|Bible Research > Political Correctness > The Language Police|
I decided to write this book as a way of solving a mystery. After many years of studying the history of education and writing about the politics of education, I discovered some things that shocked me. Almost by accident, I stumbled upon an elaborate, well-established protocol of beneficent censorship, quietly endorsed and broadly implemented by textbook publishers, testing agencies, states, and the federal government. I did not learn about this state of affairs in one fell swoop, but one step at a time. Like others who are involved in education, be they parents or teachers or administrators or journalists or scholars, I had always assumed that textbooks were based on careful research and designed to help children learn something valuable. I thought that tests were designed to assess whether they had learned it. What I did not realize was that educational materials are now governed by an intricate set of rules to screen out language and topics that might be considered controversial or offensive. Some of this censorship is trivial, some is ludicrous, and some is breathtaking in its power to dumb down what children learn in school.
Initially these practices began with the intention of identifying and excluding any conscious or implicit statements of bias against African Americans, other racial or ethnic minorities, and females, whether in tests or textbooks, especially any statements that demeaned members of these groups. These efforts were entirely reasonable and justified. However, what began with admirable intentions has evolved into a surprisingly broad and increasingly bizarre policy of censorship that has gone far beyond its original scope and now excises from tests and textbooks words, images, passages, and ideas that no reasonable person would consider biased in the usual meaning of that term.
The story that I now tell began in 1997, when Bill Clinton delivered his State of the Union address. On that occasion, Clinton declared his support for national tests, and said that the states should test fourth-grade children in reading and eighth-grade children in mathematics, to make sure that they could meet national standards of proficiency. Soon after the president gave that speech, the U.S. Department of Education contracted with test publishers to develop voluntary national tests of reading and mathematics for those grades. The goal was to provide individual test scores to parents of specific children, to their teachers, and to their schools.
As someone who had been active in supporting the movement for academic standards during the 1980s and 1990s, both as a private citizen and as an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education during the administration of President George H. W. Bush, I applauded Clinton's proposal. When Bush launched his education reform initiative in 1991, he too called for national achievement testing for individual students. His plan never got off the ground, however, due to the inherently controversial nature of involving the federal government in decisions that usually belong to state and local governments; his fellow Republicans opposed it, as did the Democrats in Congress.
I supported Clinton's program for national testing, but feared that it would falter unless it was strictly nonpartisan. If it remained under the control of political appointees in the Department of Education, it would lose credibility; whatever they did, their decisions would be criticized by members of the other party in Congress, and the testing program would come under a cloud. I made that argument in an op-ed article in the Washington Post, urging the administration to transfer responsibility for the new tests from the Department of Education to the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), a nonpartisan federal agency that had been supervising national testing since 1990. Why, you might wonder, was there a controversy over national testing if there was already a federal agency giving national tests? Let me explain.
Since 1969, the federal government has administered a test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (known as NAEP, or "the nation's report card"). NAEP tests are given to national and state samples of students in reading, mathematics, writing, science, history, and other academic subjects. NAEP periodically reports on the aggregate achievement of American students in the fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades, but by law it cannot measure the academic performance of any particular school district, school, or individual student. NAEP is the only regular, consistent national measure of achievement in the United States (the SAT and ACT test only college-bound students). In 1990, Congress created NAGB as a nonpartisan citizens' board to supervise NAEP; NAGB is composed of a score of independent members, appointed by the secretary of education. NAGB has a reputation for integrity, and it seemed the right place to assign control of the new national tests that might eventually be given to millions of individual children, not just statistical samples of students. Putting the two testing programs into the same organization would also assure that the new tests proposed by Clinton for individual students would be as academically rigorous as the NAEP tests.
After my op-ed article appeared, advocating the transfer of control of the national tests, Clinton nominated me as a member of NAGB (and announced it on his weekly radio broadcast). He also accepted my suggestion to assign responsibility for his testing proposal to that board. When I joined the board at its first meeting in 1998, I discovered that Clinton's proposed voluntary national tests (VNT) had become an important agenda item. The board spent many hours discussing the development of the new tests, trying to figure out for whom they would be voluntary (for states? for school districts? for schools? for students?), how they would relate to the established standards of NAEP, what time of year they would be given, how long they would last, how to accommodate students with special needs, whether to offer them in any language other than English, and a variety of other prickly issues.
Congress never approved the VNT. The tests were controversial from the start. Many Republicans feared that any national test commissioned by the government was the first step on a slippery slope toward federal control of education. Many Democrats objected to the emphasis on testing as opposed to new general-purpose funding. By the time Clinton left office in January 2001, his VNT proposal was dead, even though it consistently ranked high in public-opinion polls. For nearly three years, however, NAGB and the test publishers who won the federal contract worked faithfully to bring the idea to fruition, keeping a watchful eye on Congress to see whether it would eventually be authorized. It never was.
During the time that the VNT was a live possibility, the first priority was to create test questions. As a new member of the board, I was assigned to a committee that reviewed reading passages for the fourth-grade test. The committee included experienced teachers and a state superintendent of education. All of us read the passages submitted by the test contractor, a major publisher that had won a multimillion-dollar contract from the Department of Education. The committee approved passages that seemed appropriate for fourth-grade students and rejected passages that seemed dull, obscure, or incoherent. Our goal was to find short reading passages of about one to three pages, both fiction and nonfiction, written in language that was clear, vivid, and engaging, as well as test questions that gauged children's comprehension of what they had read.
Our committee evaluated many passages for fourth-grade students. The passages had been previously published in children's magazines or anthologies; before they reached us, they had been thoroughly vetted by the original publisher's in-house experts. We too read them with care. As stewards of the VNT, we knew that we had to exercise extreme caution, since parents, teachers, and the media in every part of the United States would complain if anything inaccurate or untoward were to slip through unnoticed.
Most of the stories were unobjectionable; none was great literature, but for the most part, they were fairly engaging stories about children, animals, science, or history. Nearly two years later, I was surprised to learn that the passages approved by our committee had subsequently been evaluated yet again by the test contractor's "bias and sensitivity review" panel. This panel, it turned out, recommended the elimination of several stories that we had approved. I learned that it was standard operating procedure in the educational testing industry to submit all passages and test questions to a bias and sensitivity review. Typically those who serve on these review panels are not drawn from academic fields such as English or history. Usually they have a professional background in bilingual education, diversity training, English as a second language, special education, guidance, or the education of Native Americans or other special populations. Such panels are hired by publishers, as well as by state education agencies, to screen every test and every textbook for potential bias. In the case of the voluntary national tests, the panel that scrutinized the items found biases that none of us—neither test experts nor members of NAGB—had perceived.
