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The Language Police

How Pressure Groups Restrict What Our Students Learn


Diane Ravitch (View Bio)
Hardcover: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003; Paperback: Vintage, 2004.

The Language Police
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year

"You won't see words such as snowmen, bookworms, fairies, slaves, huts, busybodies, craftsmanship, soul food or yachts in today's textbooks. Neither will you find phrases such as one-man band, turning a deaf ear, or old wives' tale. These, and hundreds more words and images, are effectively banned as offensive, sexist, elitist, ethnocentric or otherwise politically incorrect. They're on lists now used by schoolbook writers and editors of history, literature and other classroom material.... Obviously, absurdity is not banned." — Cincinnati Enquirer

"We should be happy that people like...Ravitch keep reminding us of what some of our children are being fed by books purchased with the money of taxpayers. Their roles in education can help steer us away from having a slanted history presented in textbooks." — Las Vegas Sun

"The very fact that something like this has been happening is obviously uproariously funny. But once you go beyond the obvious, the implications seem nothing but grim." — Hindustan Times (UK)

"The damage that bias and sensitivity reviewers have done to schoolbooks and exams almost defies belief. But eminent education historian Diane Ravitch documents it all here, and does so with a sustained sense of outrage as to the effect this mostly below-radar censorship is having on the quality of instruction available to U.S. schoolchildren.... Ravitch offers thoughtful strategies...for halting the censorship." — Richmond Times-Dispatch

"The book has broad consequences for one's thinking about all education, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the molding of public discourse in America.... Measured and judicious, never strident.... A provocative book." — The New Republic

"The book has broad consequences for one's thinking about all education, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the molding of public discourse in America.... [Ravitch's] tone is measured and judicious, never strident." — David Bromwich, National Review

"Should send a shiver down the backs of parents with school children.... Stunning." — The Washington Times

"Revealing.... Ravitch's woeful examples of the US educational system suggest..censorship, while originally well-intentioned, can eventually be shaped by tunnel vision into a wholesale abandonment of common sense." — New Straits Times (Malaysia)

"Ravitch's work is an attempt to secure for children a sound education by educating the interested adult population. Her recommended history textbooks and appendix of classic works for students serve as excellent guidelines for those concerned with intellectually honest accounts of history as well as literature that is sometimes religious, uplifting, atrocious, curious, or sinister." — The Weekly Standard

"Ravitch's stint as assistant secretary of education in the United States' first Bush administration will lead many to assume that THE LANGUAGE POLICE is one more attack on progressive education and multiculturalism. It is. And her criticism is justified.... Given the US's fierce pride in its protection of free speech, how could this unholy alliance occur, with the fundamentalist Right assuming control of content and the Left of language and imagery? Ravitch's answer is, perhaps, the most germane part of her book for British readers." — Times Educational Supplement

"Ravitch's outing of these banned words might be something to laugh at if it were not so scary. It's frightening to learn that our textbooks and publications — our language — is changed this way." — Times Union (Albany, NY)

"Ravitch's detailed, concise, impassioned argument raises crucial questions for parents and educators." — Publishers Weekly

"Ms. Ravitch, the country's soberest, most history-minded education expert — and, in this case, whistle-blower extraordinaire — fills her book with one outrageous example after another. Especially useful is her appendix titled A Glossary of Banned Words, Usages, Stereotypes, and Topics. Printed in single-spaced small type, it goes on for 32 startling pages." — The Wall Street Journal

"LEFT BACK established her as a maverick historian of education.... Ravitch's new book is a smart, savage exposé of the absurdities wrought by both sides of the culture wars.... Compelling.... Given the increasingly Orwellian manipulation of language in political discourse of late, Ravitch's assessment of the dangers of allowing censorship to persist  is well-timed. Her demand for an educational environment that pushes students to confront, rather than avoid the larger world is one that we ignore at our own peril." — The New Leader

