Policing the Language
Infested with Brand Names
Being Politically Correct means always having to say you're sorry.
- Charles Osgood
Textbooks now have advertisements...
by Alison Gendar and Douglas Feiden
McGraw-Hill's Mathematics: Applications and Connections, a middle school math book used in Brooklyn, touts Nike, McDonald's and Gatorade. It informs students that the Oreo is the "best-selling packaged cookie in the world" - and has them calculate the surface area of a box of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes.
They were removed from the text in 2000 after California passed a law banning product promotions in books. But the 1999 and 1995 editions still in schools contain dozens of brands and logos - and they were used to teach the son of state Senator Velmanette Montgomery (Democrat-Brooklyn) at Park Place Middle School in Crown Heights. Montgomery was so outraged, she introduced a bill in Albany that would bar school boards from buying books that contain commercial brands, product names or logos. "Textbooks should be vessels of truth," she said. "Teaching our children to look to commercial products for validation undermines our educational system."
In the meantime, math problems in some classes continue to be formulated like this: "Will is saving his allowance to buy a pair of Nike shoes that cost $68.25. If Will earns $3.25 per week, how many weeks will he need to save?"
Alison Gendar and Douglas Feiden are Daily News Staff Writers
Source: nydailynews.com 21 December 2002
Read No Evil: A Textbook Case of Censorship
by Jonathan Yardley
Review of the book The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn by Diane Ravitch Knopf 255 pages $24
It's difficult to exaggerate the importance of this book. Whether The Language Police will turn out to be one of those rare books that actually influence the way we live - Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed - remains to be seen, but surely one must pray that it does. Meticulously researched and forcefully argued, it makes appallingly plain that the textbooks American schoolchildren read and the tests that measure their academic progress have been corrupted by a bizarre de facto alliance of the far left and the far right.
Diane Ravitch got the first hint of this several years ago when she "stumbled upon an elaborate, well-established protocol of beneficent censorship, quietly endorsed and broadly implemented by textbook publishers, testing agencies, professional associations, states, and the federal government." Appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1998 to a board investigating the possibilities and pitfalls of voluntary national testing, Ravitch soon 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," and that this was not at all what she had expected it to be.
Ravitch had assumed that any such review would implement "the sensible principle of removing racist and sexist language" from the tests, but in fact that had long since been accomplished. Now, she learned to her horror, "bias" has metamorphosed into "anything in a test item that might cause any student to be distracted or upset." Some of the examples she came across can only be described as absurd: a story about peanuts was eliminated from one test, because "the reviewers apparently assumed that a 4th-grade student who was allergic to peanuts might get distracted if he or she encountered a test question that did not acknowledge the dangers of peanuts," and an "inspiring" story about a blind mountain climber was rejected because, "in the new meaning of bias, it is considered biased to acknowledge that lack of sight is a disability."
The discovery that the most important tests at the elementary and high school levels had degenerated into feel-good exercises in boosting self-esteem by "denying reality" led Ravitch from the tests to the texts, where she learned that activists on the left and the right are "agreed on one point: children's minds would be shaped, perhaps forever, by the content and images in their textbooks." Preposterous though this notion is, it has achieved the status of gospel among those who write bias and sensitivity guidelines.
Textbook publishers' thirst for the vast amounts of money to be earned when their publications are adopted by California, Texas and a few other disproportionately influential states obviously is far greater than their interest in educating schoolchildren, so they have merrily capitulated to the pressure groups. They give the right-wingers control of topics and content - nothing about abortion, evolution, divorce, crime - and the left-wingers control of language, that is, the weasel words of political correctness. Ravitch writes: "The pressure groups of left and right have important points of convergence. Both right-wingers and left-wingers demand that publishers shield children from words and ideas that contain what they deem the 'wrong' models for living. Both assume that by limiting what children read, they can change society to reflect their worldview."