When publishers of textbooks and tests conduct bias and sensitivity reviews, these reviews are never released to the public; they are proprietary materials, and they belong to the company. I could not find a publisher willing to release them. State education departments guard the results of their bias reviews with equal zeal, even though these should be available for public scrutiny as public documents. I saw the bias and sensitivity reviews for the VNT only because I was a member of NAGB's reading committee; having reviewed the passages, I had the right to know why bias reviewers wanted to eliminate some of them.
When I read the panelists' reasons for rejecting passages, I realized that their concept of bias was not the same as the common understanding of the term. As far as I could tell, they did not actually find any examples of racial or gender bias as most people understand it. There were no stories in which girls or children who were members of a racial or ethnic minority were portrayed in a demeaning way. Some of the panel's interpretations were, frankly, bizarre. When NAGB's reading committee convened by teleconference to discuss the recommendations of the bias panel, there was first an embarrassed silence. Then, one by one, each of us chimed in and expressed our own disagreement with the bias reviewers. We eventually agreed, by unanimous vote, to reject their recommendations.
There are always other test passages to use, so the acceptance or rejection of these particular passages is hardly a cause for alarm. What is alarming, however, is the absurd reasoning that was invoked to justify the elimination of these readings. Consider that the test contractor, Riverside Publishing, is responsible for one of the most esteemed tests in the nation, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills; consider that it assembled a reputable and experienced group of people to conduct the bias and sensitivity review. The judgments expressed by this panel were not idiosyncratic; they represented state-of-the-art thinking in the practice of bias review. The reviewers acted in compliance with what are considered industry standards. The process of analyzing text that I will describe is now being applied routinely to other tests and textbooks used in American schools. 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. These assumptions narrow what children are exposed to, at least on tests and in textbooks. Parents, teachers, and the public need to be aware of these assumptions and the reasoning process behind them, because they are reducing the curriculum in the schools to bland pabulum.
So what did the bias and sensitivity reviewers recommend? The only way to explain their strained interpretations is to give actual examples. I cannot reproduce the stories, because some of them may yet appear one day as test passages. But I will paraphrase the story sufficiently so that the reader may judge whether the charge of bias is persuasive. The examples, I believe, will demonstrate that the concept of bias has become detached from its original meaning and has been redefined into assumptions that defy common sense.
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The bias and sensitivity reviewers rejected a passage about patchwork quilting by women on the western frontier in the mid-nineteenth century. The passage explained that mothers in that time taught their daughters to sew, and together they made quilts for the girl's dowry when she married. Quilting was an economic necessity because it saved money, and there were no factory-made quilts available until the end of the nineteenth century. The passage briefly explained how quilts were assembled and described them as works of art. The information in the passage was historically accurate, but the bias and sensitivity panel (as well as the "content expert panel") objected to the passage because it contained stereotypes of females as "soft" and "submissive." Actually, the passage did nothing of the sort. It was a description of why quilting was important to women on the frontier and how it was done. Nothing in the passage excluded the possibility that mothers and daughters were riding the range, plowing the fields, and herding cattle during the day. The reviewers objected to the portrayal of women as people who stitch and sew, and who were concerned about preparing for marriage. Historical accuracy was no defense for this representation of women and girls, which they deemed stereotypical.
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One of the stranger recommendations of the bias and sensitivity panel involved a true story about a heroic young blind man who hiked to the top of Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America. The story described the dangers of hiking up an icy mountain trail, especially for a blind person. The panel voted 12-11 to eliminate this inspiring story. First, the majority maintained that the story contained "regional bias," because it was about hiking and mountain climbing, which favors students who live in regions where those activities are common. Second, they rejected the passage because it suggested that people who are blind are somehow at a disadvantage compared to people who have normal sight, that they are "worse off" and have a more difficult time facing dangers than those who are not blind.
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The bias and sensitivity reviewers did find a reading selection that had the earmarks of gender bias. It was Aesop's familiar fable "The Fox and the Crow." In the story, Master Fox spies Mistress Crow sitting on a tree branch with a piece of cheese in her beak. He flatters her, tells her that she has a beautiful voice, and when she opens her beak to sing, the cheese falls to the cunning fox. The panel, of course, spied gender bias at work since the crow—a female—is vain and foolish, while the fox—a male—is intelligent and clever. The crow represented the stereotypical depiction of women as overly concerned about their appearance and easily deceived by flattering men. The fact that this gender relationship had been part of the Aesop story for generations was irrelevant. The NAGB reading committee did not want to lose the Aesop fable, because it was all too rare to find any instances of classic literature on national tests of reading. So, to ameliorate the concerns of the bias committee, we proposed to switch the gender of the fox and the crow, either to make them both the same gender, or to make Mistress Fox the flatterer of Master Crow. Aesop might be startled to find a woman flattering a man or a guy flattering another guy or a woman flattering another woman, but at least we were able to hang on to a classic fable.
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The bias panel did not like a story about growing up in ancient Egypt. The story contrasted how people's ways of living varied in accordance with their wealth and status. Some lived in palaces, others were noblemen, others were farmers or city workers. The size and grandeur of one's house, said the story, depended on family wealth. To the naked eye, the story was descriptive, not judgmental. But the bias and sensitivity reviewers preferred to eliminate it, claiming that references to wealth and class distinctions had an "elitist" tone. The fact that these class distinctions were historically accurate was irrelevant to the reviewers. In the world that they wanted children to read about, class distinctions did not exist, not now and not in the past, either.
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The bias panel rejected a passage about a silly old woman who keeps piling more and more gadgets on her bicycle until it is so overloaded that it tumbles over. The language was clever, the illustrations were amusing, and the story was higher in literary quality than the other fourth-grade reading passages proposed for the test. But the bias panel rejected it. They felt that it contained a negative stereotype of an eccentric old woman who constantly changed her mind; apparently women, and especially women of a certain age, must be depicted only in a positive light. Why would it upset or distract fourth-grade children to see an older woman acting eccentrically or changing her mind? The bias panel thought that children would get the wrong idea about older women if they read such a story. They might conclude that all women of a certain age behaved in this way.
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Censorship has a long history in textbook publishing. As long as there have been textbooks, publishers have tried to avoid violating the taboos of regional, religious, racial, ethnic, or economic groups ... The best known practitioners of expurgation for the sake of moral purity were Dr. Thomas Bowdler and his sister Henrietta Maria Bowdler. Their edition of the Family Shakespeare, published in 1807, removed lines and sections from the Bard's plays that contained sexual language, profanity, or irreverent references to God or Jesus. Before long, the Bowdler name became a verb to describe expurgation of a literary work for reason of sex, politics, or religion. Shakespeare, more than any other writer, has been bowdlerized by editors hoping to clean up his language for the school market or the home. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet has frequently been sanitized, especially in high school anthologies, where as many as three hundred to four hundred lines may be quietly deleted.
