Dirty Words


When President Clinton appointed her to a committee tasked with devising questions for a proposed national test of fourth-graders, Diane Ravitch was shocked to discover how stringent bias and sensitivity requirements had become. A reading sample on the nutritional value of peanuts, for example, was deemed insensitive to students with peanut allergies. Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University and the author of 2001's Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform, investigated the extent and origins of this pedagogical hypersensitivity. She found a disturbing catalog of bipartisan censorship, which she presents in her new book, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (Knopf). Assistant Editor Julian Sanchez spoke to Ravitch in August.

Q: An incredible number of innocuous words and subjects have become taboo in teaching and testing. Why?

A: It's a combination of phenomena. On tests, the rationale is that anything that might upset a student is distracting. If you mention Halloween, someone will be upset. If you have a story where someone has a swimming pool, a child whose family can't afford one is going to get upset. This belief that everything is role modeling, everything affects self-esteem, has been embraced with equal fervor by left and right.

Every political pressure group of every stripe gets to have its say in the textbook selection process. And because there's no real marketplace in textbook sales—they sell to states buying in bulk—the publishers are very easily intimidated by anyone who threatens to make a fuss. What I have in the book is a list of more than 500 words and topics that are banned. In every case, the reason is a fear of controversy.

Q: Could school choice affect this trend?

A: Anything that can break down the bulk adoption of textbooks by states would certainly help. If the publishers had to sell to 3 million teachers, the textbooks would look very different, and there would also be much more competition to sell to those teachers. There's been huge consolidation in this industry: The textbook adoption process makes it very hard for independent, smaller publishers to stay in the running.

Q:Some things—racist tracts, say—are reasonable to exclude. But how do you draw the line?

A:I would "draw the line" by making all of this public. The states have no obligation to explain why anything was rejected, and bias guidelines are often not public. If it's out in the open and they say, "We won't let kids read Langston Hughes because he uses the word negro," they're going to have to prepare to be ridiculed. The groups that have been so powerful in this secretive selection process actually have a very tiny constituency.