbooks because there are so few decent texts out there.
Ravitch has identified and articulated what I had felt instinctively.
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64 of 72 people found the following review helpful By Richard Munro on May 4, 2003
Format: Hardcover
THE LANGUAGE POLICE is a good read and a fascinating read recommended to anyone who is interested in the "censorship" of style and content of the politically correct be they of special interest groups of the left or right. With the LANGUAGE POLICE, Diane Ravitch may have struck a powerful blow for education, common sense and freedom of expression in America a cherished first amendment right which could be eroded and undone word by word by unelected "committees" of political correctness.
The range of research and quotations is impressive covering a wide swath of famous authors present and past whose works have been banned or quietly bowdlerized or edited by testing companies and publishers without comment. Ravitch quotes an indignant Ray Bradbury who became aware of bowdlerized versions of his book Fahrenheit 451.I like the lists of censored books and the CENSORSHIP on the LEFT chapter particularly the quote on Mark Twain. Ravitch never wrote anything truer: "...Teachers and students alike must learn to grapple with this novel WHICH THEY CANNOT DO UNLESS THEY READ IT." Ravitch quotes Orwell " Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?" Has it every occurred to anyone that insipid dumbed down texts play a role in school house boredom and low achievement? Ravitch's well-researched APPENDIX of BANNED WORDS and PHRASES was great (but chilling). "Sportsmanship" and "lumberjack" are out -VERBOTEN- in favor of the gender neutral and extremely weak and uncommunicative "SPORTING CONDUCT" and "WOOD-CUTTER".
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Cathy Magruder on July 23, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Diane Ravitch gives an account of the "regime of censorship that has quietly spread throughout educational publishing in response to pressure groups from both the left and right." Readers will discover the power of "bias and sensitivity reviewers", and will be disturbed to find historical accuracy is routinely sacrificed for political correctness. Ravitch attempts to provide a balanced account of censorship by giving examples from the extreme right and extreme left. Unlike bias guidelines, which are often secretive, this text is well referenced. Readers will find a valuable bonus in the two appendices. In the first appendix Ravitch provides a glossary of banned words, usages, stereotypes, and topics. While some may find the glossary somewhat amusing (examples range from the ridiculous to the sublime, including a section of foods to avoid in textbooks), the lists also elicit deep concerns as one becomes aware of the degree and extent of censorship so readily practiced. Parents and educators alike will find the second appendix to be particularly helpful as it provides a compilation of leading classics in literature, broken down by grade level, ranging from grade three to ten. While she somewhat belabors her points, the points are worth making. Having read her book, like Ravitch, "I could not shake the feeling that something important and dangerous was happening in American education that few people knew about."
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