Renowned historian and educator Diane Ravitch made quite a splash with her 2003 book, "The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict what students learn." The book described a public school textbook and test publishing industry inundated by insidious notions of "political correctness."
Ravitch described an "elaborate, well-established protocol of benefit censorship, quietly endorsed and broadly implemented by test publishers, textbook publishers, states, and the federal government." In other words, the content of educational materials used by our children is being censored to reflect the prejudices of political correctness; to screen out topics and ideas that might be considered traditional or controversial or offensive.
Ravitch is no alarmist. I knew her in Washington when she was with the liberal Brookings Institution, after being assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.
What got the attention of most in the news media were examples such as a typical publisher’s guideline, which dictates that women cannot be depicted as caregivers or as doing household chores. Similarly, men cannot be depicted in traditional roles as lawyers or doctors or plumbers. Instead, both men and women must be portrayed in non-traditional roles as much as possible: Men must be seen as nurturing helpers, for example. And African Americans can never be story villains, or even portrayed in any negative light whatsoever.
One publisher contended that "everything written before 1970 was either gender biased or racially biased," Ravitch reported.
Topics to be avoided included: abortion, death or disease, criminal behavior, magic, politics, religion, unemployment, weapons or violence, poverty, divorce, slavery, alcoholism or addiction of any kind.
It is "appropriate to show women as strong and brave and men as weepy and emotional," Ravitch reports. African Americans "cannot be portrayed as maids…Caucasians should not be portrayed as business people. Men should not be portrayed as breadwinners; women should not be portrayed as wives or mothers….
"Women wearing aprons must be replaced by men wearing aprons…. Mother bringing sandwiches to father while he fixes the roof must be replaced by mother fixing the roof," Ravitch writes. "Women depicted as nurses, elementary school teachers, clerks, secretaries, tellers, and librarians must be replaced by women as doctors, professors, managers, police officers, sports figures, and constructions workers…
"By institutionalizing this extreme sensitivity to anything that offends anyone, publishers of both textbooks and tests have been turning their products into inoffensive pap for the past generation," Ravitch notes. The result is that in these books, the real world is replaced by a politically correct fairytale land in which it is acceptable to censor Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth so ninth graders aren’t exposed to wicked concepts — as if they don’t consume any on TV.
Much of the censorship is not based on any academic research, she points out. For example, "There is no academic research that shows that if girls read a story in which a boy is a hero … that their test scores will be hampered by this."
As Ravitch says, unless history is taught in an uncensored way, students will be victimized by fictionalized versions, such as those of motion picture producer Oliver Stone or some Disney movies. "Truth and historical accuracy … are not important values to the bias reviewers," Ravitch points out.
Tragically, she says, "Most classic literature is unacceptable when judged by the new rules governing references to gender, ethnicity, age, disability … It is a process that drains literature of its life and blood, converts it into dreary reading materials and grinds reading material into pabulum."
She writes that schoolbooks are "expected to promulgate ideas that appeal to ethnic pride, even at the risk of endorsing spurious history." Parents may suppose the most important aspect of schooling is the quality of teaching and learning. Instead, Ravitch says, that purpose is to advance "multiculturalism," and that this sometimes requires out-and-out lying on the part of authors and editors.
Ravitch writes, "On almost any subject, relating to today’s world, the texts … are misleading and inaccurate. She refers to a "systematic breakdown of our ability to educate the next generation … about important issues in the world."
Educational publishers and states adopt rules and laws that serve the public schools throughout the nation. Although local schools in Michigan can choose their textbooks, they are to a large extent limited to selections produced by the influential publishers in California and Texas; precisely those whose practices Ravitch is exposing.
Unlike trade books, sold to millions, or college texts, sold to thousands of college professors, "textbooks prepared for the schools are not sold in any open, competitive marketplace."
Is it any wonder that test scores of American public school kids lag behind those in practically every other industrial country?
Tait Trussell writes a weekly column for the Pioneer Group in Big Rapids, Mich., and collaborates on occasional projects with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He is the former managing editor for Nation’s Business magazine and was vice president of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.