So much for the old truism that no maiden was ever ravished by a book. The ideologues of right and left have, apparently, bottomless faith in the power of the written word to shape not just the minds of the young but to determine the course of their lives. They believe that to describe something is to endorse it, so they insist that what they do not endorse cannot be described. The spineless textbook publishers and testing companies capitulate with not a peep of protest, indeed with a smile, for the paycheque is very large. "What's left," Ravitch asks, "after the language police and the thought police from the left and right have done their work?" Her answer deserves to be quoted at length:
In a word: Fantasyland, a place so wildly disconnected from reality that it makes Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom seem by contrast a painting by Pieter Bruegel or Edvard Munch. The language police are blissfully oblivious to the inescapable truth that "schools compete for children's attention with far more powerful media." Children are assaulted by "powerful stimuli" on TV, the movies, the Internet, in advertising, in pop music, yet in school they are insulated "from any contact in their textbooks with anything that might disturb them, like violence, death, divorce or bad language." As Ravitch says: "No matter. When the school day is done, they will turn again to the videos and music and movies that feed them eroticised violence and surround them with language that knows no constraints. This is as wacky a combination as anyone might dream up: schools in which life has been homogenised, with all conflicts flattened out, within the context of an adolescent culture in which anything goes."
Bear in mind, though, that American kids are a lot smarter than American adults give them credit for being, especially American adults who live in their own fear-haunted, euphemism-enhanced universes. Surely the principal effect of this bowdlerization of texts and tests is merely to increase students' indifference to and contempt for them and the schools that require them. A child with a rare disease may have to be put in a bubble, but putting the entire American system of elementary and secondary education into one borders on insanity. Yet that is precisely what has happened. Guidelines imposed by textbook publishers sometimes "require writers and artists to tell lies about history" to placate one interest group or another, with the result that "the sanitising of world history texts has stripped them of their ability to present a critical, intellectually honest assessment of controversial subjects" and that history texts "constantly moralize about the past, as though everyone in 1850 or 1900 or 1950 should have known what we know today and should have shared our enlightened values."
As for serious literature, forget about it: "Most classic literature is unacceptable when judged by the new rules governing references to gender, ethnicity, age, and disability," with the result that it is either bowdlerized beyond recognition or not taught at all. "Untouched by enduring and inspiring literature," Ravitch writes, "the students are left to be moulded by the commercial popular culture... As a result, we are systematically failing to introduce the younger generation to the writers who might enlarge their imaginations, enrich their emotional lives, and challenge their settled ways of thinking."
Ravitch's qualifications for drawing these judgments are impeccable and unassailable. She has worked for national administrations of both political parties and holds the rare distinction of being a visiting scholar at both the conservative Hoover Institution and the liberal Brookings Institution. She has no political axes to grind and no ideological agenda to pursue. She is a lucid writer and an absolutely clear thinker. No doubt the year will see a few books of greater literary distinction than The Language Police, but it's unlikely to bring forth one of greater importance.
Jonathan Yardley may be reached at email@example.com
Source: washingtonpost.com Thursday 12 June 2003 page C01 © The Washington Post Company
Excerpt from an email from my son Cody on this subject:
New Jersey, by the way, has decided that students studying American History don't need to know, you know, history. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, the Mayflower, and the Pilgrims are no longer in the "standard" that define the curriculum, and the word "war" has been replaced by "conflict". (Story suffers from link rot, sorry.)
It's not just the US of course. European textbooks are quite explicit in their belief that history must be bent to the goal of political union (story below). Fun!
Oh, and while we're on the subject of textbooks, for no real reason, a quote:
Ah, aren't totalitarian states great? (Ba'athist-era Iraq, if you're wondering.) I suppose you might argue that to some extent the passage is merely fulfilling a purpose of most school systems (although not, oddly, the current US school system, which seem to be heading in a different direction, which is most curious to my mind). Nonetheless, it isn't very... subtle, is it?
Expanding on the direction in which the US is headed, a story dated 1 August 2002:
How could anyone disagree with such worthy goals? And yet when you think about what they MEAN, and not just the warm fuzzy platitudes they express, you begin to understand how this happens. I certainly don't blame O'Connell. He's pandering to interest groups I think are actively harmful, but he didn't create them. The question remains, where do they come from? The entire idea strikes me as... pointless. Disconnected from reality. Circular, even. What's the point?
