Boring and correct

May 14, 2003 at 12:00 am
Not to oversell it or anything, but this is an important book, one worthy of rank alongside Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in how it should galvanize public attention and move the vox populi to some sort of action. Is anybody listening?

Its author, Diane Ravitch, deserves the attention. She's a historian of education and research professor at New York University, with political credentials as impeccable as her scholarly ones: Ravitch was a high-ranking official who designed national testing standards in both the first Bush and Clinton administrations.

While working for her second president, trying to finish the creation of a national U.S. assessment test that she'd begun under the first, Ravitch found a key reason the process moved so slowly: the long and arduous vetting procedure, which strove to ensure that the test contained nothing that would cause test-takers to be offended or experience stress.

And as she looked further, Ravitch discovered that the same vetting process was used for textbooks. In The Language Police, she argues that litigious factions on both the Left and Right have intimidated textbook publishers--of which there used to be dozens, but now consist of four huge conglomerates--into turning U.S. students' schoolbooks into boring and insipid, morally simplistic yet politically correct tools that are complete failures in the face of juiced-up Internet lifestyles.

To demonstrate her case, Ravitch conducts extensive research on a wide range of books in American schools from kindergarten through high school, systematically dissecting their incompetence, out-of-focus priorities, and attempts to rewrite history and culture. A typical leading publisher's outline dictates that no story can be set in the mountains because it discriminates against students from flatlands; women cannot be depicted as caregivers and men cannot be lawyers, doctors, or plumbers; children cannot be shown as disobedient, and cake cannot appear in a story because it is not nutritious.

Ravitch writes with passion and clarity and brings an investigator's steely insight to an issue that has profound implications. Thankfully, she also provides a solution, though it's going to take a huge shift in thinking among Americans: It requires that they speak up about the quality of their education, not its politics.

Since that's not likely to happen, as a parent of a little girl who loves to read, I'm grateful for an appendix that pairs Ravitch with a children's literature specialist to create a reading list of classic material for grades 3 through 10. It is edifying, enlightening, patriotic, and perhaps just a razor's edge short of being politically correct, just to show that the publishers could have done it themselves if they wanted to. There's another lengthy appendix that summarizes the banned words and phrases of the four major textbook conglomerates. That appendix is not so enjoyable.

Tom Siebert writes for the Baltimore City Paper, where this review first appeared. Send comments to [email protected].