Diane Ravitch‘s new book, The Language Police, describes the disaster that has overtaken education with the triumph of know-nothing pressure groups on both left and right. Some results, from the summary in today’s New York Times review:

¶Mickey Mouse and Stuart Little (because mice, along with rats, roaches, snakes and lice, are considered to be upsetting to children).
¶Stories or pictures showing a mother cooking dinner for her children, or a black family living in a city neighborhood (because such images are thought to purvey gender or racial stereotypes).
¶Dinosaurs (because they suggest the controversial subject of evolution).
¶Tales set in jungles, forests, mountains or by the sea (because such settings are believed to display “a regional bias”).
¶Narratives involving angry, loud-mouthed characters, quarreling parents or disobedient children (because such emotions are not “uplifting”).
Owls are out because some cultures associate them with death. Mentions of birthdays are to be avoided because some children do not have birthday parties. Images or descriptions of a mother showing shock or fear are to be replaced by depictions of both parents “expressing the same facial emotions.”
Mentions of cakes, candy, doughnuts, french fries and coffee should be dropped in favor of references to more healthful foods like cooked beans, yogurt and enriched whole-grain breads. And of course words like brotherhood, fraternity, heroine, snowman, swarthy, crazy, senile and polo are banned because they could be upsetting to women, to certain ethnic groups, to people with mental disabilities, old people or, it would seem, to people who do not play polo….
What these groups on both the right and left have in common, Ms. Ravitch notes, is that they all “demand that publishers shield children from words and ideas that contain what they deem the ‘wrong’ models for living.” Both sides “believe that reality follows language usage,” that if they “can stop people from ever seeing offensive words and ideas, they can prevent them from having the thought or committing the act that the words imply.”

Reality follows language usage. So is this Sapir-Whorf in action? Whatever it is, it won’t keep kids from finding out what the world is like, but it will make it harder to talk about it. And people who haven’t learned to confront reality in discourse will find it hard to deal with it in the world at large. But then, as T.S. Eliot so memorably said, human kind cannot bear very much reality.


  1. “It’ll make it harder to talk about it.”?
    Are there really so many kids who wouldn’t know what french (née freedom) fries and cakes are without the Wicked Corrupting Mind-Control Propaganda of the Evil Liberals/Big Business (delete according to prejudice)?
    Fewer playground conversations about polo, just possibly, and I think we can all agree that that’s worth the sacrifice.

  2. I know what you mean, but I think you’re underestimating the effect of school reading in giving us frameworks for talking about the world. Back when the McGuffey Readers were used, it’s clear from reading letters of the time that even ordinary people could deploy resources of rhetoric and quotation that are lost to us now (and this is one reason they had a Lincoln while we have… well, name your poison). For instance, read the quotation in italics on the linked McGuffey page and cogitate upon how many grade-school students today could even understand it, much less appreciate the rhetoric and the sentiment. If kids have nothing but pablum to read — and presumably classroom discussion will be correspondingly denatured, although there are always (thank god) the mavericks — their resources will consist of pablum. It’s not that they won’t know what “freedom fries” are, it’s that they won’t know what freedom is. They will, of course, in the basic ineffable way that any animal does, but the point of being human, surely, is to be able to discuss things and refine our understanding of them, and we seem to be marching backwards in those terms.
    (I realize I’m probably succumbing to op-ed-itis and exaggerating all this, but dammit, it pisses me off.)

  3. How happy is he born and taught,
    That serveth not another’s will;
    Whose armor is his honest thought,
    And simple truth his utmost skill!

    Certainly this is a language I don’t speak, but I am not convinced I’ve lost out in the deal. (What would Ezra Pound make of it, do you think?)
    Stupidity is certainly bad, but I don’t think language is ao fragile as all that.

  4. Tallguy says:

    Hi languagehat! Long time reader, first time commenter.
    This is a case where the situation sounds bad. No one wants overly sanitized, lifeless textbooks for students. But the more I think about it, what is the alternative? I consider it a small victory that a large enough contingent of parents and teachers are concerned enough about the content of textbooks that the writing process has become politicized. Of course as more people get interested, you run into the problem of having “too many cooks.” Diane Ravitch seems to advocate throwing most of the cooks out of the kitchen, but is this really the direction we need to go?
    I could probably be convinced that academic standards are more lax now than they once were. But for every example I hear of a terrible travesty in our education system (usually through the media), I see an example of some pretty remarkable curriculum used in real life. For example, last weekend we were visiting friends for dinner. Their 7th grade daughter was working on pre-calculus homework and was looking for help on a problem. She had to develop an algebraic statement to express the relationship between the number of vertices in geometric figure and the number of lines that can be created in the interior of that shape (i.e. a square has 4 vertices and 2 interior lines, a pentagon has 5 vertices and 5 interior lines, etc.) It took awhile for the gathered adults to get the answer, and several of the adults have advanced degrees in mathematically-related fields. I don’t know if our slowness to help her says more about our failings than about her homework, but I for one was impressed (the answer, by the way, is n * (n-3) / 2).
    The thing I am not convinced of is that changing cultural standards are necessarily linked to declining academic standards. Were the McGuffie readers better because they used Bible stories? Or used the word “negro”? Of course not. Are current textbooks worse off because they don’t feature Mickey Mouse? Or because they rarely depict women as housewives? Again, of course not. For the most part I consider those changes to be cultural and largely separate from the comprehensiveness, usefulness, and difficulty level of the texts. There are some exceptions to this, but they mostly relate to history texts and evolution, and that is a whole other can-o-worms.
    To me, the only real tragedy is that far too many parents and educators are more obsessed with the cultural and political trappings of the textbook than with the content. Personally, I would overlook most mild political differences I had with a text in favor of choosing the most readable, challenging, and educational book.
    Sorry for the length of the rant!
    And a few additional links:
    The first and fourth McGuffie readers are online under Project Guttenburg. See:
    Finally, an interesting example of the current politicization of the McGuffie readers:

  5. Tallguy says:

    Ooops, I meant to say my friend’s daughter was taking pre-algebra, not pre-calculus. Now that would have been remarkable!

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