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Book Review


Diane Ravitch, The Language Police:  How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn ( New York :  Knopf, 2003), 255pp. $24.00.

     Dr. Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University, has made a career as an historian, a federal appointee, and a critic of public education. She knows how to turn a phrase, denouncing the "inoffensive pap" (p. 51) and "lies about history" (p. 44), imposed by people she calls the "language police" in history and literature books written and edited for the K-12 market. Her book is designed to be passionate and polemical, and it certainly succeeds. Her target is "an elaborate, well established protocol of beneficent censorship, quietly endorsed and broadly implemented by textbook publishers, testing agencies, professional associations, states, and the federal government." (p.3) And she names names: publishing giants Pearson (including Prentice Hall and Scott Foresman); Vivendi (including Houghton Mifflin); Reed Elsevier (including Harcourt Brace and Holt Rinehart and Winston); McGraw-Hill; and testing giants Riverside (the Iowa Test), Educational Testing Service (the SAT), and the National Assessment of Educational Progress. These mass market publishers of books and tests, she alleges, are terrified of producing anything which might be offensive to anyone on either the right or the left. Therefore authors and editors trim and snip, according to strict guidelines, so that books and tests will slip through the politicized adoption process with nary a question asked, guaranteeing the publishing firms a handsome profit. 1
     With an eagle eye and withering sarcasm, she selects and denounces the heavy pen of the "language police." In her "glossary of banned words" she lists words and phrases which have been targeted in various published and unpublished bias guidelines. No history textbook should use the words barbarian, brotherhood, coed, devil, dogma, homosexual, insane, majority group, man-of-war, motherland or fatherland, pagan, sect, slave, or yacht, lest one offend someone. She devotes a strong chapter to high school history textbooks, both United States and world. She cites by name 12 world history and 16 U.S. history textbooks for the K-12 market, including the best known publishers and authors. Generally speaking, she finds the books contain splendid graphics, but written text which is bland and colorless. World history books, she finds, suffer from a "celebration of multiculturalism" (p.35) and "cultural equivalence" (p.141) which "implies that every world culture is wonderful except for the United States" (p. 142). With this kind of "politically correct multicultural mush" (p.148), she fears that students will have little chance of understanding the real problems of today's world. 2
     For example, she relates how the textbook writers walk a hazardous tightrope when discussing the position of women in traditional Islamic countries. On the one hand, they must not offend feminists. On the other, they must not say anything harsh about Islam. "Unable to say anything about religion unless it is positive," she charges, "the textbooks become tongue-tied when dealing with Islamic fundamentalism." (p. 146). She complains that "textbooks sugarcoat practices in non-Western cultures that they would condemn if done by Europeans or Americans," (p. 146) citing as examples the treatments of slavery in Africa and the Middle East, and Aztec human sacrifice. 3
     It is interesting that she does not address the mass market college-level textbooks at all. Of course, college textbooks are chosen in a very different way, based on the preferences of college teachers rather than school boards or politically sensitive textbook selection committees. Some of her criticisms might also apply to the college market, however, particularly the reluctance of professional journals to review history textbooks. Even the prestigious author, John Merriman, speaking to AP History readers at Lincoln Nebraska in June 2003, mentioned that editors at Norton, which publishes his college-level textbook on modern European history, were concerned about items which might offend. Some also allege that the popular McKay western civilization textbook has been bowdlerized in recent editions to remove sexual references in the social history sections. 4
     Ravitch also does not address AP courses in the secondary schools. Perhaps she sees them as exempt from her criticism because they are supposed to be college level courses. Or, perhaps she sees them as "guilty by association" because they are taught to younger students within the confines of a secondary school. It would be interesting to know her views. She is quite critical of Educational Testing Service (ETS) in general, and it is ETS which produces the AP examinations. I know from personal experience that AP European History exams are subject to review by ETS sensitivity experts, and therefore some topics are eliminated through self-censorship. On the other hand, plenty of high quality content gets into these exams, and AP European History exams do not seem to engage in "lies about history" in order to please some anonymous "language police." Recent discussions on the AP World History listserve have raised the question of which textbooks to use if the students in the course at a particular school are fairly young (ninth or tenth graders). If one acknowledges Ravitch's criticism of standard K-12 textbooks for world history, there would be one more good reason to make sure that any textbook chosen for AP World is, in fact, written for and used at the college level. However attractively printed and apparently user-friendly K-12 textbooks for world history might be, they may well have sacrificed quality content in order to satisfy the demands of the people Ravitch calls the "language police." 5
     On the book jacket, Ravitch's work is called "a stunning piece of research and exposition" by Jacques Barzun. That may overstate the case. But whether or not one agrees with her at every point, her book should be on the "must read" list for everyone responsible for history textbook selection for AP history courses. 6
Gordon R. Mork
Purdue University

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