Another way to burn a book.
IN THE EARLY 1970S a publishing house approached author Ray Bradbury asking to reprint his short story, "A Fog Horn," for a high-school textbook. Bradbury refused upon learning that the editor of the reader deleted two phrases from the story: "in the Presence" and "God-Light." This particular incident prompted Bradbury to add a coda to his most well-known work, Fahrenheit 451, in which he wrote:
There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist / Seventh-day Adventist, Women's Lib / Republican, Mattachine / FourSquareGospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.
Bradbury is iust one of many whistle-blowers who have felt an obligation to speak out against the witless censorship of overly sensitive interest groups. A compelling addition to the literature is New York University education professor Diane Ravitch's expose on censors of American public education, The Language Police. Ravitch has a strong background in public education. She was assistant secretary of education for research in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton appointed her to the National Assessment Governing Board, where she advocated the creation of a non-partisan national testing standard for American children. She is also the author of six books on the state of American education. These credentials lend weight to the case she makes against the censorship that now pervades all aspects of the American educational system.
DURING THE PAST 25 years, an elaborate and pervasive system of censorship has been put into motion to shield school-aged children from dealing with any "emotionally charged" content within the confines of the schoolyard. Women cannot be depicted as caregivers, only as breadwinners. Men must be stay-at-home dads, never lawyers or doctors. African-Americans can never be athletes and Asian-Americans cannot be studious because it would reinforce stereotypes. Textbook publishers rejected a story about a blind man climbing a mountain because it implied that the visually impaired are somehow disadvantaged. They also rejected the story, rich with literary imagery, because it showed bias against children who live in places at or near sea level, as they may have never experienced a mountain range before. This censorship stems chiefly from both liberal and conservative interest groups. The interest groups pressure textbook companies, testing agencies, and state and local government agents in order to ensure that their sensitivities are enforced throughout the system.
Ravitch begins her investigation by familiarizing the reader with topics and words that have been censored, watered-down, or forbidden. While the avoidance of some topics seems self-evidently appropriate--for example, abortion--the avoidance of others seems ludicrous: unemployment? Ravitch explains that the responsibility for judging subject matter and language appropriate or inappropriate falls to the bias and sensitivity review committees that all testing companies and textbook publishers now employ. Their standards are similar across the board. It is their responsibility to achieve three ends: representational fairness, proper language usage, and stereotype prevention. While these three goals seem admirable, the members of these committees have exorcised almost all educational material of substantive content. Ravitch describes the guidelines the bias and sensitivity review committees implement as "censorship guidelines. Nothing more, nothing less. The language censorship and thought control should be repugnant to those who care about freedom of expression."
Judging by the standards set by bias and sensitivity review committees, as evidenced by the preceding examples, it is a wonder that any literature produced before 1970 is taught in public schools for fear of being perceived as gender or racially biased. Equally bad, in order to avoid stereotyping, textbook publishers often minimize the adversity women and minorities had to face throughout history. Instead of teaching children of the trials women faced, they are presented with a diluted, falsified history in which women were always equal participants. Attempts to educate children against racial stereotyping result in texts offering a laundry list of similarities among people of all different heritages as opposed to a celebration and acceptance of difference. The words "Forefathers," "brotherhood," and "man-made" are slowly being purged from textbooks.
Ravitch goes on to explain that achieving representation fairness often comes at the cost of literary merit. She proves the case by quoting the internal memos of editor Bernard J. Weiss: "I like the ethnic aspect. I like the use of a girl as the lead. I don't like the story. The urban setting is a plus.... I agree that this story has very little literary merit.... However, it does help us achieve some ethnic balance in a very unbalanced book." While it is important to expose children to a diverse variety of age-appropriate storylines, it is reprehensible to bowdlerize of censor authors' works. Literature should not be rewritten because the author depicts a 12-year-old behaving badly or uses more female characters than male characters.
RAVITCH IS careful to scrutinize both conservative and liberal interest groups. She devotes equal time to both sides of the political spectrum, explaining and providing evidence as to how both radical feminists and the Christian Coalition pursue and achieve their ends. Upon first explanation, it seems highly unlikely that polar opposites of the political realm could find contentment with the same school curriculum. Ravitch explains that interest groups from the right attempt to control the content of the curriculum while interest groups ffom the left attempt to control the language used in textbooks and testing materials. She exposes the surprisingly common aims of the left and the right: The right hopes to present students with an idealized version of the past in hopes of modeling the present on what used to be, while the left attempts to construct a utopian version of the future. "For censors on both the right and the left, reading is a means of role modeling and behavior modification. Neither wants children and adolescents to encounter books, textbooks, or videos that challenge their vision of what was or what might be, or that depict a reality contrary to that vision."
