The Language Police

By Maeve Maddox

Lovers of language and literature, especially those with children or grandchildren still in Grades K-12, will find The Language Police by education historian Diane Ravitch riveting, revelatory, and extremely disturbing.

The Language Police is an exposé of the practice of systematic self-censoring by textbook manufacturers to avoid offending either the political right or the left.

Ravitch, an education historian who has worked in the administrations of both political parties, says she learned only gradually 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.

The systematic censorship Ravitch describes stems from “bias and sensitivity” guidelines provided by state textbook selection committees and other groups.

Such guidelines proscribe words, phrases, images, and concepts that someone—anyone— might consider sexist, religious, elitist, ageist, regionalist, or unhealthful.

Here are a few of the words and phrases writers are warned to avoid or to exclude outright when writing for the educational market:

able-bodied seaman, actress
boatman, busboy
cabin boy, cameraman, caveman, cult
devil, dogma, dwarf
Eskimo, fairy, fanatic, fat, fisherman
God, gringo, gypsy
heathen, hell, heroine, hut
jungle, junk bond, juvenile delinquent
Middle East, maniac, myth
night watchman, nobleman, normal
old, old wives’ tale
pagan, papoose, past one’s prime, polo
Satan, schoolboy, schoolgirl, seamstress, Sioux, slave, snow cone, snowman,
soul food, stick ball, swarthy
tomboy, tote bag, tribal warfare, tribe, turn a deaf ear to
un-American, uncivilized
victim, yacht

For a detailed description of The Language Police, read the review by science teacher Anne C. Westwater in The Textbook Letter, Vol. 12, No.4 of the Textbook League.

Better yet, read the book.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


15 Responses to “The Language Police”

  • Amazing Blair Peery

    What a twisted world we live in. I can see the demented reasoning behind most of the words and phrases in your list, but some defy logic. “Snow cone”? “Yacht”? Actually, “yacht” may imply a lot of money, which to the PC-minded may be offensive in our class-war society… I guess I can picture that. But “snow cone”? How in the world can that be offensive? (sigh)

    -Amazing Blair

  • Curtis Manges

    ‘Extremely disturbing,’ indeed. I’m guessing that the Newspeak Dictionary is going to be a pretty thin volume.

  • Michael W. Perry

    I’m unimpressed by groups, such as the American Library Association, who pucker their lips, complain about “self-censorship,” and stick their noses up in the air at parents who get outraged to discover, as Seattle parents did in the 1980s, that their public schools wanted to include a short story about the joys of being a prostitute as required reading in middle school.

    I know, I attended meetings on that very topic. The short story had already been part of required reading in Seattle high schools. The public only became aware when a move was made to require it to be read in middle schools. Recall that when someone suggests that we should “let the teachers and school officials decide.”

    In short, I’ll take seriously the denouncements of “self-censorship” by paid professionals in schools and libraries when they quit supporting moves to use schools to indoctrinate children in various fashionable but often stupid dogmas. That ‘prostitution is fun’ story, for instance was part of Seattle high school curriculum at the very time that the Green River killer was murdering teen girls who’d become prostitutes. That’s what I mean by “stupid dogmas.” How many of those young girls did Seattle’s public schools kill?

    Censorship and indoctrination of the opposite sides of the same evil, because both have the State and/or a select few imposing their views on others. And of the two, indoctrination is far more dangerous. Nazi censorship merely removed Jewish writers from textbooks. Nazi indoctrination said nasty things about Jew.

    That’s why I don’t take seriously the ALA’s attempts to denounce “self-censorship,” when they haven’t come out against indoctrination—empowering a few people (librarians and school bureaucracies) to determine what books children are required to read in schools.

    In fact, much of what these people call censorship is actually democracy in action, the most obvious being parents protesting that ‘prostitution is fun’ book as required reading in Seattle schools. Efforts to render their actions ineffective are censorship pure and simple.

    Never forget that the alternative to parental protest isn’t free speech. It’s an end to our democracy and the beginning of ideologically-driven indoctrination as a few in key positions in various bureaucracies determine what textbooks say. Compared to preventing that, not having stories that fail to mention “cabin boy” is a small price to pay.

    Does The Language Police condemn indoctrination by bureaucracies as severely as it does the “censorship” of “pressure groups?” I don’t have the book, so I can’t say. But I did read The Textbook League review and it says nothing about the far greater dangers of preventing “pressure groups” from shaping textbook adoption and allowing “educators” to do the selecting and hence the indoctrination.

