Book Review · Publishing · Writing

The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn

I’ve been on an anti-censorship kick for, oh, my entire life, but now, it’s official; I’m enrolled in a “Censorship and Banned Books” class at Glendale Community College. One of our recent assignments was reading ex-Department of Education secretary Diane Ravitch. She wrote a book in 2003 entitled The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, and it terrified me, although the content did not shock my teacher friends, who knew all about textbook and standardized test censorship way before I did.

The book begins by giving concrete examples of why certain reading samples were cut from standardized tests. An essay about peanuts was questioned because some students might be allergic to peanuts and this would upset them. A segment about women and patchwork quilting was also spurned, because “bias and sensitivity reviewers” didn’t want women portrayed as “soft” or “submissive,” doing housewife-type chores. A story about a blind mountain climber caused a stir because bias reviewers considered it “biased to acknowledge that lack of sight is a disability.”

I could go on and on. The point of this first chapter was to inform, because as Ravitch points out, “Bias and sensitivity review has evolved into an elaborate and widely accepted code of censorship that is implemented routinely but hidden from public sight,” which was why my teacher friends knew about this stuff but I did not—until now.

What I enjoyed about this book was that Ravitch doesn’t have a target; The Language Police examines the liberal left and the conservative right with equal disgust. For instance, although the right does harbor an idealized hope for the future of America (which is nice), the right also censors historical fact by giving American history a cheerful slant so as not to offend the more sensitive (i.e. weak, sheltered, ignorant) students from the truth.

The left has a good point in yearning for equality, but they take it too far by requiring textbooks to portray an equal number of males and females in pictures, pets included. The left has also forgotten the importance of education in exchange for political correct-ness. In an effort to achieve sexual equality, “Literary quality became secondary to representational issues.” Who suffers because of extreme censorship? Children who will one day run the world, God help us.

The language police are killing modern education by dumbing down subject matter due to bias and sensitivity. For example, “Under the present regime of censorship, the schools themselves are not intellectually free. They cannot awaken young people’s minds with great literature when the stuff in their literature textbooks is so banal, so ordinary. … When their reading is constrained by the fine filter of bias and sensitivity codes, how can it possibly contribute to the forming of critical and independent minds? … All of that has been sacrificed to the gods of coverage and cultural equivalence.”

I feel lucky that I received the education I did in the time when I did. I never felt sheltered or censored by my teachers. I was lucky to have teachers that tested the boundaries. We read Heart of Darkness and were then asked to write an essay comparing the book to its movie counterpart, Apocalypse Now. We read Mark Twain before the LP got a hold of it. When I was in school, we were not afraid, and I feel that is what censors create: an environment of fear. Don’t step out of line or they’ll shut down your publishing house, get you booted from your job, or worse: try to turn you into one of them!

In closing, a moving quote for you to consider (and for the language police to choke on): “Great literature does not comfort us; it does not make us feel better about ourselves. It is not written to enhance our self-esteem or to make us feel that we are ‘included’ in the story. It takes us into its own world and creates its own reality. It shakes us up; it makes us think. Sometimes it makes us cry.”

If you have any interest in learning more about the censorship that is currently taking place in schools or how to fight it, please read Diane Ravitch’s The Language Police. It’ll open your eyes and make you want to fight censors with torches and pitchforks.

4 thoughts on “The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn

  1. Great article Sara. We might have to start collecting copies of all the classics before the language policed get a hold of them and change them into banal rubbish! Love you, Mom

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