Bowdlerization is not easily detectable. Unless someone has taken the time to sit down and make a comparison between the original and the version that appears in a textbook, the expurgations go unnoticed. Certainly publishers do not attach notices to warn readers that the text has been "purified," as the Bowdlers did in the early nineteenth century. Unfortunately, they seldom insert ellipses to show that some text has been deleted or altered.
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Censors from the political left believe in an idealized vision of the future, a utopia in which egalitarianism prevails in all social relations. In this vision, there is no dominant group, no dominant father, no dominant race, and no dominant gender. In this world, youth is not an advantage, and disability is not a disadvantage. There is no hierarchy of better or worse; all nations and all cultures are of equal accomplishment and value. All individuals and groups share equally in the roles, rewards, and activities of society. In this world to be, everyone has high self-esteem, eats healthy foods, exercises, and enjoys being different. Pressure groups on the left feel as strongly about the power of the word as those on the right. They expect that children will be shaped by what they read and will model their behavior on what they read. They want children to read only descriptions of the world as they think it should be in order to help bring this new world into being.
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In 1985, Barbara Cohen, author of a children's book called Molly's Pilgrim, was thrilled to learn that a textbook publisher wanted to reprint a condensation of her story about a Russian Jewish immigrant girl's first Thanksgiving in America. However, when she got the page proofs, she realized that the story was not merely cut, it had been "maimed. All mention of Jews, Sukkos, God, and the Bible had been excised." When she protested, the editor said, "Try to understand. We have a lot of problems. If we mention God, some atheist will object. If we mention the Bible, someone will want to know why we don't give equal time to the Koran. Every time that happens, we lose sales." The editor insisted that the textbook would not sell if it contained anything objectionable. After much negotiation, the publisher agreed to include Jews and Sukkos, but was adamant that there could be no references to God or the Bible. In the revised story, Molly's family came to America, like the Pilgrims, to worship in their own way, but the text story did not say that they were worshiping God; the story said that the Pilgrims knew about the Jewish harvest festival, but did not say that they had learned about it from the Bible. Cohen sadly concluded, "Censorship in this country is widespread, subtle, and surprising. It is not inflicted on us by the government. It doesn't need to be. We inflict it on ourselves."
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In 2002, a diligent parent in New York discovered that state education officials had expurgated literary passages on the Regents English examination for high school students. Unlike Tennessee, New York does not have a significant representation of fundamentalist Christians. The New York State Education Department had bowdlerized the readings on its examinations to comply with its own bias and sensitivity guidelines.
The parent, Jeanne Heifetz, compared literary passages from ten different English Language Arts tests over a three-year period to the original publications. She found that the majority of passages had been altered to remove references to race, religion, alcohol, profanity, and sex as well as other purportedly controversial subjects. Her purpose, as an anti-testing activist, was to embarrass the state education department and to discredit its examinations. She certainly achieved her first goal; Richard Mills, the New York State commissioner of education, promptly pledged to put a halt to the practice in order to salvage the reputation of the examinations, which students were required to pass to earn a high school diploma.
The Heifetz study garnered national and even international attention after it was reported on the front page of the New Tork Times; "The Elderly Man and the Sea? Test Sanitizes Literary Texts," said the headline. (A bias review would have rejected the New York Times headline as age biased and regionally biased, replacing it with "A Person Who Is Older Catches a Fish.") Heifetz demonstrated that the state had deleted and revised words and phrases in literary passages without getting permission from the authors or indicating changes with ellipses or brackets. She discovered that state officials removed any language that invoked cultural differences, even when those differences were key to understanding the text. In one case, where John Holt's Learning All the Time described the Suzuki method for violin instruction, the state deleted his comment that Japanese women spend more time at home with their children than American women....
Another expurgated work was Annie Dillard's An American Childhood, where she described herself as one of the few white people in a library in "the Negro section of town." The state cut out references to the race of the other people who used the library, thus distorting her insights into the realities of race in America as she was growing up. In a passage from Isaac Bashevis Singer's In My Father's Court, a memoir about life in his native Poland, the state excised references to Jews and Gentiles, as well as contrasts between the lives of Jews and Poles, completely obliterating the cultural context of Singer's story.
Any language that referred to God, religion, or the soul was removed. The state deleted an exclamation of "Oh, God" from one passage, as well as talk about confessing to a priest in a Chekhov story. Elie Wiesel wrote, "Man, who was created in God's image, wants to be free as God is free: free to choose between good and evil, love and vengeance, life and death"; after bowdlerization, the sentence read: "Man wants to be free: free to choose between good and evil, love and vengeance, life and death." In a Frank Conroy story, the state changed the word "hell" to "heck" and deleted a description of two boys killing a snake.
Heifetz was shocked that the authorities had censored well-known writers and her astonishment was shared by the national press. What she and the members of the media did not realize was that the New York State Education Department was punctiliously following its bias and sensitivity guidelines. The reviewers who bowdlerized literary passages had been trained and certified by the state as "New York State Education Department sensitivity reviewers."
The department had adopted new procedures in 2000 to screen all test questions for bias and sensitivity. These procedures were based on "industry standards" as well as the guidelines used in other states. The state's bias analysis relied on DIF analysis [differential item functioning analysis, used to determine if test questions accurately assess the knowledge of various focal groups]. Reviewers were trained to eliminate material that seemed to favor or stereotype one group or religion; that portrayed a racial or ethnic group in a pejorative or stereotypic manner; that presented gratuitous violence or speech; that presented "controversial" themes such as war; that assumed values not shared by all test takers; that presented sexual innuendoes, and so on. The sensitivity reviewers did what they were trained to do, which was to eliminate, delete, remove, replace, revise—that is, censor—offensive material. The mistake of New York education officials was to think that no one would know or care that they did it; other state and national testing agencies either had not been found out yet or had the good sense to select only those passages that could pass a sensitivity review without needing expurgation.
As a result of this episode, the public became aware of sensitivity censorship. The press ridiculed the practice. One editorialist imagined the Gettysburg Address revised to comply with the New York sensitivity guidelines. First, he said, change the name because it evokes images of gratuitous violence. Don't use the word "score" (as in "four score and seven years ago") because it suggests winners and losers, and all of our students are winners. Don't say "our fathers brought forth" because it is sexist. Drop "conceived in liberty" because it suggests birth and death. Out goes "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal"; it is sexist. Too much talk about battles and war, too militaristic. The religious stuff about dedicating, consecrating, and hallowing has to go too. On and on he went, carving out one line after another, until all that was left was: "The Biglerville Address, by Abraham Lincoln: We have a really cool country, and we should keep it that way."