But let's come back to Diane Ravitch. Another review, with more juicy details:
For someone with my temperament and sense of humor, it's always enjoyable to come across something that parodies itself. (Such as, *cough*, certain current Democratic candidates.) But few things in recent memory more fully exemplify this category than these guidelines.
by Erin O'Connor
The New York Times has a fascinating and outrageous article on how the New York State Regents Exam (taken by all graduating high school seniors) bowdlerizes literature in the name of sensitivity. Over the past three years, the English portion of the exam has both cited passages from authors such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Annie Dillard, and Anton Chekhov and thoroughly distorted - or "lacerated," to use Dillard's word - the wording and the meaning of those passages. Gone are any references to race, gender, sexuality, God, ethnicity, alcohol, or even fat that might potentially offend someone somewhere; gone, too, are the heart and soul of the prose itself, which no longer means what it was written to mean and no longer sounds as it was meant to sound. Needless to say, the living writers whose prose has been butchered and blandified to suit the Board of Education's "sensitivity review guidelines" were not notified about what was being done.
A spokesperson (note my sensitive gender-neutral terminology) for the Board of Ed said that the passages were altered because writers don't write with the needs of woundable test-taking students in mind. Stating his/her belief (note my continued gender-neutral sensitivity) that no student "should be uncomfortable in a testing situation," s/he (god damn I'm correct!) went on to observe that "Even the most wonderful writers don't write literature for children to take on a test." No, they don't. Does the Regents exam want to test how well students can read actual writing, or does it want to test how well they can read canned writing that has been expressly gerrymandered to suit the exam's ideological agenda? I guess they've already answered that question themselves. The funny thing, though, is that in altering the passages, the Board of Education has undermined its own ostensible goal. It seems clear enough from the Times article that the questions students were asked to answer about the passages depended on their having access to the original, untampered prose. I quote:
If I were a student, it would make me very uncomfortable to be asked to answer questions that could not be answered. My sense of fairness would definitely be bruised by such a flagrant disregard for reasonable expectations. But this does not seem to have occurred to those who bowdlerized the exam in order to prevent it from making anybody uncomfortable. The absurdity - not to mention the abuse - involved here reminds me of a passage from that great literary expose of institutional hypocrisy, Catch-22. Here is Joseph Heller on the soldier Yossarian's stint working as a censor during World War II:
One wonders what the Regents Exam would do with this passage. There is sexual harassment in it, after all, and white male authors, and ignorance of white male authors, and war, and the military, and religion, and hierarchy, and parts of speech (mentioning which could be threatening to students who don't know what they are), and grammatical jihad ("Death to all modifiers"), and universalism, and homo-insensitive language (Yossarian censors with "careless flicks of his wrist"). There's also deadly parody of just the sort of activity the Board of Education engages in when it writes its exam. Somehow I don't imagine Heller would care, though, if the passage made self-appointed censors uncomfortable. Somehow, I think he would say that that is its point.
Source: erinoconnor.org 1 June 2002
It is most unfortunate that the US doesn't seem to be the only country with this problem...
Vikings? Such Friendly Folk, Say Textbooks
by Amelia Hill
Schoolchildren are getting rewritten histories of Europe that are politically correct but cut out the awkward facts
Children are being taught a sanitised version of European history in which Napoleon is depicted as primarily a reformer and the Vikings are portrayed as peace-loving traders, according to new research. The move is part of a new drive towards political correctness in which national identity, as well as controversy and conflict, have been wiped from secondary school textbooks, the study claims.
"Children are not being given the full picture of their history," said Dr Yasemin Soysal, president of the European Sociological Association, who has spent three years researching the issue for the Economic and Social Research Council. "They are being presented with a more peaceful and bland image of European creation than actually took place." Soysal has examined how textbooks for children aged 11 to 14 have taught European history over three decades. She has found some startling changes since the 80s. The Vikings have gone from being depicted as pillaging aggressors to skilful, peace-loving traders.
"Vital pieces of history have been taken out of schoolbooks and the curriculum in the European-wide drive to pretend the union has a common identity and background," said Soysal. "But, unless our children understand the truth about how Europe was created, they will never appreciate the current world conflicts or understand European reactions to them."
