Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University, is author, most recently, of The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. Ravitch recently talked to NRO about the Language Police.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Who are “the language police”?
Diane Ravitch: Read the book and you will see. It is now a process of “bias and sensitivity review” for weeding out anything controversial or offensive. It is self-censorship, which publishers think is high-minded and necessary. It is the result of a generation of publishers and state education departments being pounded by pressure groups. Now they think they are doing the right thing when they delete passages, words, topics, etc. It is the industry standard.
Lopez: You open your book saying, “I decided to write this book as a way of solving a mystery. After many years of studying the history of education and writing about the politics of education, I discovered some things that shocked me. ” What exactly was most shocking?
Ravitch: That this process of self-censorship is ubiquitous and that those who do it believe that they are doing the right thing. That they call it “sensitivity” and “fairness” review without realizing that they are censoring to placate pressure groups, or in anticipation of protests.
Lopez: What if a school board wants to take Judy Blume out of the library?
Ravitch: Removing books from the library is a no-no. Not everything published will be selected, but once it is selected, it should remain. Judy Blume’s books, in particular, are offensive to some but are in fact entirely innocuous.
Lopez: Is a newspeak rollback a possibility?
Ravitch: Very tough to do, but within the realm of possibility. The biggest handicap is the lack of an organized movement to wage the battle.
Lopez: The textbook-adoption process is highly politicized in some states. Has it always been that way? Are there many places where it is a fairer, and more local decision process?
Ravitch: It doesn’t matter what happens in some places; all places are ending up with materials that have been edited in anticipation of submitting them to California and Texas. So when District X buys textbooks, it is getting a pre-censored product. Same with the tests.
Lopez: How are literature textbooks “incoherent”?
Ravitch: There is no organizing principle. There is no effort to hold up excellence in writing or in literary quality as a standard. They are a miscellaneous batch of writings of mixed quality, sorted by gender and ethnicity, with a stew of social, political, and pedagogical messages thrown in, as well as a plethora of flashy graphics.
Lopez: A citation from, say, William F. Buckley Jr.’s new treasury of classic kids’ stories would never get approval for use in a standardized test, would it?
Ravitch: Probably not, because his name alone would be considered controversial.
Lopez: In a quick synopsis, how might a history book written today explain 9/11 to social-studies students?
Ravitch: That may be a tough question to answer briefly. I would say that it must be treated as the worst terrorist act in all history, the worst single loss of life on American soil other than in one Civil War battle. The event itself must be described in its true horror. The perpetrators of the evil must be identified clearly and their affiliation with radical extremist Islam must be explained. The explanation must show how this form of extremism seeks to create a theocratic society that threatens our most basic values; that it is non-democratic, does not believe in women’s equality, does not tolerate freedom of speech or expression, seeks to impose religious rule over all institutions. That it is anti-modern and is a threat not only to us but to world peace and development.
Lopez: What’s most dismaying to you about the language police?
Ravitch: First, that they have so much power. Second, that so few people know that they exist. Third, that there is no organized opposition to them. Fourth, that the publishing industry protect them and hide behind them.