Behind the public uproar about censorship and sanitizing literary texts were important questions: What had happened to the teaching of literature? Had the pressures for censorship from both the politically correct left and the morally correct right changed what was taught in school? Were students still reading the works of recognized authors or had they been quietly shelved for political reasons?
To answer these questions, I looked to several different kinds of evidence. One was the national standards written by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association (NCTE-IRA), which would indicate what these authoritative organizations say about the teaching of literature today. Then there were the English language arts standards promulgated by forty-nine states (all but Iowa, which does not set state standards). And last, there were the literature textbooks, which supply the curriculum in many—perhaps most—English classes.
I began this quest with a strong belief that schools are supposed to lay foundations for love of literature by exposing children incrementally, based on age appropriateness, to the best writings of our common language and, to the extent possible, to the best writings from other cultures. There are so many superb novels, short stories, poems, plays, and essays to choose from that it is impossible for any student to read them all. But this fact makes it all the more important that teachers make the effort to identify the writers and works that will broaden their students' horizons beyond their own immediate circumstances and reveal to them a world of meanings far beyond their own experiences. Great literature is "relevant" not because it echoes the students' race, gender, or social circumstances, but because it speaks directly to the reader across time and across cultures. The child who is suffering because of a death in the family is likely to gain more comfort from reading John Donne or Ben Jonson or Gerard Manley Hopkins than from reading teen fiction about a death in the family.
In 1996, the NCTE-IRA published its national standards for the teaching of English language arts. These standards do not identify any authors or literary works that are essential for American students to read. They are concerned with literacy rather than literary appreciation. They give equal weight to every sort of text, in any format. They acknowledge the value of reading classic and contemporary texts, but also commend the reading of textbooks, lab manuals, reference materials, student-produced texts, computer software, CD-ROMs, laser discs, films, television broadcasts, magazines, newspapers, editorials, advertisements, letters, bulletin board notices, signs, and memos.
One searches in vain through the proposed national standards of the NCTE-IRA for any suggestions about what students should read. They do not identify the authors whose works are foundational in American or British literature. They offer two pieces of advice: Student reading should be relevant to their interests and their "roles in society," as if students cannot acquire new interests and cannot profit by reading about people who do not share their "roles in society"; and the works that students read should reflect the United States population in terms of gender, age, social class, religion, and ethnicity.
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What then are these English language arts standards, and what do they recommend instead of literature? Recall that the English language arts include reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing, and visually representing. The study of literature is only a small part of the reading strand, and almost any text seems to serve the purpose.
Virtually every state says that students should read a variety of genres for a variety of purposes. Most suggest that students should "self-select books and stories" by setting their own purposes and drawing on their own personal interests. What matters most in ELA is how students feel and respond to the text. The student, not the work of literature, is at the center of the reading experience. Whatever literature has to say to readers seems to be unimportant, as compared to how readers feel about it.
Most state standards say that literature is to be read by students for a social or political message, as though every poem or novel is meant to be a social or political commentary rather than an expression of the writer's emotional, spiritual, or aesthetic concerns. Other than Massachusetts, none encourages the reading of any core group of literary works that every educated person should absorb in order to understand the ideas of our civilization and our literary tradition. Nowhere in the state or national standards did I find any discussion of the intrinsic joy and aesthetic understanding that one might gain by reading a stirring poem, nothing about how a beautiful novel can make you cry or laugh or reflect. The study of literature as knowledge and as art is either missing from the standards or has been supplanted by utilitarian concerns.
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Why don't states identify the content that students are expected to master? Like textbook publishers, they prefer to avoid controversy. It is much easier to say that "students should read a variety of texts for a variety of purposes" than to identify the giants of American and world literature whom students should read. Suppose the state's list does not have the right gender balance? Suppose it has too many white males? What if the works selected include some that contain offensive language or topics? What if someone complains that the work contains too many authors from one region, or not enough from another? These are the problems that are certain to arise if a state begins to compile a reading list. There will be protests from feminists and ethnic minorities because they don't like this book or that play. There will be protests from the religious right because a novel has themes that anger them. The inclusion of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or a specific fairy tale might cause trouble. It is far easier for the state to steer clear of controversy.
When literature is missing from the states' list of goals for students, it is likely that many will graduate from high school without having any acquaintance with our nation's cultural heritage (the words "cultural heritage" do not appear in the ELA standards of any state except Massachusetts). It seems that many education officials are no longer willing to take responsibility for teaching the American cultural heritage or the cultural heritage of English-speaking people. They appear to be embarrassed to admit that our culture—like other cultures—has a heritage. By their timidity, they disconnect American youngsters from the great works of literature that inspired earlier generations of students.
I am not calling for a canonization of a particular list of books. But a conscious effort must be made to expose young minds to the writers whose words and ideas have had an enduring influence on American culture. By refusing to name those writers and their key works, the education system abdicates its responsibility for transmitting our cultural heritage and improving the taste and judgment of the younger generation. This reluctance to take a stand comes not from the teachers, but from university faculties infected by postmodernism, relativism, and other fashionable -isms, as well as from professors of education who disparage content. This unwillingness to teach the poems, plays, novels, essays, and short stories that have long been recognized for their excellence and significance abandons young people to be shaped by others. Untouched by enduring and inspiring literature, the students are left to be molded by the commercial popular culture. The popular culture-making machine cares not a whit for taste and judgment but reaches insistently for the lowest common denominator, the point at which its purveyors can maximize their profit. As a result, we are systematically failing to introduce the younger generation to the writers who enlarge our imaginations, enrich our emotional lives, and challenge our settled ways of thinking.
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The literature textbooks for middle school and high school from the major publishers are compilations of odds and ends. They have no overarching ends. The books are littered with nonliterary features, such as an essay about homelessness or air pollution. One teaches students how to read a weather map, a time line, and a telephone book. Another contains features about careers. All include some excellent literature, some mediocre selections, and lots of advice about how to think, to read, to write, to summarize, to take tests, to find the main idea, or to read a classified ad. Some include social studies articles, science articles, and other miscellany.
None of the textbooks is designed to build a foundation of cultural literacy; none encourages students to discern why some pieces of writing are considered classic. Writing is writing, text is text. Everything is treated as literature just because it happens to be printed. No effort is expended to teach students the differences among writing that is banal, good, better, or best. The stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and O. Henry are mixed haphazardly with student essays, study skills, and never-heard-of, soon-to-be-forgotten contributions by little-known writers. One book, published by Prentice Hall (with the subtitle, "Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes") has an excerpt from a script of the once-popular television program Xena: Warrior Princess. This script would not qualify as "literature" by any standard other than one in which absolutely nothing in print is not "literature."
