The Language Police: Fahrenheit 451 With a #2 Pencil

Published January 1, 2004

The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn
Diane Ravitch
(Knopf, 2003; 272 pages; $24, ISBN: 0375414827)

In the world described by Diane Ravitch in her new book, The Language Police, censorship is implemented not with fire and destruction, as Ray Bradbury imagined in Fahrenheit 451, but with an editor’s much-less-intimidating #2 pencil.

The Language Police would be disturbing enough if it were a science fiction novel like Bradbury’s, about a possible future where the authorities in power censor reading materials and indoctrinate the young with a strictly limited set of ideas about the world.

However, Ravitch’s book is even more disturbing than science fiction because it is a history book about what has already happened in America–not one hundred years ago, but over the past two decades as children have been subjected to a narrower and narrower range of ideas in the censored textbooks they use in school.

To avoid offending various interest groups, publishers have removed words, passages, stories, and pictures from the pages of their textbooks–in effect, censoring anything that would be objectionable to any group, however small and unrepresentative, that could create controversy during the textbook adoption process. Publishers operate from a detailed set of “language police” guidelines that tell writers and illustrators what they must not say or depict.

For example, textbook writers are told to avoid the following portrayals and topics:

  • women as nurses, teachers, secretaries, or librarians
  • girls playing with dolls or kitchen equipment
  • boys who are confident and decisive problem-solvers
  • men and boys who are larger and heavier than women and girls
  • African-Americans as great athletes
  • Native Americans depicted in tepees with totem poles
  • Asian-Americans as excellent scholars
  • older people in nursing homes or dependent on others
  • behavior that will lead to dangerous situations
  • conflict with authorities (such as parents, teachers, or the law)
  • guns
  • lying or duplicity
  • smoking
  • stealing
  • unflattering comparisons between the sexes

With almost everything that might offend removed from their pages, textbooks have become dull and boring, lacking “the capacity to inspire, sadden, or intrigue their readers,” writes Ravitch. As a consequence of their being “untouched by enduring and inspiring literature, the students are left to be molded by the commercial popular culture.”

Ravitch, who is research professor of education at New York University and was an assistant education secretary in the George H.W. Bush administration, offers a three-fold strategy for ending the reign of the Language Police: competition, sunshine, and educated teachers.

  • Open up the textbook market to competition by ending the state adoption process. Ravitch says states should publish their standards and then let schools and teachers decide what to buy.
  • Expose the censorship process to sunshine by getting every publisher and every state to publish their bias guidelines, along with the names of the people who serve on their bias and sensitivity review panels.
  • Require better-educated teachers, i.e., teachers who have content knowledge, particularly in English and history.

“[I]n our society,” writes Ravitch, “the role of authorities is not to get rid of wrong opinions, but to protect the expression of opinion and the free exchange of ideas. A free society is not free unless it tolerates offensive words and unpopular opinions.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].