"Just when it seemed that there was nothing left to say about the sorry state of American education, Diane Ravitch...has found something new. Her book, THE LANGUAGE POLICE: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Our Children Learn is a comprehensive study of how testing materials and textbooks adopted widely throughout the United States suffer under an egregious 'regime of censorship.' Her book chronicles in exhaustive detail the ways in which bias and sensitivity guidelines have bowdlerized the language and content of educational materials.... Ravitch....is no ideologue.... Ravitch has uncovered a scandal here. She shows an industry that exists in flagrant opposition to fundamental educational principles: that thwarts critical thinking and is imitative and cowardly, buckling to pressure groups, even when these represent the most marginal interests." — Times Literary Supplement

"It should make you scream." — Philadelphia Inquirer

"In THE LANGUAGE POLICE, Diane Ravitch reveals how left-wing political correctness and right-wing religious fundamentalism have distorted and damaged American public education.... Deeply disturbing.... No wonder Johnny can't read.... Some of the incidents of censorship...are ludicrous, even hilarious. But there's nothing funny about the state of affairs she describes in this lively and important book." — Courier-Post (New Jersey)

"In the fairy tale world of educational publishing, there are no heroines. No blizzards, rats or owls, either. That's because these words — along with over 500 others — have been banned under the mandatory bias guidelines that must be followed by publishers of children's textbooks and tests.... A damning new book." — Salon.com

"Fiercely argued.... She shows how priggish, censorious and downright absurd 'the language police' can be, and she does so with furious logic.... Every bit as alarming as it is illuminating." — Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Fictional tales involving dinosaurs, disobedient children, coffee, Irish-American policemen and 'exemplary upper-class people of bygone days' are being excised from American schoolbooks.... Ravitch spent three years investigating the workings of secretive bodies that censor the literature that reaches American schools....Her research lays bare the power exercised by lobby groups." — Daily Telegraph (London)

"Few books could be more timely than educator/historian Diane Ravitch's THE LANGUAGE POLICE.... [She] has assembled damning evidence that shows the urge to censor across ideological lines.... Ravitch's book deserves close scrutiny by everyone claiming to believe in the free flow of ideas and information. Even more interesting, Ravitch takes on fundamentalists and feminists with equal fervor and fully supports the rights of those with whom she strongly disagrees.... Her book as done a valuable job exposing those who censor thoughts and ideas ostensibly for the betterment of society." — Nashville City Paper

"Eye-opening.... Lucid, forceful, written with insight, passion, compassion and conviction. It should be required reading not only for parents, teachers and educators, but for everyone who cares about history, literature, science, culture and indeed the civilization in which we live." — Los Angeles Times

"Education is so squeezed by 'bias and sensitivity panels,' Ravitch argues in this persuasive study, that what started as an admirable attempt to balance instruction has evolved into censorship." — The New York Times Book Review

"Diane Ravitch has written more hard-hitting books about the declining performance of U.S. schooling in grades K-12 than perhaps anyone else alive.... [She] is an equal-opportunity critic in this book, excoriating both well-meaning and not-so-well meaning censorship from political liberals and political conservatives." — St. Louis Post–Dispatch

"Devastating." — The Seattle Times

"Convincingly argue[d].... Disturbing." — Charlotte Observer

"Anyone interested in the health of the English language or American education might already have caught wind of [THE LANGUAGE POLICE].... For those who haven't...[it] is worth looking up.... Astonishing.... [Ravitch] make[s] a strong case that the course correction has gone too far. It is impossible not to cheer her call for a return to moderation or be jolted into noticing other language-driven spheres — journalism, say — that could use a dose of the same medicine." — The Japan Times

"After all those years spent wondering and worrying about what our kids are learning in school, it turns out what we really should be concerned about is what they're NOT learning. According to Diane Ravitch...the behind-the-scenes maneuvering and positioning and lobbying that go on before a textbook, a standardized exam or even a reading list reaches our kids' desks are nothing short of, well, censorship.... Frightening." — Providence Journal-Bulletin

"A valuable read for any concerned parent or citizen." — Dallas-Fort Worth Star-Telegram