The literature textbooks for these grades (5-10) contain from 650 to 1,200 pages. Often the selections are accompanied by photographs and biographies of authors so that students are made aware of their gender and ethnic background. Every textbook has a representation of well-known authors, but they are mainly seasoning in a very big and varied stew. The textbooks include selections by recognized writers, such as O. Henry, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert W. Service, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Ray Bradbury, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, John Ciardi, Lewis Carroll, Christina Rossetti, Robert Frost, Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Arthur Miller, Sara Teasdale, E. B. White, Shakespeare, Carl Sandburg, Doris Lessing, and Mark Twain. But one will not find too many of them in any single volume. Nor will one find many traditional American tall tales or legends in the reading books. The student is more likely to encounter folk tales from Japan, China, Africa, or India than to read one from the American past.
There is a new canon in today's literature textbooks. Certain writers appear again and again. They are Sandra Cisneros, Nikki Giovanni, Toni Cade Bambara, Jane Yolen, Gary Soto, Lawrence Yep, Pat Mora, Julia Alvarez, Amy Tan, Walter Dean Myers, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Rudolfo A. Anaya. Most of them are not well known to the general public, but their stories, essays, and poems are omnipresent in the textbook world. Students may never encounter Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Joseph Conrad, or Nathaniel Hawthorne, but they will certainly know the work of Cisneros; there is hardly a literary textbook at any grade level, regardless of publisher, that does not include her writing.
Even McDougal Littell's senior high school textbook, ostensibly devoted to a chronological treatment of major American literature, cannot resist the temptation to trivialize that tradition by randomly adding to it without regard to chronology. In a section allegedly devoted to American works written from "2000 B.C. to A. D. 1620," the editors insert a short story written in 1969 by a Native American writer, a 1982 travelogue by another Native American writer, and an excerpt from Maya Angelou's autobiography. The section covering the era from 1620 to 1800 offers such writers as Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, but also includes Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and a Chicano poet.
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The National Council of Teachers of English was not always opposed to reading lists. In 1935, for example, the NCTE's curriculum commission compiled an extensive list of readings that began with traditional nursery tales and fairy tales in kindergarten (such as Peter Rabbit and "Jack and the Beanstalk"), and advanced in complexity through high school, with selections from Whitman, Riis, Tennyson, Dickens, Eliot, Twain, Cooper, Thackeray, the Brontes, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Alcott, Defoe, Ferber, and Shakespeare. The commission said that "Like the fight for health, the struggle for culture must be systematic and persistent."
We have come a long way since then, and so has the NCTE. It opposes any list of recommended reading for fear that it will become a dreaded canon. In 1997, the NCTE elected a new president, Sheridan Blau of the University of California at Santa Barbara, who suggested that the organization might consider constructing a reading list because "in a nation as diverse as ours we must count on schools to provide the materials for building a common culture beyond that created by commercial TV and popular music." He noted that there were already many lists in circulation and that the profession should take control of decisions about what to teach away from the textbook publishers. Some NCTE members reacted with horror, fearful that a list would represent only the politically powerful, that it would exclude the voices of the powerless, that the people of the United States do not have a common culture, that it should not have a common culture, and that only middle-class whites would be part of a national culture. Faced with overwhelmingly negative responses from professors of education in the NCTE (not the teachers!), Blau's proposal was tabled by the organization's executive committee. The NCTE chose to leave control of what to teach in the hands of the textbook industry by default.
The NCTE's opposition to a reading list has many sources, but some deserve special attention.
One is the rise of young adult fiction since the late 1960s, popular novels written for adolescents by an author who writes in the voice of an adolescent. Such novels, like those of Robert Cormier, S. E. Hinton, and Judy Blume, deal with adolescent problems about self-esteem and issues like drugs, alcohol, sexuality, peer pressure, and relationships with parents. Some of these books are engaging, and some are utterly banal. Defenders of this genre fear that it would be excluded from any list of great American literature. Some teachers, in fact, are not sure that teen fiction deserves class time. Carol Jago, a California teacher who is a leader in the NCTE, maintains that students read two kinds of books, what she, calls "mirror books" and "window books." The mirror books reflect their experiences with peers, parents, school, drugs, and sex; the window books offer "access to other worlds, other times, other cultures." Teenagers, she says, don't need help reading mirror books, but they need teachers to guide them through the unfamiliar language and references of window books. "If students can read a book on their own," she writes, "it probably isn't the best choice for classroom study. Classroom texts should pose intellectual challenges to young readers."
A second, and related, reason for rejecting a reading list is the conviction, supported by the NCTE-IRA standards, that whatever is taught in school must be relevant to today's teens. The story must "include" them. It must be about them, not about adults in another era and culture. It must connect to their personal life experience, and it must be interpreted through the lens of their personal response. If students can't "relate" personally to Lord Jim or Madame Bovary or Emma, there is no point expecting them to read the book. This assumption encourages the narcissism of adolescence. Students are taught to look for themselves in the stories they read, rather than activate their imagination to enter other lives and other worlds.
A third, and related, source of opposition to a reading list is the assumption that students can comprehend only the literature written by and about people who share their racial, ethnic, or gender identity (embedded in this assumption is the belief that people have a single identity rather than multiple, intertwined identities). Girls must read stories about girls, which will then boost their self-esteem, and African American students must read stories by and about people who are also African American, for the same reason ... But so long as curriculum experts continue to believe that young people should read only about themselves and should not be expected to reach beyond their own experiences, then the literature prized by generations of Americans of all races and conditions does not stand a chance.
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The left-wing groups that have been most active in campaigns to change textbooks are militantly feminist and militantly liberal. These groups hope to bring about an equitable society by purging certain language and images from textbooks.
Lee Burress, a leader of anticensorship activities for many years in the National Council of Teachers of English, describes in The Battle of the Books how feminists and liberals became censors as they sought to "raise consciousness" and to eliminate "offensive" stories and books. Joan DelFattore, in What Johnny Shouldn’t Read, writes that political correctness, taken to its extreme, "denotes a form of intellectual terrorism in which people who express ideas that are offensive to any group other than white males of European heritage may be punished, regardless of the accuracy or relevance of what they say" (italics in the original). The censors from the left and right, she says, compel writers, editors, and public officials to suppress honest questions and to alter facts "solely to shape opinion." Once a society begins limiting freedom of expression to some points of view, then "all that remains is a trial of strength" to see whose sensibilities will prevail.
