Review - 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)
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.
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