"A remarkable book." — The Japan Times

"[THE LANGUAGE POLICE] makes me terribly glad I don't have any school-age children. It also explains a lot about why our cultural heritage is disintegrating. It's probably not going to be the hot beach read this summer. But it should be.... [It] is as frightening as anything written by Stephen King. It's a well-researched and unrelenting examination of how noisy special interest groups have gained control of school boards and state education systems and forced the few big textbook and standardized testing corporations to cater to their agendas." — Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"[Ravitch's] riveting expose describes the bizarre and often scary world of educational censorship.... Important and comprehensive.... Troubling.... We highly recommend this eminently readable and scholarly history of an important subject." — Common Good

"[Ravitch] documents the extensive bowdlerizing, under the influence of both left and right, of academic tests and textbooks alike, explaining why such meddling has an adverse effect on education.... It doesn't take a Ph.D. to come to the conclusion that, as Ravitch writes, 'So long as books and stories continue to be strained through a sieve of political correctness, fashioned by partisans of both left and right, all that will be left for students to read is thin gruel.'" — Christian Science Monitor

"This is an important book, one worthy of rank alongside Rachel Carson's SILENT SPRING in how it should galvanize public attention and move the vox populi to some sort of action. Is anybody listening? Its author, Diane Ravitch, deserves the attention.... Ravitch writes with passion and clarity and brings an investigator's steely insight to an issue that has profound implications. Thankfully, she also provides a solution, thought it's going to take a huge shift in thinking among Americans: It requires that they speak up about the quality of their education, not its politics.... As a parent of a little girl who loves to read, I'm grateful for an appendix that pairs Ravitch with a children's literature specialist to create a reading list of classic materials for grades 3 through 10. It is edifying, enlightening, patriotic, and perhaps just a razor's edge short of being politically correct, just to show that the publishers could have done it themselves if they wanted to." — Baltimore City Paper

"The U.S...educates its young with a censorious, Taliban-like contempt for the unfettered search for truth. Censors from the right believe in an idealized vision of the past, censors from the left push an idealized vision of the future, and for both 'reading is a means of role modeling and behavior modification,' concludes Diane Ravitch, a feisty independent voice.... Ravitch documents language deemed offensive by pressure groups in a Glossary of Banned Words, Usages, Stereotypes and Topics that, taking up 30 small-print pages, is an Orwellian nightmare.... What's left after the language police have done their work?... The result of all this relentless purging is dishonesty, a purposeful shielding of children from anything challenging, controversial, or just plain interesting.... The flip side of this sanitized world is over-the-top, largely adolescent pop culture — say, rap's dumb braggadocio, the self-humiliation of 'reality TV' or fantastical digital effects and games being far more 'real' in comparison." — Montreal Mirror

"Johnny and Janie can't read, can't find the Pacific on a map, can't even think — all thanks to official censorship that 'represents a systemic breakdown of our ability to educate the next generation.' So argues...Ravitch in a hard-hitting attack on the educational establishment and the interest groups, left and right, that control it. It's not so much that youngsters today are coddled with sensitive textbook language that bars reference to Afraicans as slaves or Jews as classical musicians or that dances around the non-niceties of Islamic fundamentalism, though this sort of censorship is awful enough in Ravitch's estimation; it's that contending political groups, from the Christian right to gay and lesbian alliances, have so thoroughly inserted their agendas into the classroom that it's become practically impossible to depict anyone doing anything, whether it's George Washington crossing the Delaware or George Washington Carver finding economic uses for peanuts, without arousing someone's ire. The governing idea in the resulting content-free, actor-free, active-verb-free educational scene is that no one be offended by any idea he or she is ever exposed to in the classroom.... Ravitch's assault is far-reaching, admirably complete, and generally nondoctrinaire. She takes on idealogues of whatever stripe, finds them all wanting, and offers, in detail, a reasonable alternative in the form that explains that sometimes history hasn't been very nice while allowing historical actors to speak for themselves. Of tremendous importance to parents, educational reformers, and anyone concerned with the myriad failings of the present culture." — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"It's difficult to exaggerate the importance of this book. Whether THE LANGUAGE POLICE will turn out to be one of those rare books that actually influence the way we live — Upton Sinclair's THE JUNGLE, John Steinbeck's THE GRAPES OF WRATH, Rachel Carson's SILENT SPRING, Ralph Nader's UNSAFE AT ANY SPEED — remains to be seen, but surely one must pray that it does. Meticulously researched and forcefully argued, it makes appallingly plain that the textbooks American schoolchildren read and the tests that measure their academic progress have been corrupted by a bizarre de facto alliance of the far left and the far right.... Ravitch's qualifications for drawing these judgments are impeccable and unassailable. She has worked for national administrations of both political parties and holds the rare distinction of being a visiting scholar at both the conservative Hoover Institution and the liberal Brookings Institution. She has no political axes to grind and no ideological agenda to pursue. She is a lucid writer and an absolutely clear thinker. No doubt the year will see a few books of greater literary distinction than THE LANGUAGE POLICE, but it's unlikely to bring forth one of greater importance." — Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