While the censors on the right have concentrated most of their ire on general books, the censors on the left have been most successful in criticizing textbooks. Although left-wing censors have occasionally targeted books too, they have achieved their greatest influence by shaping the bias guidelines of the educational publishing industry. Educational publishers have willingly acquiesced even to the most far-fetched demands for language censorship, so long as the campaign’s stated goal is "fairness." Only a George Orwell could fully appreciate how honorable words like fairness and diversity have been deployed to impose censorship and uniformity on everyday language.
The organization that led the left-wing censorship campaign was the Council on Interracial Books for Children (CIBC). Founded in 1966 in New York City, CIBC was active over the next quarter-century as the best-known critic of racism and sexism in children’s books and textbooks. Directing its critiques not as much to the general public as to the publishing industry and educators, CIBC issued publications and conducted seminars for librarians and teachers to raise their consciousness about racism and sexism.
CIBC ceased its organizational life in 1990; its most enduring legacy proved to be its guidelines, which explained how to identify racism, sexism, and ageism, as well as a variety of other -isms. They were the original template for the detailed bias guidelines that are now pervasive in the education publishing industry and that ban specific words, phrases, roles, activities, and images in textbooks and on tests. The CIBC guidelines are still cited; they circulate on many Web sites, and they continue to serve as training materials for bias and sensitivity reviewers.
CIBC’s initial goal was to encourage publishers to include more realistic stories and more accurate historical treatments about blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and women. It awarded annual prizes for the best new children’s books by minority writers. However, soon after it was founded in the mid-1960s, the nation’s political and cultural climate changed dramatically. In the wake of riots and civil disorders in major American cities, including New York, the racial integration movement was swept away by movements for racial separatism and black power. CIBC was caught up in the radicalism of the times. Its goals shifted from inclusion to racial assertiveness, from the pursuit of racial harmony to angry rhetoric about colonialism and the "educational slaughter" of minority children. As its militancy grew, CIBC insisted that only those who were themselves members of a minority group were qualified to write about their own group’s experience. It demanded that publishers subsidize minority-owned bookstores, printers, and publishers. It urged teachers and librarians to watch for and exclude those books that violated its bias guidelines.
CIBC’s critiques of racial and gender stereotyping undoubtedly raised the consciousness of textbook publishers about the white-only world of their products and prompted necessary revisions. However, in the early 1970s, CIBC demanded elimination of books that it deemed "anti-human," racist, and sexist.
CIBC attacked numerous literary classics as racist, including Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle books, Pamela Travers’s Mary Poppins, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Theodore Taylor’s The Cay, Ezra Jack Keats’s books (Snowy Day and Whistle for Willie), Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and William H. Armstrong’s Sounder. The American publisher of Dr. Dolittle, agreeing that the series contained stereotypical images of Africans, expurgated the books to remove offensive illustrations and text. The original version of the books has now disappeared from library shelves and bookstores.
CIBC attacked fairy tales as sexist, asserting that they promote "stereotypes, distortions, and anti-humanism." It charged that such traditional tales as "Little Red Riding Hood," "Cinderella," "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Snow-White," "Beauty and the Beast," "The Princess and the Pea," "Rumpelstiltskin," and "Hansel and Gretel" were irredeemably sexist because they portrayed females as "princesses or poor girls on their way to becoming princesses, fairy godmothers or good fairies, wicked and evil witches, jealous and spiteful sisters, proud, vain, and hateful stepmothers, or shrewish wives." The "good" females were depicted as beautiful, the "bad" ones as evil witches. The males were powerful and courageous, while the females were assigned to "traditional" roles as helpers. Typically, the characters in fairy tales rose from poverty to great wealth, CIBC complained, but no one ever asked about the "socioeconomic causes of their condition"; no one ever talked about the need for "collective action" to overcome injustice. In the eyes of CIBC, fairy tales were not only rife with sexist stereotypes, but with materialism, elitism, ethnocentrism, and racism too.
CIBC’s Human (and Anti-Human) Values in Children’s Books listed 235 children’s books published in 1975. Each was evaluated against a checklist that measured whether it was racist, sexist, elitist, materialist, ageist, conformist, escapist, or individualist; or whether it was opposed to those values or indifferent to them; whether it "builds a positive image of females/minorities" or "builds a negative image of females/minorities"; whether it "inspires action versus oppression"; and whether it is "culturally authentic." Only members of a specific group reviewed books about their own group: Blacks reviewed books about blacks, Chicanos reviewed books about Chicanos, and so on. Few of the books reviewed had any lasting significance, and few of them are still in print a quarter-century later. One that is still read is John D. Fitzgerald’s The Great Brain Does It Again, which CIBC rated as racist, sexist, materialist, individualist, conformist, and escapist.
The author Nat Hentoff reacted angrily to what he called CIBC’s "righteous vigilanteism." Although he agreed with the council’s egalitarian goals, he warned that its bias checklists and its demands for political correctness would stifle free expression. He interviewed other writers who complained about the CIBC checklist but were fearful of being identified. CIBC’s efforts to eliminate offensive books and to rate books for their political content, he argued, were creating a climate in which "creative imagination, the writer’s and the child’s, must hide to survive." Its drive against "individualism," he said, was antithetical to literature and the literary imagination: "Collectivism is for politics," he said, not for writers.
In retrospect, CIBC appears to have had minimal impact on general books. Despite having been denounced as racist, The Cay and Sounder remain commercially successful. Fairy tales continue to enchant children (although they are seldom found in textbooks and are usually bowdlerized). The public was only dimly aware, if at all, of CIBC’s lists of stereotypes, its reviews, and its ratings. Publishers kept printing and selling children’s books that defied CIBC’s strictures.
Where CIBC did make a difference, however, was with publishers of K-12 textbooks. Textbook houses could not risk ignoring CIBC or its labeling system. No publisher could afford to enter a statewide adoption process with a textbook whose contents had been branded racist or sexist or ageist or handicapist or biased against any other group. The publishers’ fear of stigma gave CIBC enormous leverage. When publishers began writing their own bias guidelines in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they consulted with CIBC or hired members of its editorial advisory board to counsel them about identifying bias. James Banks, a member of the CIBC advisory board, wrote the bias guidelines for McGraw-Hill; his wife, Cherry A. McGee Banks, was one of the main writers of the Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley guidelines.