Ravitch's argument is steeped in historical evidence, which makes her claims all the more compelling. She speaks of a group called the Minute Women of the USA, who wreaked havoc on the public school system in the 1950s by bullying local governments and attacking anything they felt was "socialistic" or "communist." Ravitch also focuses on the 1980s, when New Right groups such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum vehemently attacked secular humanism because it did not speak in "moral absolutism." The left has been attacking books such as Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn since the 1950s. Partisans carefully avoid addressing the book's obvious literary merit and instead skewer Twain as a racist for his historically accurate representation of Jim, an escaped slave. Leftwing censors, to this day, insist on bowdlerizing Twain's text by deleting the language he used and replacing it with something less controversial. Ravitch speaks of a left-wing censorship campaign spearheaded by the Council on Interracial Books for Children (CIBC). CIBC went so far as to accuse fairy tales such as "Little Red Riding Hood," "Cinderella," "Jack and the Beanstalk," and "Beauty and the Beast" of being inherently sexist. Ravitch makes the compelling point that it is normal for parents to want to protect children from potentially harmful sources in the classroom, but interest-group "book censorship far exceeds reasonableness; usually censors seek not just freedom from someone else's views, but the power to impose their views on others."
The obvious question is why publishers allow these groups this much control. Ravitch does a thorough job of explaining how the censors succeed. Interest groups pressure local and state government, and the well-oiled political machinery of pay-to-play is present in the politics of textbook adoption. For instance, in Texas and California, publishers compete to win huge contracts to provide textbooks for the entire state's educational system. Publishers must adhere to the wishes of the local and state governments, which face pressure from interest groups, in order to win contracts. These states, in particular, exert a huge amount of control over the publishing industry because they are the two states that award the largest contracts. Textbook publishers stand to gain the most by winning contracts in these states, so they are careful to appease the censors that reside in Texas or California. They spend millions of dollars making a bland text that will not ruffle any feathers. This results in a natural oligopoly of the textbook industry because only a few companies will receive the biggest contracts. The remaining 48 states, which operate under a multitude of different guidelines, end up with little choice other than the textbooks California and Texas choose to adopt that year.
Ravitch's chapter on literature is perhaps the most eye-opening. When Ravitch describes the editors who take out or change words, it is enough to make one's blood boil. What gives a textbook editor the right to bowdlerize some of the best-loved literary works in history? Why would a school deprive a student of the original versions of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird or Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet? Ravitch explains that interest groups are also trying to exert control over the curriculum by ensuring that the literature children read is "relevant" to their race, gender, and socioeconomic circumstances. Ravitch counters, accurately, that literature is relevant if it "broaden[s] students' horizons beyond their own immediate circumstances and reveal[s] to them a world of meanings far beyond their own experiences."
Ravitch's description of what is happening to the history curriculum is especially chilling. In order to appease all interest groups, textbook editors cram 2,000 years' worth of history into a single book. Some of the most important events in world history are reduced to the space of a single page. Facts have been traded in for teaching aids and sleek graphics. Mundane biographies line the margins of the forgettable pages. Another phenomenon is the distinct anti-Americanism emerging in most textbooks. American history is no longer centered on our history of progress. On the other side of the spectrum, no society can be portrayed as primitive (even when the characterization is historically factual) or capable of much wrongdoing. "The sanitizing of world history texts has stripped them of their ability to present a critical, intellectually honest assessment of controversial subjects.... The students who read most of the texts ... would never know that there are serious political, social, and economic problems in the world." Interest groups and textbook editors are indifferent to the problem that the rewriting and condensation of history is more dangerous than the racism and sexism they are trying to avoid.
RAVICH LAYS out a three-pronged attack to end this censorship: competition, sunshine, and educated teachers. She advocates a free, competitive market for textbook publishers, one that would require a ban on statewide textbook adoption. Her sunshine strategy involves creating a free flow of information about censorship in American schools. Ravitch thinks that exposing the public to the truth about what lies between the covers of textbooks would be a fast way to spur change. Last, she believes that teachers who are truly masters of their subject will break from the monotony of the censored textbook. A teacher who is well versed in the subject is much more apt to engage students' minds.
At the end of her text, Ravitch includes two appendices: a glossary of banned words and the Atkinson-Ravitch Sampler of Classic Literature for Home and School. The latter appendix is a thoughtful addition to the book. Ravitch and her colleague Rodney Atkinson have put together a list of recommended reading for children in Grades 3-10. The list is comprehensive and well-chosen. It shows that Ravitch and Atkinson are in touch with American youth. It would do the American educational system an enormous amount of good to pay attention to this list and put serious, challenging literature back where it belongs: in the hands of impressionable young people.
Stephanie Segall is an editorial assistant at Policy Review.