"In the educational world today...'[b]ias' means anything that would cause a member of one group — urban whites, for instance — to do better than a member of another group merely by virtue of being an urban white. Fairness rules. But absurdity results. THE LANGUAGE POLICE is a fascinating and often infuriating account of the utter incoherence that the principle of fairness created in American education. Ravitch's book is also a penetrating study of the strange symbiosis of extremist politics on both ends of the spectrum.... It would be lovely to pretend that a well-researched psychology of education, or even of children, lay behind these guidelines, which are effectively not guidelines at all but strictly enforced dictates. But to state such a psychology openly is to see its idiocy all too plainly. Judging by the guidelines, children are so fragile, so impressionable, so easily wounded by the rough-and-tumble of the real world as to be almost ineducable. The only sensitivities these guidelines cater to are those of their crafters.... Through the best of intentions, textbook publishers have discarded any human experience that fails to affirm the social ideals of the language police. The contents of textbooks are now fundamentally and unequivocally utopian. And, like most utopian they are dull as dull can be. The one thing such textbooks are sure to teach is contempt for school.... THE LANGUAGE POLICE is the first step toward ending the absurdities of educational censorship. It should be required reading in the education of every parent." — Verlyn Klinkenborg, Mother Jones

"America's children increasingly can't read and can't think and can't (until very recently, thanks to television, not the schools) find Iraq on a map. The textbooks they read and the tests the aehave been so completely expurgated, sanitized and bowdlerized by self-righteous busybodies on both the Left and right that they're bland, boring, simplistic and unreadable, purged of ideas and images that might stir independent thought.... Remarkably even-handed. [Ravitch] spanks not only civil rights firebrands and extreme feminists but also the Christian Right for smothering the American classrooms with their zealous demands for censorship.... Nobody seems to want the world taught as it actually is — with depth, complexity and subtlety.... This book will cause readers to gnash their teeth as they read of the outrages against common sense committed by Left and Right.... In an idealist world all parents of school-age youngsters will read Ravitch and demand to know what their school boards and teachers are doing with textbooks. THE LANGUAGE POLICE is simply stunning." — Henry Kisor, Chicago Sun-Times

"Academic overreach has become quite common, and has been much commented upon. But Diane Ravitch has unearthed some far more methodical meddling in the academy than these sporadic effusions of the naive and righteous: She finds that the compilers of today's school textbooks and standardized tests are often less eager to inform and measure than to propagandize and distort — and seek even to alter the very ways we communicate.... The banquet of nonsense served up by textbook publishers, and those who advise them, proved too bountiful for mere snacking. With the relentless accuracy of a detective, she has traced the insidious ways in which politically correct assumptions has become endemic and all but irresistible, and in doing so she has traced a major source of rot in the schools and in our culture. This book should sound alarms to all who have anything to do with teaching children, as it reveals just how deeply — and systematically — non-thought has seeped into the American mind.... A welcome brand of scholarly common sense.... What Ravitch's book shows most clearly are the mild degrees by which stupidity can become a basis for public policy. The object of all this ceaseless fidgeting with language is an inevitable softening of reality, which tends to become, in the end, a falsification of reality. The intentions of textbook publishers may not be sinister...but the cultural results of their actions over time could be dire. The outcome is in fact a bland, homogenous ignorance in those young people who lack the benefits of self-motivating curiosity or the good fortune to come from intellectually ambitious households. The putative guardians of language are not only politically dangerous; their work is culturally enervating." — National Review

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