CIBC multiplied its effectiveness when it worked in tandem with the National Organization for Women (NOW), which was also founded in 1966. Unlike CIBC, which operated from New York City, NOW had chapters in every state. CIBC and NOW frequently collaborated to fight sexism and to promote language censorship in the publishing industry and in textbooks. Feminist groups, some associated with NOW, others operating independently, testified at state hearings against unacceptable textbooks, pressured state and local school boards to exclude such books, and lobbied publishers to expunge sexist language from their books. Feminists demanded a 50-50 ratio of girls and boys, women and men, in every book. They counted illustrations to see how many female characters were represented. They noted whether girls and women were in passive or active roles as compared to boys and men. They made lists of the occupations represented, insisted that women have equal representation in professional roles, and objected if illustrations showed women as housewives, baking cookies, or sewing. They hectored publishers, textbook committees, and school boards with their complaints. And they made a difference.
In 1972, a group called Women on Words and Images published a pamphlet titled Dick and Jane as Victims: Sex Stereotyping in Children’s Readers that documented the imbalanced representation of boys and girls in reading textbooks. In the most widely used readers of the mid-1960s, boys were more likely to be lead characters and to play an active role as compared to girls, who were portrayed as dependent, passive, and interested only in shopping and dressing up. At textbook hearings around the country, feminist groups brandished the book and demanded changes. Within a year of the pamphlet’s appearance, the authors reported that they had drawn national attention to the problem. Publishers consulted with them for advice about how to revise their materials. By the mid-1970s, every major publishing company had adopted guidelines that banned sexist language and stereotypes from their textbooks.
By adopting bias guidelines, the publishers agreed to police their products and perform the censorship demanded by the politically correct left and the religious right. Publishers found it easier to exclude anything that offended anybody, be they feminists, religious groups, racial and ethnic groups, the disabled, or the elderly, rather than to get into a public controversy and see their product stigmatized. It was not all that difficult to delete a story or a paragraph or a test item, and most of the time no one noticed anyway.
The publishers reacted differently to pressure groups from the left and right. Companies did not share the Christian fundamentalist values of right-wing groups; they sometimes fought them in court, as Holt did in the Mozert v. Hawkins case described earlier. By contrast, editors at the big publishing companies often agreed quietly with the feminists and civil rights groups that attacked their textbooks; by and large, the editors and the left-wing critics came from the same cosmopolitan worlds and held similar political views. The publishers and editors did not mind if anyone thought them unsympathetic to the religious right, but they did not want to be considered racist by their friends, family, and professional peers. Nor did they oppose feminist demands for textbook changes, which had the tacit or open support of their own female editors. In retrospect, this dynamic helps to explain why the major publishing companies swiftly accepted the sweeping linguistic claims of feminist critics and willingly yielded to a code of censorship.
Publishing companies zealously protect the confidentiality of their internal discussions. However, in the mid-1980s, when the fundamentalist parents in Hawkins County, Tennessee, sued Holt, Rinehart, and Winston in Mozert v. Hawkins County Board of Education, 2,261 pages of correspondence among editors and executives at the company were subpoenaed and entered into the court records. Stephen Bates, in Battleground, first reported on the content of these documents, and he made them available to me for this book. These files reveal in clear detail the political warfare waged against Holt’s reading series by partisans of both right and left, as well as the private exchanges among editors about how to react to the latest salvo from a left-wing or right-wing group.
The Holt reading series reached the market in 1973, just as the great wave of feminist criticism broke over the publishing industry, and it was in trouble with feminists from the beginning. The Holt Basic Readers (not to be confused with Holt’s Impressions series discussed earlier) contained a good deal of excellent literature, but by today’s standards, the 1973 edition was undeniably sexist: Women and girls played subordinate roles, while men and boys were frequently shown in active and dominant occupations. The first-grade book declared that dolls and dresses were for girls and that trains and planes were for boys. Stories and illustrations contained more male characters than female characters. All of this material had passed through the hands of female authors, female editors, and female text designers, with no one noticing the disparate treatment of boys and girls. But as feminist criticism intensified, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston issued its guidelines on "the treatment of sex roles and minorities" in 1975, and revised its popular readers in 1977 to expand the representation of females and minorities in the text and art and to eliminate any sexist language.
As soon as the Holt series was published, the complaints began to pour in from conservative parents as well. The Indianapolis school board said that it would not adopt the series unless certain words, phrases, paragraphs, and stories that offended conservative parents were deleted. These parents objected to stories that included the word hate or that seemed to condone lying or bad behavior or anger or family disunity; they positively despised a story called "How to Keep the Cousin You Hate from Spending the Whole Weekend at Your House and Maybe Even Longer" because it used the word hate and showed two boys sharing the same bed, which might foster "homosexualism."
No sooner had the editors begun changing offensive words, cutting paragraphs, eliminating problematic stories, and pasting in new material in response to conservative complaints than the feminist tide rose up and crashed over them. In 1973, feminists in California attacked every reading textbook considered for statewide adoption, including the Holt Basic Reading series. NOW lodged a formal complaint with the state’s curriculum commission, and a group called the Task Force on Sexism urged the California State Board of Education to reject dozens of reading and literature textbooks because of their sexism. Feminists lined up to testify against the textbooks at public hearings and gathered signatures and testimony from large numbers of sympathetic academics. Letters started arriving at the Holt offices with precise counts of the number of females and males represented in the text and artwork. Holt’s California representative cautioned the home office that "the movement is gaining momentum like you have never seen in this state and I am sure that it is going to spread to every other state in the same manner."
Even in Texas, known for its conservatism, the state board of education reacted to complaints from feminists. It ruled in 1973 that textbooks henceforth would have to present both men and women in a variety of roles and activities, including "women in leadership and other positive roles with which they are not traditionally identified." This directive coexisted with the Texas board’s existing mandate that textbooks promote citizenship, patriotism, and "respect for recognized authority," while excluding any selections "which contribute to civil disorder, social strife, or flagrant disregard of the law." In the fall of 1974, feminists in Oregon and Arizona joined the protests against reading textbooks, and Holt internally decided to issue a special revised "California edition" for California, Oregon, and Arizona.
As feminists raised the heat on textbook publishers, other critics objected to the depiction of race and ethnicity in literature books. In 1974, a group in California called the Standing Committee to Review Textbooks from a Multicultural Perspective identified racism in such phrases as "the deputy’s face darkened," "the afternoon turned black," and "it’s going to be a black winter." This committee also complained that the reading textbooks were unacceptably biased toward Judeo-Christian teaching, ignoring other religious traditions.
As they began revising the reading books to meet feminist and multicultural demands, the Holt editors quickly concluded that the next edition would have to contain a precise ratio of at least 50 percent females and a representation of minority groups based on their percentage of the population. The editors began fumbling their way toward a consensus about portraying women and ethnic minorities. They agreed they would show American Indians in business suits, not in traditional "hides and headdress." Girls would be pictured fixing a bicycle tire, not looking for a boy to do it, and a "Caucasian boy or man would be shown unashamedly crying if the situation were appropriate." Girls would be seen working with electricity, studying insects, and solving math problems, while boys would read poetry, chase butterflies, and pay attention to their personal appearance. Older people would not be depicted as living in nursing homes, wearing glasses, or using canes or wheelchairs. Almost overnight, the editors became absorbed in images, stereotypes, males cooking, and females driving tractor trailers.
