Textbook storm troopers
Commentary by Pat Murphy
Researched and written tediously over
time, school textbooks are by their nature out of date as they roll off printing
presses: The world changes virtually hourly with new scientific achievements,
political leaders coming and going, countries erupting in revolutions, wars
beginning and ending.
Leave it to adults, however, to make a
mess of what’s left of textbooks.
At the far left and far right extremes of
America’s social spectrum, a small cult of parents, who’re terrified of words
their darlings read, have panicked textbook publishers into a brutal censoring
of textbook language.
Mind you, their concern is not lewd,
lascivious, salacious, profane words. They want to butcher textbooks of everyday
words that are taken for granted in conventional conversation but which they
consider politically incorrect (on the left) or offensive to their
fundamentalism (on the right).
Books that were offensive in Nazi Germany
were simply burned and their authors jailed. In the United States today, social
ideologues simply nibble away at school textbooks like sharks.
This national campaign of word
purification is exposed in "The Language Police" (255 pp., Alfred Knopf, $24) by
historian and professor Diane Ravitch, author of seven books on education. She
was appointed by the first President Bush and President Clinton to conduct
In a nutshell, Ravitch has discovered that
activists especially in Texas and California, where school systems account for
the lion’s share of national textbook purchases, have threatened four major
publishers into purging words lest they lose big contracts.
So what sort of words and passages are
Among 500 words author Ravitch discovered
are polo and yacht (too elitist), babe and boyish figure (sexist), anchorman,
caveman and snowman (gender bias), blind and bookworm (offensive), biddy,
(ageist), dinosaurs (suggesting evolution), Mickey Mouse and Stuart Little
(visions of mice upset children), quarreling parents (not uplifting), junk food
(not healthful), peanuts (some children are allergic to peanuts), owls (symbols
of death in some cultures), huts (too ethnocentric), soul food (ethnic bias).
Adam and Eve is reversed to Eve and Adam
to show that men don’t have priority over women.
Images that publishers are told to avoid
include women being more nurturing than men, men as problem solvers, men and
boys larger and heavier than women and girls, African-Americans who are baggage
handlers, Hispanics as migrant workers. And on and on to ridiculous extremes.
Decisions on what to purge are in the
hands of school groups usually known as "Bias and Sensitivity Review Panel" or a
This silly effort to shield students is
ludicrously pointless: Students run across the same words and phrases on the
Internet or TV and in movies.
But as author Ravitch points out, this
mindless censorship of student learning is being regulated by ideological storm
troopers, whom novelist and social critic George Orwell foresaw in his dark
fictional "Big Brother" society, "1984," which is dedicated to distorting the
The future is here.