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The Language PoliceReview - The Language Police
How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn
by Diane Ravitch
Knopf, 2003
Review by Maura Pilotti, Ph.D.
Jul 24th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 30)

In The Language Police, Diane Ravitch, a historian of educational practices, describes how tests and textbooks specifically targeted to school children and adolescents are subjected to censorship by publishing companies. She argues that publishers have developed and regularly used anti-bias guidelines to accommodate the requests of diverse interest groups in the hope of avoiding financially damaging controversies. According to her thesis, this "preemptive capitulation" has led to textbooks and tests that portray an imaginary and insipid world rather than illustrate realistically the world in its past and current forms. Thus, she disagrees with the mere existence of anti-bias guidelines and proposes to substitute them with common sense.

Ravitch cleverly describes the three main pillars of anti-bias guidelines that have served as sources of fairness in the publishing industry: representational fairness, which is intended to guarantee adequate representation to various human groups that are identified on the basis of demographic criteria (e.g., ethnicity, socio-economic background, age, gender, etc.), unbiased language usage, which is devoted to the removal of words that can cause these groups to be portrayed in an unfavorable light, and elimination of stereotypes involving social roles, abilities, physical attributes, specific behaviors and settings. The author claims that these guidelines, which require textbooks and tests to portray the diversity of the human world without relying on stereotypical attributes or language expressing such attributes, are a difficult act to follow for those who are trusted with the job of generating and selecting questions for assessment tests and reading materials for textbooks. She points out that the rigid application of these guidelines has led to the exclusion from educational materials of works of literature and historical reports that were written prior to such guidelines, and to test questions that merely assess basic skills and aptitudes rather than any knowledge specifically acquired in school. On this basis, she strongly recommends that students be given the opportunity to be exposed to "controversial" materials, that these materials be read critically and discussed in the context of other works, and that test and textbook writers be granted more freedom of expression under less prescriptive guidelines. She claims that freedom of exposure and expression is the only way to avoid the gradual infiltration of what she calls "propaganda" in American school materials and the accompanying exclusion from school curricula of interesting works of literature and historical reports for fear of controversy.

Wisely, the author points out that the origin of anti-bias guidelines resides mainly in the belief of various interest groups that materials read in or for school have the power to affect thinking and behavior of children and adolescents in a direct and precise manner. Thus, the author states that "right-wing censors" are likely to request the elimination from educational curricula of stories that may conflict with their beliefs, primarily reflecting religious values (e.g., passages referring to evolutionary theory), because such stories might lead children and adolescents to abandon or simply question their parents' belief system. Similarly, she reports that "left-wing censors" demand that stories portray an egalitarian, yet idealized, view of the world so that it can be brought to life in the foreseeable future. The author does not discuss empirical evidence that might question the claim of a direct link between exposure to specific reading materials and consequent students' behavior and thoughts. Obviously, social psychological and cognitive studies regarding subject matters such as attitude formation, behavior-attitude consistency, and modeling could provide some useful material for a discussion on the validity of this claim. Instead, the author simply maintains that exposing children and adolescents to an idealistic, politically correct world at school via reading materials that do not reflect its inherent controversies and troubled history is an undertaking doomed to fail. In support of her thesis, she reminds us of popular media (e.g., television) that can easily render any effort to shield children and adolescents from any issue vacuous. Even though no one would dispute the power of television in shaping young adults' minds and conduct, a discussion of research evidence would undoubtedly add credibility to the author's belief in the ineffectiveness of censorship in school.

In spite of the gravity of the issue of censorship, the book reveals some amusing anecdotes of inconsistencies and exaggerations in publishers' use of anti-bias guidelines, which epitomize a quality-review process that, according to Ravitch, has gone astray. For instance, the author mentions that the guidelines promoted by Harcourt and Houghton Mifflin direct writers to avoid the use of "American" as a substitute for "citizen of the United States" even though the guidelines themselves referred to people who live in the United States as "Americans". She also mentions the rejection of a test passage dealing with dolphins on the ground that it exhibited a regional bias (it favored students who live by the sea), thereby confusing familiarity with bias. Most interesting, if readers want to become aware of even more examples of purging that the book currently contains, its web site can yield a host of other amusing, albeit at times tragic, anecdotes.

Even though anecdotes are likely to capture readers' attention and reinforce the distasteful notion of censorship on reading materials, one may argue that the author does not clearly acknowledge that there is a noticeable difference between eliminating stories that are inconsistent with one's religious view and attempting to present children and adolescents with reading materials that reinforce the notion of an equitable society where respect for diversity is celebrated. Even though children and adolescents in school should be exposed to controversial issues and be given information about the troubled history of our world, they should also be exposed to reading materials of more recent production that illustrate a better world. Indeed, we cannot change the sins of the past (the holocaust, slavery, etc.), and while it is important to remember them so as to avoid repeating the same tragic errors, it is also advisable to entertain thoughts of a more just and inspiring world grounded on principles of mutual respect and representation. Thus, the latter cannot be labeled as mere propaganda or as the outcome of censorship because one can only hope for an enduring exposure to such thoughts and for a quick realization of their potentials.

A similar argument applies to the notion of censorship in test materials. With respect to this issue, it is important to remember that the author is a supporter of standardized testing and as such she is particularly unhappy with the way anti-bias guidelines have been used to devise test questions (or items). Notwithstanding the author's underlying belief in the effectiveness of such testing, which can be questioned on several grounds, she complains of publishers' widespread policies of deleting test items if they are suspected of being able to make some students feel "uncomfortable" (e.g., they reinforce negative stereotypes about these students' ethnic group) or, even in the absence of any discernible bias, if students of equal abilities but different group affiliation do not exhibit the same probability of answering the items correctly (differential item functioning). She argues that both policies should be discarded on the grounds that currently there is no evidence in support of the effectiveness of the former and that the application of the latter has not changed the test scores of groups expected to display lower performance on the deleted items. However, one may wonder whether her opinion regarding the policy of deleting test items that are judged to produce uncomfortable feelings in some students would be more informed or even different if the author had taken the time to examine the literature on the relation between emotions and cognitive processing. Similarly, one may argue that more evidence needs to be collected and discussed before one can honestly judge the outcome of differential item functioning as irrelevant for test scores of different demographic groups.

Of course, any criticism of the book does not obscure the fact that The Language Police is an engaging book, albeit as controversial as the test items or stories that the author claims are routinely purged from school materials. To remain faithful to the goal of making people aware of what has been happening in the publishing world of school materials, the ten chapters of the book are followed by an appendix containing a comprehensive list of linguistic expressions and subject matters that are considered biased by major publishers and state agencies often entrusted with the purchase of such materials. There is also an appendix with an equally comprehensive list of reading materials involving classics of literature, which the author states should be complemented by a list of contemporary literary works. In its entirety, The Language Police can undoubtedly make readers think critically about the content of educational practices and stir animated discussions regarding the need for fairness and the pitfalls of censorship. It's a book not just for parents of school-aged children and adolescents, but for professionals in the field of education who may want to focus research efforts on the examination of the quality of school materials, which, according to the author, are rarely reviewed by experts, and on the empirical evaluation of the consequences of strict anti-bias guideline applications. Of course, for any discussion on the effectiveness of standardized testing, a recent article of the New York Times titled Questions on Data Cloud Luster of Houston Schools (7/11/03) can be a captivating introduction to the subject matter.

 

2003 Maura Pilotti

 

Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Dowling College, New York.


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