Diane Ravitch’s The Language Police
Diane Ravitch’s book The Language Police has won 2004 Uncommon Book Award. Its subtitle “How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn” is a precise summary on the content of this marvelous book. Ravitch is a leading American historian who also published seven other books on education, including the critically acclaimed Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform, which has been widely quoted and debated nationwide in education field.
Based upon professor Stearns’ suggestion regarding the book review assignment, I have read the first chapter, skimmed others and appendix I, and I also read the last chapter—“The language police: can we stop it?” which I found quite interesting. Ravitch says, “For twenty five years…we have lived with this system of silent censorship” (158). And she boldly points her fingers at the people who are responsible for this and they are: the textbook publishers (chapter 3), the testing companies (chapter 4), the Right (chapter 5) and the Left (chapter six). Now, we naturally want to know who gets to decide what is appropriate and what is not, and are there any standard? Can we somehow fire the language policeman? With such questions in mind, we can follow Ravitch’s political and economic analysis of the causes of censorship through ten chapters and find the answer that the political influence of Right and Left are the decisive power that guides today’s exaggerated censorship in all school prints (even the classic American novels face the changing of certain “inappropriate language”) in order to guarantee the safety of our children living in a vacuum which is free from germs – that shows bias, violence, sex, geographical chauvinism, cultural differences, handicapism, colonism, etc. But in contrary, the author argues, the language police “stops us from having objective thoughts” (158), and reduces children’s interest in their school work by making their studies so deadly dull” (160), and we see the “literary heritage disappears from the schools” (160).
Let us have a closer look at Appendix I; we will be shocked to find out some of the most ridiculous examples under censorship guideline. For instance, the word “crazy” is banned as offensive and replaced with person with an emotional disability or a mental impairment(173); “dwarf “ is replaced person of short stature (174); “ mothering” is banned as sexist and replaced with parenting( 179); “ waitress” is banned as sexist, and thus replaced with server(182). There are also a lot of phrases and usages are facing the same fate: for example, do not say you and your wife, instead to say you and your spouse (183); do not use the feminine pronoun to refer to countries and boats, use it instead (183). Then we see other examples like potential stereotyped images that have to be avoided in texts, illustrations, for instance, women constantly portrayed as teacher, mother, nurse, or secretary( 184); girls as frightened, weak(186). Other images that need to be avoided are: people as color, Native American people, older people, and persons with disabilities, and persons who are homosexual. Some topics on tests are definitely avoided according such censorship, such as abortion, AIDS, Halloween, disobedient children, serious car accidents, etc. Then, we wonder what is left? Is this world really so perfect?
We are prone to have empathy towards students’ resentment of their textbooks that full of unreal–usage of words, dull texts with filtered images in their Monday through Friday classes and their confusion of those banned issues that they actually encounter in their daily life – the real language or things that they cannot possibly avoid regardless they like it or not. No wonder “school is the Empire of Boredom” (162). Children have the right to know the truth of what is going on in our world. The censors naively hope that by providing kids the filtered language, the corrected images means that they can protect them from any sense of harm from the atmosphere outside the school building. They should realize that “by avoiding controversy, we teach them to avoid dealing with reality” (165). They want to shield students from potential damage by any kind of negative influence, controversy, or ugliness of reality, yet they probably forget that children are living in a real world with both positive and negative influences. They don’t want kids to experience failure, pains, or discrimination, etc. yet as Martin Rochester says in his famous book Class Warfare, “ I think failure is a wonderful teacher, and that shielding a student from failure is a form of child abuse) ( 113). In one word, the authorities try to engrave into our students’ minds with a rosy world. The question here is what good the censorship does to students’ critical thinking skill or to their capabilities of dealing with the real problems that do exist. The world welcomes them not only with roses but most probably with harsh thorns.
Ravitch argued, “America’s students are compelled to read insipid texts that have been censored and bowdlerized, issued by publishers who willingly cut controversial material from their books — a case of the bland leading the bland.” We see Ravitch as an advocate of anti-censorship in the front line of education field. She is challenging something bigger than just education. The author shows her eagerness to rescue American students from lacking accurate description of historical events, people or authentic literary works. She not only exposes the problem of existed censorship, she also offers some “ practical and sensible solutions for ending it, which will improve the quality of books for students as well as liberating publishers, state boards of education, and schools from the grip of pressure groups.” In chapter ten, she has three suggestions: First, discontinue the state adoption process for textbooks. Second, the public needs to know what the publishers, the states, and the federal government are doing to educational materials. Third, we need better educated teachers. (166-69). However, as much as I hope her voice be heard by the authorities and also by the majority of Americans; what I want to see most is the importance of her suggestions be realized and thus be adopted effectively in publishing text books or tests. I have grave concern about the time period for the political Right and Left to finally realize the side effect of their action on filtering every detail in each text book and test. I wonder how long will it take for the communities in America to answer Diane Ravitch’s calling, “let us fire the language police” (170).