Censoring School Textbooks

The Language Police Go After Offensive Items, Like Peanuts

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WASHINGTON, D.C., JULY 19, 2003 (Zenit.org).- In June the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal law requiring the use of Internet pornography filters in libraries. The filters can be lifted for adults, but they will remain in place for children, to shield them from indecent material.



That decision was too much for Judith Krug. "I am crushed," said the director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association (ALA), which had challenged the law. Krug said the law would restrict Americans' right to read and learn, the New York Times reported June 24.

The obligation to use filters affects libraries that receive federal funding. Some libraries may decide to forgo this financing if they have to use filters, the Times noted. "Some library boards have already decided that they are not going to offer their library patrons second-rate information," said Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the Washington office of the ALA.

Yet an enormous contradiction exists regarding children's access to information. While the ALA and other groups fought to maintain the "right" of children to be exposed to pornographic material, school textbooks are being rigorously censored on the quiet -- and for far less objectionable material. Diane Ravitch's recent book, "The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Children Learn," documents how publishers are deleting entire categories of information that might be considered even remotely offensive or controversial.

Ravitch is a historian of education and research professor of education at New York University and the author of seven books on education. Her interest in this matter was sparked when she was named as a member of the board of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal body that measures the achievement of students. The board selected some material for tests to be used at the fourth-grade level, but some of these were rejected by a publishers' bias-and-sensitivity review.

Looking into the matter, Ravitch discovered that it is standard practice to submit all textbooks and passages of literature used in school tests to a bias-and-sensitivity review. The contents of the reviews are never released to the public, and the censored texts are simply presented in their expurgated version.

No quilts allowed

Ravitch goes on to detail some of the test material rejected. One of the censured stories involved peanuts. The bias panel struck it out, because some people may have an allergic reaction to peanuts and the passage erred in presenting peanuts as a healthy food. Another rejected passage described how women on the western frontier in the mid-19th century taught their daughters to sew and make quilts. The reviewers objected to this, because it portrayed females as "soft" and "submissive."

A story about a blind young man who hiked to the top of the highest peak in North America, Mount McKinley, was considered unsuitable because it contained a "regional bias." Given that it was about mountains and hiking, the story favors students who live in mountainous regions. It was also eliminated because it suggested that blind people are somehow at a disadvantage compared to those with normal sight. Likewise the bias experts struck out a story of a dolphin that guided ships through a channel. This was rejected as being in favor of those who live by the sea.

The reviewers also object to historical material that may offend anyone. A short biography of Gutzon Borglum, who designed the monument at Mount Rushmore of the gigantic heads of four American presidents, was suppressed. The review panel's reason was that the Native Americans in that area believe the mountains to be sacred, and that some could be offended by the monument.

Just how wide a swathe the censor's red pen cuts is conveyed by the remarks of the president of one publishing company to the board preparing the exam material. The board members requested some stories from fables and classic literature. The president replied saying they should bear in mind that "everything written before 1970 was either gender biased or racially biased."

Ravitch blames pressure groups from all parts of the political spectrum for lobbying to have certain topics excluded. The result: definitions of bias and sensitivity so broad that they guarantee the exclusion from tests of many valued works of literature. The only texts left are stories that have no geographical location, no conflict, no old sick people, no people with handicaps, and no one who is ever unhappy.

Publishers join in

Ravitch went on to see if similar restrictions apply to textbooks. Indeed they do, from kindergarten to grade 12. Ravitch obtained copies of the guidelines used by the main textbook publishers in the United States, and they turned out to be similar to the norms imposed for test material.

The Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley guidelines, which run to 161 pages, envisions the creation of a new society composed of "multicultural persons," notes Ravitch. The characters portrayed in books, the illustrations, and even the authors themselves, must contain representatives from a variety of cultural, racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. The guidelines even go to the point of prohibiting expressions such as "Primitive cultures lack adequate medical care," because no culture is to be termed as primitive.

On the subject of religion the guidelines enjoin textbook writers to be nonjudgmental. All references to religion in history and contemporary society must be positive, with no practice or belief held to be strange or primitive. And the term "myth" can only be applied to Greek or Roman stories.

The McGraw-Hill guidelines, prepared by a staff of 28 with the help of 63 consultants, contain long lists of banned words, phrases and images. Any occupation that includes the suffix "man" is excluded, as are terms such as: lady, tomboy, manpower, forefathers, brotherhood, man-made, etc. Also prohibited are phrases such as "the rise of man," "great men in history" and "man's achievements." All individual personal pronouns -- he, she, his, her -- must disappear.

McGraw-Hill illustrators must maintain a 50-50 balance between the sexes in their art, with equal distribution of active and significant roles. When illustrators show historical events where women were not full participants, they must include a caption calling attention to this inequity.

More details on how authors are to be selected come from a statement by the publisher Houghton Mifflin. The contents of its literature textbooks are based on the most recent Census Bureau statistics. Therefore, a book of readings with 22 selections would include 3 pieces by African-American writers, 3 by Latinos, 2 by Asian Americans, 1 by a Native American and 1 by a writer with a physical disability.

Ravitch recognizes that there must be some limits on what schoolchildren are exposed to. Graphic images of violence and pornographic material are justly excluded. But she notes: "The bias and sensitivity reviewers work with assumptions that have the inevitable effect of stripping away everything that is potentially thought-provoking and colorful from the texts that children encounter." The censorship also prevents the transmission of a cultural heritage whose works of literature were not written in conformity with current codes.

The systematic practice of censoring textbooks means that the original function of teaching students about the subject in question is subordinated to the desire of not offending anyone. When free speech advocates have a moment to spare from defending pornography, they would do well to cast an eye on the nation's textbooks.