    We should never forget that this debate is about whether we will democratically decide what is taught in our schools or whether a select few who regard themselves as superior to the rest of us determine what is taught. We’re not going to be selecting books are random.

    As the book review notes, Ravitch’s three suggestions lobby for that select few, although we should at least credit her with admitting that present-day teachers don’t know enough history, literature or science to be up to do the selecting.

    My hunch is that Ms. Ravitch’s definition of “better educated teachers” will be those that simply have been indoctrinated into the fashionable set of dogmas we hear today from the American Library Association and the American Education Association.

    One final note. I do find it odd but revealing that for all the claims these groups make about the dangers of censorship, they don’t show any awareness of the far greater danger of state-sanctioned indoctrination. That alone suggests they’ve never engaged in any serious thought on this topic. They’re simply repeating dogmas into which they’ve been indoctrinated by their professional training. That illustrates precisely what I am warning against.

    –Michael W. Perry, editor of Chesterton on War and Peace: Battling the Ideas and Movements that Led to Nazism and World War II

  • thebluebird11

    All I can say is “wow.” People are crazy. I am 57 years old, born and educated in a Jewish private school in NYC from KG (1962) to 12 (1975), and I do not consider myself to have been damaged, discriminated against, mentally twisted or perverted or bigoted by teachers or textbooks used in those years. “Yacht”? “Snow cone”? “Swarthy”? Obviously the egg came first, as the chickens now walk all over the shells.

  • Widdershins

    What a wonderful entry into the ‘Best Comedy Novel – Fiction’ category.

  • BuckeyeSam

    “The Language Police is an exposé of the practice of systematic self-censoring by textbook manufacturers to avoid offending either the political right or the left.”
    From the list provided, I don’t see how anyone can avoid the conclusion that this is a politically correct effort to purge the language pushed by the political left. There’s nothing like a group of motivated liberal fascists.

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    ‘We’re getting the language into its final shape — the shape it’s going to have when nobody speaks anything else. When we’ve finished with it, people like you will have to learn it all over again. You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words — scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. … It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.’

    –George Orwell, “1984”

  • Curtis Manges

    I think the best solution to this problem is to encourage reading, of all subject matter, by all people.

    And, I think I once saw a reference to something like “read a banned book day,” supported by librarians. It might have been in response to someone’s call to ban some particular book (probably _Huckleberry Finn_).

    Find a banned book and read it.

  • Maeve

    Amazing Blair,
    “Snow cone” is objectionable on grounds of “regional bias.” The editors recommend the term “flavored ice” instead.

  • Maeve

    “My hunch is that Ms. Ravitch’s definition of “better educated teachers” will be those that simply have been indoctrinated into the fashionable set of dogmas we hear today from the American Library Association and the American Education Association.”

    If you read her book, you will see that her objection is to the indoctrination imposed on teachers in university departments of education, an indoctrination that values ideology above content and the reality of modern American culture. I’ve come late to Ravitch’s writing, but I’m finding that she and I agree on a great many issues. For a look at my philosophy of school reform, go here:

  • Katherine

    That is an interesting list. I too wonder at some of the entries. I bet it would make an interesting read though.

  • Randi

    I read nearly 10 years ago. Thinking about it still makes me angry. In the name of education, special interest groups are forcing their ideas on our children by limiting the information put into the textbooks teachers must use. In most cases it is not teachers who choose textbooks, rather the school boards or the state legislatures. Ever hear of a politician who wasn’t at least tempted to grease the squeaky wheel? What ends up in the approved textbooks is a reflection of the opinions of the vocal minority.

  • venqax

    @Randi: My god, what did you read? You should try it again. Ten years is a long time not to read. Maybe it’s gotten better.

  • Anne-Marie

    I think we know why the word Offendotron was invented.

  • Richard Lea Clough

    This simple seaman and retired fisherman (our Ministry for Primary Industries has decreed us to be “fishers” – God help us) is puzzled that purely factual names and terms can be proscribed. The Middle East is a certain area, like the Mid-West or the Outback. Slave, myth, tribe, normal and tote bag denote exactly what they are.

    Pejorative terms are rightly banned – I understand the Inuit detest the term “Eskimo” and the Roma “gypsy”. “Able bodied seaman” is archaic – we write “AB” or “able seaman”.

    Rather than banning perfectly acceptable words or phrases, those educating our youth should be correcting their own shortcomings. A local school has recently invited “Enrolements” and advised that “Hockey and netball starts Week 2”

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