Even the editors of Holt’s high school literature series (Concepts in Literature) joined the effort to expunge older literary works that reflected outmoded views about women and minorities and to increase the representation of authors from these groups. Literary quality became secondary to representational issues. The female editor in charge of the high school series lamented that many of "the best modern works by and about members of these groups" were unacceptable for textbooks because of their language and "candid subject matter." Worse, from Holt’s point of view, "attempts to have authors modify such works have rarely met with success." Recognized authors of "the best modern works" by and about women and minorities refused to permit the bowdlerization (or "adaptation," as the editors put it) of their writings to meet the publisher’s need for stories that had no offensive language and the right head-count of females and minorities.
During 1975, as the textbooks were being revised, the Holt editors worked with a numerical quota system, imposed by their own internal guidelines. These guidelines directed them to "familiarize yourself with the latest U.S. population figures so that our materials reflect current statistics.... Counting and chart-keeping should not be regarded as a useless editorial exercise. Careful tallies and analysis of how people are represented will reduce the need for costly reprint corrections and may prevent the loss of an adoption."
Trying to comply with these directives, the editors began searching, almost frantically, for new stories to increase the representation of females and minorities. In the internal exchange of memos, Bernard J. Weiss, the editor of the elementary reading series, frequently admitted that a proposed story lacked literary quality but at least it had the right gender and ethnic representation. He said about one story: "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." Another story was added that the editors agreed was "not great literature," but "We gain two points—a female leading character and characters with Spanish-American names." Weiss observed of another selection: "I agree that this story has very little literary merit.... However, it does help us to achieve some ethnic balance in a very unbalanced book." Stories were freely rewritten to change a character’s job or role or ethnicity, even gender. The editors changed the gender of the main character in Judy Blume’s story "Freddie in the Middle," which became "Maggie in the Middle," with the author’s consent (in the same story, Mrs. Jay became Mrs. Chang, to increase ethnic representation). In another story, a grandmother was added to increase the count of elderly persons in the book. Some stories were added to the revised edition even though Weiss thought they were of poor quality, in order to boost the number of female characters. After extensive revisions, an editor reported numerical success for one volume in the series: "The in-house count shows 146 female and 146 male characters, or a ratio of 1:1. Animal characters were not included in this count."
Despite Holt’s valiant efforts to balance its characters by gender and ethnicity, the 1977 revised edition came under fire from feminists and multiculturalists anyway. Seattle’s Ethnic Bias Review Committee found the new edition "unacceptable" because "while blacks are emphasized, it is a narrow representation of those in athletics and music," and besides, one of the books contained intolerable ethnic stereotypes: a black waiter and an Asian cook. A textbook adoption committee in New Mexico was not satisfied with Holt’s statistics showing the proportion of characters by gender and minority status; it demanded to know the ethnic balance of both characters and authors. (Holt promptly responded with a list identifying their authors as Black, Puerto Rican, Oriental, American Indian, Hispanic, Jewish, Dutch, Polish, Greek, German, Italian, Scandinavian, Japanese, French, or Indian, as well as a breakdown of all main characters by gender and race.)
In 1980, the education task force of Texas NOW battered the Holt readers yet again at state textbook hearings. Holt’s editors thought they had achieved a perfect 1:1 balance of male and female characters, but the Texas feminists said that when they added in animals, males actually outnumbered females by 2:1. A feminist critic pointed out, "Children of this age are influenced by a story about Mr. Rabbit just as much as they are by a story about Mr. Jones." Reeling from the latest criticism, the Holt editors invited a feminist critic from Texas, members of the California committee that evaluated textbooks for sexism and racism, and the director of CIBC to review the company’s bias guidelines.
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Editors at Holt learned to look at every potential story through a political lens: What might anger the religious right? What might anger feminists and representatives of racial minorities? Does the story have a strong female character or a positive portrayal of an ethnic minority? Every entry, every chapter, every volume was measured against a detailed checklist to ensure that there was the right proportion of males, females, and minorities; even workbooks, drill sheets, and spelling exercises were carefully scrutinized because California officials would reject the entire series if there was a gender imbalance in any part of it. At the same time that Holt editors were balancing these political demands, they were also simplifying the vocabulary of their readers, in response to complaints that they were too hard.
Occasionally Holt editors reminded themselves that the purpose of the reading series was to teach children to read, but their internal notes show that discussion of literary quality, pedagogical effectiveness, and interest level steadily diminished.
Ultimately, however, it proved impossible to please everyone. Holt did a better job of reaching out to left-wing pressure groups than to those on the right. The supervising editor of reading books at Holt described right-wingers as the kind of "censors" that one finds in "totalitarian societies," but characterized left-wing critics as "positive pressure groups" with whom the editors were prepared to collaborate. The more that Holt pleased "positive pressure groups" by increasing their feminist and multicultural content, the more the books offended conservatives. As noted earlier, in the mid-1980s, Christians in Tennessee sued their children’s school district to stop them from mandating the Holt readers. Eventually the school district won, but afterward, the publishing company let the Holt Basic Reading series go out of print. There were no more revisions. The Holt textbooks were destroyed by the censors of left and right. The textbooks became victims in a political ping-pong game that doomed them.
By the end of the 1980s, every publisher had complied with the demands of the critics, both from left and right. Publishers had established bias guidelines with which they could impose self-censorship and head off the outside censors, as well as satisfy state adoption reviews. Achieving demographic balance and excluding sensitive topics had become more important to their success than teaching children to read or to appreciate good literature. Stories written before 1970 had to be carefully screened for compliance with the bias guidelines; those written after 1970 were unlikely to be in compliance unless written for a textbook publisher. So long as books and stories continue to be strained through a sieve of political correctness, fashioned by partisans of both left and right, all that is left for students to read will be thin gruel.
From the book The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn by Diane Ravitch (New York: Knopf, 2003).
DIANE S. RAVITCH is Research Professor of Education at New York University and holds the Brown Chair in Education at the Brookings Institution, where she edits Brookings Papers on Education Policy. A historian of education, she is the author of seven previous books, including the recent study entitled Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform (2001). She was appointed to serve as Assistant Secretary of Education in charge of research for the U.S. Department of Education from 1991-1993. She was honored as a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library and is a board member of the New York City Council for the Humanities. She is the mother of two sons, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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