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.