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Q&A: Diane Ravitch

In her recent book, The Language Police, one of America's foremost experts on education shows how concerns about bias are destroying students' understandings of history and literature.

By Leslie Synn - August 1, 2003

When Diane Ravitch was chosen in 1998 to serve on a federal committee that designed a national educational test, she was shocked to learn that the testing industry's standard procedure was to run all test passages and questions through a bias-and-sensitivity review. Even more shocking was what she learned these reviews rejected: A passage about Mary McLeod Bethune, for example, who opened the Daytona Educational and Industrial training School for Negro Girls, was struck because the reviewers didn't like the word Negro. Similarly, a reference to the National Association of Colored Women was axed. A passage about owls was rejected because the owl is taboo to the Navajo, and a passage about a blind mountain climber was rejected as discriminatory to "children from the flatlands" and to "those without sight."

What Ravitch learned was that the protocol for all major test developers and textbook publishers involved an elaborate and insidious process of textbook and test censorship. In her recent book, The Language Police, she argues that for 30 years schoolbooks and tests have been routinely stripped of any words, images, and content that could be deemed offensive by literally anyone. A professor of education at NYU and a leading expert on the history of education, Ravitch spoke to recently about her book, educational censorship, and why America is obscuring historical facts in a misguided effort to make kids feel good about themselves.

Did you get any backlash from test or textbook publishers after writing this book?
The most significant response was a letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal from Patricia Schroeder, the former congresswoman who is the executive director of the Association of American Publishers. She said that I was confusing censorship with the marketplace, that the publishers do what they do in response to what the states, which buy the textbooks, want. I interpreted her letter to mean that she acknowledged the widespread deletion of words and topics according to what the states wanted—which is exactly what my book said. In effect she was saying, "Sure, we make all these changes, because that's what the marketplace demands." Now what my book said, I don't know if she read it, but it said that this is not a marketplace, this is a government procurement system. And when the publishers self-censor they're responding to the demands of states, to be sure, which is what makes it censorship. But they should be complaining loudly about it, they shouldn't just go along and acquiesce quietly, which is what they do.

In a Wall Street Journal review, Gary Rosen argued that although you place blame for this situation at both ends of the political spectrum, the "real villain" is "the multicultural left." Do you agree with that?
I think that I was very balanced; there's a chapter on the censorship by the right and there's a chapter on the censorship by the left. Gary Rosen is an editor of Commentary, and his preference is to pin the blame on the left. I pin it on both sides. What I concluded was that the right has a greater interest in topics and the left has a greater interest in words and images. And I think the evidence is pretty strong that if you look at the topics that are banned from tests and that publishers yank before they ever get to publication, this is pressure coming from the right. So I think there's enough blame to include not just both extremes but a lot of groups that are not really at either extreme. I mean you wouldn't say that the people who say, "I represent the elderly," are coming from the left or the right. The thing that is remarkable to me is that there really is very little popular support for this censorship. If you ask people who are older how they feel about that kind of censorship, they think it's ridiculous.

In your book you point out where the right-wing and left-wing groups converge: that both believe "children's minds would be shaped, perhaps forever, by the content and images in their textbooks." Why is that philosophy a danger to the education of children?
Because it removes everything that is imaginative, for one thing, and it also removes any sort of literature—or, even, in many cases, history—that somebody somewhere thinks might be a bad example. So much of literature and history and even the Bible contains behavior that is not exemplary. Once you accept this philosophy of removing all bad behavior, you're left with very little that's worth reading.

Your chapter on history textbooks reminded me of 1984. Winston Smith's job in the Records Department was "to rectify the original figures by making them agree with the later ones." You point out that figures and facts are rewritten, and they are being rewritten not even to suit our present political and social climate but rather for some ideal future. What are some of the consequences for the generations growing up with this hashed history?
There's a strange convergence between what the universities call postmodernism and this kind of editing, because it suggests that the text is really of no consequence, that it all depends on how the reader receives it. In some peculiar way, it's related to this notion of "it's about self-esteem, it's about role models, it's about feeling good." And I think there's been a fairly dangerous trend over the past 15 years, or maybe even longer, to suggest that history is a way of building self-esteem in different groups and finding some very essential identity, usually ethnic or racial or gender, that children have. And they were going to use the history books to make kids feel good about themselves. Well, that's a terrible invitation to purging and censorship, because it means that you will leave out the bad parts and only emphasize the good and uplifting stories. You also get all of these groups rewriting history and literature to suit their needs. It's dangerous in terms of telling lies about the past and using history in ways to obscure any effort to get at an accurate version of what happened in the past.

Do you see its effects in children today?
The bottom line is that kids don't have any sense of history. The one thing that has come out of all of the national studies that have been done by the National Assessment of Educational Progress is that the one field of study American students do absolutely the worst in is history. They don't know American history, and I'm willing to wager that when world history is assessed, which will be in a few years, we'll see that American kids aren't getting that either. There are many reasons for this. Part of it is just that the material is so superficial—and having sat down and read all the textbooks I can tell you that it's difficult to retain anything because everything is reduced to a simplistic skim through facts of very little consequence or interest. And kids just aren't getting it. And part of this is because the stuff that would engage kids and motivate them to learn more, isn't there.

Has there been an instance of a historical photograph being edited?
One historical photograph I was given that was rejected from a textbook was a woodcut from the Civil War which showed a battle scene. Men were fighting on horseback, and some men and some horses were on the ground dead. And the reason that woodcut was rejected was because of the dead horses. Animal-rights activists thought that was unacceptable.

At the start of your book you say that this trend grew from an initial desire to remove racist and sexist statements from tests and textbooks, an impulse you call "entirely reasonable and justified." What's a justified act of censorship versus an unjustifiable one?
I wouldn't call it censorship. I would say what was justified was to try to make the reading books better. I'm talking about those Dick and Jane-type readers for the early grades. And what they showed in these readers was that the boys in the readers always had the active role and the girls had a passive role. The boy would always be doing something, and the girl would always be watching. That's not an accurate representation of life. There was also an overwhelming predominance of boys being the lead character. So there was a reasonable demand for a change, saying that this wasn't fair, this doesn't reflect life. Also anything that would be racist or prejudicial against a specific group didn't belong in the book. I don't think that at that time there was a list of words and topics to be taken out of every story. But as the groups saw how easy it was to intimidate publishers, they just kept going further—to the point at which publishers then instituted an internal review that grew into bias-and-sensitivity review. And what I tried to show in my book is that bias-and-sensitivity reviewers persisted long after there was no more bias in the textbooks and in the tests. And they began to find more and more exquisite forms of insensitivity. A rule of thumb that I use, is that if you can read it in The New York Times, there's no reason to take it out of the textbooks. If kids can read this in their daily newspaper, why can't they read it in their books?

Leslie Synn is an editorial intern at Photo courtesy of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. You can buy The Language Police at

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