Ravitch: Censorship of Language Attacked
battles over what we teach our children continue, and Diane Ravitch,
author, advocate, and professor of education at New York University,
has taken a strong stand against “the new literary terrorists
from both the left and the right” who demand that certain words
and concepts not appear in the texts our children use in school.
She spoke passionately about her book, The Language Police:
How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, on a panel
at The New York Public Library that included Alan Brinkley, professor
of history and incoming provost at Columbia University, and Erin
McKean, senior editor for U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University
Press. Marlene Springer, President of CUNY’s College of Staten
Island, was moderator.
Ravitch explained that at publishing houses, textbooks below college
level must be approved by “bias and sensitivity” panels that regularly
remove words that “might offend someone.” Publishers, who want
to avoid controversy and sell lots of books, “agree to everyone’s
objections.” Mega companies that have forced out smaller publishers
believe sales and profits are best realized by capitulating to
pressure groups and producing bland, homogenous, nonprovocative
texts. Ravitch provides numerous examples of bias and sensitivity
panel pronouncements. Words and subjects that cannot be used include,
“owls” because they are a symbol of death in certain cultures,
“Mt. Rushmore” because it is sacred to an Indian tribe, and “peanuts”
because some children are allergic to them. African-Americans
should not be depicted as musicians or athletes, and Asian-Americans
must not be presented as a model minority. Books about slaves
and migrant workers are to be avoided. The elderly must not be
depicted as frail, and mothers should not be shown in the kitchen.
Ravitch reports that the National Council for Teachers of English
bans use of the word “guy.”
Brinkley sees in the sensitivity panels “an enormous level of
condescension toward our children.” He explained that, “Our culture
has changed enormously in the past 30 years and what was once
appropriate no longer is.” It is “good to be more sensitive but
that is a long way from the censorship and bureaucratization that
have taken hold.” He sees the “institutionalization of right thinking”
overseen by “people who are not teachers or scholars.” “What we
teach and learn should not be driven by textbook publishers or
an institutionalized bureaucracy. Using common sense, writers
of educational material should be sensitive to things that are
offensive to large groups of people.” He objects to a bureaucracy
controlling what we teach and learn, not the attempt to be gender
neutral and sensitive to race and cultures.
As an editor of dictionaries, McKean explained, “we are doing
our damnedest to put words in, not take them out.” She spoke of
“teachable moments” that certain words provide. “These words are
opportunities to teach about bias. It is not good pedagogy to
pretend these words do not exist.”
Ravitch does not call for elimination of bias and sensitivity
panels but rather for their work, now behind closed doors, to
be open to public view. She believes that teachers or school districts
rather than state officials should choose books for the classroom,
which would decrease the power of pressure groups and lessen uniformity.
She has confidence that “language evolves in response to social
change. Lots of words disappear naturally,” she promises.#
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