What's the problem with calling the "Founding Fathers" the "Framers" instead or turning the Little Engine That Could from a boy to a girl? What's wrong with stripping Jewish content from author Isaac Bashevis Singer or substituting "American" for "gringo" in an excerpt from Chicano activist Ernesto Galarza's memoirs?
Plenty, says prominent education historian Diane Ravitch. In a critical new analysis, the former assistant U.S. secretary of education contends that publishers routinely sanitize textbooks and instructional materials in California and around the country, distorting history and literature to satisfy school officials and special-interest groups.
But the argument in her book - "The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn," released this week - is raising its own debate.
Many publishers - but not all - say Ravitch misrepresents their efforts to fairly portray girls, minorities, people with disabilities and others who previously were ignored in textbooks. And education officials in California and other states stand by policies that they say are designed to eliminate stereotypes and biases.
Still, Ravitch, who is a professor at New York University and serves on a national panel on academic testing, said "sensitivity and bias guidelines" of publishers, exam developers and states have spawned a censorship culture in the nation's schools. "The result of all this relentless purging," she writes, "is dishonesty, a purposeful shielding of children from anything challenging, controversial or just plain interesting."
In an interview from her New York home, she contended that the problem is widespread.
"There is not a state in this country, nor a publisher, that is not using a sensitivity review process to weed out words," Ravitch said. Such censorship, she said, is a result of pressure from both conservatives and liberals.
Ravitch pointed to the experience of Open Court, the popular elementary school reading program used by many California schools.
State education officials rejected the program's textbooks in the 1970s, saying the texts did not adequately represent girls and ethnic minorities. The originals contained numerous selections of classic children's literature in which many main characters were men. Some texts were then dropped or changed.
For example, the children's story "The Little Engine That Could" was criticized because the engine was portrayed as male, according to Ravitch and the textbook's publisher. Open Court revised its materials (identifying the engine as female) before it gained state approval for the anthology.
The experience was sobering for Open Court's creator and original publisher, Blouke Carus, who described California education officials as the "self-appointed thought police."
"I don't think there is any question: We included stories of lesser quality to provide balance," Carus said.
Such tugs-of-war occur largely out of public view.
Many states employ panels of "bias and sensitivity" reviewers to assess reading materials and remove possibly offensive words, passages or pictures.
The practice is well-established in California, the nation's largest textbook market. By spending nearly $400 million a year on textbooks, California often dictates what books other states are offered.
The state's "social content review," according to guidelines, is "intended to help end stereotyping in instructional materials by showing diverse people in positive roles contributing to society." Books must portray boys and girls in equal numbers and include a "fair representation" of African Americans, Native Americans, Mexican Americans and others in a "wide variety of occupations and roles, including cultural and artistic roles."
The guidelines also require texts to emphasize the benefits of eating nutritious foods low in fat, salt and sugar, and to minimize depictions of foods with little nutritional value. The rules do not mention specific foods.
California education officials defend the guidelines. "None of these limit people's expression, and they are not intended to do that," said Tom Adams, who oversees the state's policies on instructional materials. "To apply the word 'censorship' to it is probably too strong. It's just a question of adequate representation."
Textbook publishers say that following the guidelines makes financial sense and that changes to texts are minor and do not alter the underlying meanings of literature or history.
"I would not go so far as to call it censorship. But certainly there are changes made and content is added - and in some cases subtracted - based on political market considerations," said Stephen D. Driesler, executive director of the school division of the Assn. of American Publishers in Washington, D.C. "We produce the books that the customers want." A leading publisher, Houghton Mifflin Co., for example, strives in response to California's requirements for "gender-neutral vocabulary" in its American history books, company executives said. Their books speak about the "Founders" and "Framers" of the Constitution rather than the "Founding Fathers."
One top Houghton Mifflin executive criticized Ravitch for painting a
distorted picture of textbook publishing.
"I think the book risks perpetuating a myth that publishers are sitting in a small room somewhere rubbing their hands gleefully, saying, 'Let's determine what American education should be,' " said Maureen DiMarco, a Houghton Mifflin senior vice president who served as former Gov. Pete Wilson's education secretary.
DiMarco said that test publishers, in particular, are careful about language in exam questions, not for political reasons but to avoid putting students at a disadvantage and possibly affecting test reliability.
For example, Houghton Mifflin tests do not use terms such as "farm silo" because urban students might be unfamiliar with such structures, DiMarco said.
That may be so, but publishers still alter phrases and avoid or downplay subjects such as religion, politics, divorce and poverty for fear of provoking "left-wing political correctness and right-wing religious fundamentalism," Ravitch said.
Her 255-page book comes with bipartisan credentials. Ravitch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, was assistant U.S. secretary of education for research from 1991 to 1993 under the first Bush administration and, after her initial 1997 appointment by the Clinton White House, still serves on the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees a national student testing program. Her previous books include a history of 20th century school reforms.
"The Language Police" is the latest entry in a long-running debate over censorship in the nation's schools. Just last year, New York state officials were criticized for modifying references to race, religion, sex and alcohol in literature excerpts on state high school exams to satisfy "sensitivity review guidelines," Ravitch points out.
In an excerpt from Galarza's childhood chronicle "Barrio Boy," for example, the state changed the words "gringo lady" to "American lady." A "fat" boy became "heavy." The state also edited out all mentions of Judaism from passages in Singer's work, even though religion is a key element in his writing.
New York officials pledged to stop such practices, but other omissions (such as cutting a reference to suicide in a Franz Kafka quotation) appeared in a recent exam, provoking protests again.
"Everybody is trying to control the world of ideas, rather than trying to teach students in school how to think," said Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, which campaigned to restore full quotes on the tests. "That's not a very good sign for education."
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