Literary lynch mobs hang on every word

30th May 2003 at 01:00
THE LANGUAGE POLICE: how pressure groups restrict what students learn. By Diane Ravitch. Alfred A Knopf, New York, $24.

Diane 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 seems justified: she cites publishers dropping children's stories about dolphins or in which it snows because they display "regional bias"; replacing "huts" with "small houses" and "fairy" with "elf"; references to Jews, Gentiles and Poles deleted from an exam question on Isaac Bashevis Singer's In My Father's Court (about growing up Jewish in Poland); the sorry history textbooks that declare "Islam spreads" but "Christian Europe invades" or that one cannot speak of the "growth of democracy" in the same breath as US history.

What will surprise many is her equally trenchant criticism of the US fundamentalist Right. It's not just that the Right idealises the past; that's what conservatives do. Rather, it's that the Right has adopted the Left's view that children should not be discomforted by school materials; or, rather, should not be exposed to anything adults think will discomfort them. Thus, stories in which a character or favourite dog dies are verboten. Test publishers have been pressured to delete stories about dinosaurs because of the implied support for evolution theory. Parents'

groups have had references to paganism, satanism, even Hallowe'en, deleted.

Some districts have banned Harry Potter.

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.

Where once the US had dozens of textbook publishers , now there are four major players. To stay in the game, they have learned that books must offend neither the Left nor the Right and have bowed to pressure groups.

Add the fact that the two largest states - Texas (largely on the Right) and California (largely on the Left) - buy textbooks at state level, and US schools end up with textbooks that are not just bland but, even worse, pedagogically and culturally unsound.

Nathan Greenfield teaches at Algonquin technical college, Ottawa, Canada

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