Updated: 1/27/2004; 1:05:30 AM
in pari delicto
    the tie goes to the runner  

daily link  Wednesday, May 07, 2003

The Language Police
I just bought -- and returned -- Diane Ravitch's new book, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. I bought the book because it, ostensibly, dealt with the issue of censorship in primary and secondary education. While the book does approach this subject, I was appalled at the lack of considered thought evident in the book. (Disclaimer: I only read the first three chapters before returning the book.)

While Ravitch starts out well enough, providing anecdotes of stories that were stricken from a national reading test because of "bias," the rest of the book (at least, the portion that I read) was a sarcastic diatribe against political correctness. Ravitch doesn't even really criticize educators or evaluate the validity of the claims advanced by the so-called "censors." She just sarcastically dismisses every claim without considering it.

I generally agree with Ravitch that the push for political correctness, especially in education, is going too far when historical accuracy is less important than making sure that the genders and races of otherwise non-fiction protagonists match up to census figures. However, Ravitch's credibility is undermined when she sarcastically dismisses as irrelevant reasonable claims advanced by the testing companies in the same manner as she rejects facially foolish ones. Case in point: standardized testing companies use a race-based statistical analysis of test questions that invalidates questions where, on average, test-takers of equal ability but of different races display disparate performance. While there are some strong arguments that it doesn't make sense to place full faith in this sort of analysis in determining whether questions are good, the fact that there is a race-based disparity in a question at least makes a second look at the question reasonable. Either way, this practice certainly deserves a more serious look -- especially from a supposed academic -- than the "Wow, can you believe the stupid things these companies are doing" sort of analysis that Ravitch gives to it.

Some people criticize Ravitch for being anti-feminist -- and, at least linguistically, she is. Ravitch looks with disdain on proposals that words with the letters "man" in them should be replaced with gender-neutral alternatives. She thinks it rediculous that textbooks refuse to allow women to engage in housework, but find it okay for men to do this. She rejects the contention that it's acceptable for men to be "kind" or "submissive" and for women to be "strong" and "aggressive," but not vice versa. Personally, I see no problem with gender-neutral style guidelines in textbooks -- in fact, they probably would be helpful in training children to use and internalize gender-neutral language. But I certainly draw the line at not being able to portray life as it is -- if a particular woman in history behaved in a certain way, a textbook should portray her as she was. I think it's obscene to suggest otherwise. Ravitch discusses the story of an African-American single mother who started a school in the South for her son and black girls in the area, having raised money to start the school from the white upper class. I dispute that this story must be edited to remove the woman's fundraising efforts because they were from white men (and, of course, women shouldn't rely on any men and blacks shouldn't rely on any whites) or her single-parent status. I don't think Ravitch pretends to be pro-feminist, and so I think it's fair for a reader to evaluate her views in the context of his (yes, I know I said "his") own.

Diane Ravitch has a compelling topic here, and the book would have been worth the read if she could have shaken her sarcastic tone and actually applied some sort of reasoned analysis to the topic. (To be fair, the latter portion of the book might have been more reasoned, but I doubt Ravitch will have been able to add enough sophisticated analysis that would have made me want to read the rest of the book...) 

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