"The birth of the French kingdom in Journeys into the Past becomes the consequence of an ordinary historical evolution rather than the result of a unique French identity, while the resistance against the Nazis is depicted as a historical moment for Europe," said Soysal. "Hence, the French nation becomes like others, nondescript and ordinary."
Soysal has met educationalists, and teachers' and parents' associations in Britain, and organised conferences to discover what is behind the rewriting of history. "There is a general consensus that we need to teach children that Europe evolved naturally through the organic coming-together of a group of sympathetic nations rather than through a series of tense and bloody clashes between a collection of wildly diverse countries," she said. "But Europe's history is about more than commonality; it is about conflict and that should be admitted and even celebrated." Soysal's report, Rethinking Nation State Identities in the New Europe, to be published in May, blames the efforts of international organisations such as Unesco, the Council of Europe and the European Commission for going too far in their attempts to wipe prejudice from history textbooks. "The curriculum certainly did need to be re-examined because its introduction in 1978 reflected the priorities of the Government of the day, and Europe was certainly not among them," she said.
But in the effort to reassess European history, the union looms larger than any nation state. "Europe's ideals are promoted above all others in the modern curriculum; nations and regions lose their individual charisma and get equalised vis-à-vis each other within Europe," she said. The changes, Soysal believes, involve positive and negative aspects: positive, because textbooks now treat other civilisations in a more comprehensive manner, but negative because they ignore the fact Europe was born out of conflict. "Children will need to be equipped with the skills to compete in Europe and the general importance of teaching Europe is widely accepted," she said. "But the pendulum has perhaps now swung too far and this needs to be addressed in the name of historical truth."
Source: books.guardian.co.uk The Observer Sunday 13 April 2003
One last thing... This page is called "Policing the Language" - something I feel has been taken way too far in many circumstances. There is, however, one instance where I don't feel language policing has gone nearly far enough. You know, like, some people tend to, like, repeat words, like, you know?
It's, Like, Official: Adults Now Talk Like Their Kids
by Andrew Gumbel
Los Angeles - A few years ago, Maggie Balistreri overheard a conversation on a train so ludicrously over-peppered with the word "like" that she started taking notes. Not "like" as in, "I like you", but rather the irritating filler that, since the advent of the Valley Girl in the 1980s, has become prevalent in American speech patterns. You know, like, whatever.
Since Ms Balistreri is a performance artist - as well as a gifted and witty poet - she tried to reproduce the conversation out loud once she got home, but found that some uses of "like" were easier to emulate than others. Soon she was categorising different types and came up with no fewer than nine of them. For example, the vague like ("This was back in, like, October"); the self-effacing like, where the speaker does not want to sound too virtuous ("I, like, care about the environment and stuff"); or the betrayer like, a signpost to utter insincerity ("Oh this is, like, so not an imposition!")
There is the undercutting like, used to introduce some modestly uncommon piece of knowledge without making the speaker sound too pompous ("That's, like, an umlaut. Or something.") The apology like, where the word acts as an admission of complete inarticulateness ("I was, like, wow!"). Or the staller like, the verbal equivalent of a thought bubble reading "Think, brain, think!" (Example: "You're from Belize? That's, like... south!")
These and other uses have just been collected in Ms Balistreri's book The Evasion English Dictionary, which serves as a deliciously revealing catalogue of the tics of contemporary chit-chat and also as a personal manifesto pleading for plain, literate talk stripped of "shibboleths of shamming ... that American dodge of a dialect I call Evasion-English". To her, the Valley Girl talk that has now become alarmingly prevalent among adults as well as teenagers is not just an indication of linguistic sloppiness, but actually something more underhand. "Whether daft or deft, we use these words to duck the truth," she wrote.
Again and again in the workplace - by day she is a freelance proofreader and copy editor - she has encountered insincere blather in the form of phrases like "I see where you're coming from", or "It's a good point", which are just a cover for something less flattering. "There is a tendency in our culture to avoid arguing or disagreeing," she says. "It doesn't come from politeness, it comes from vanity, or arrogance. We never want to be wrong. And, in the process, we avoid saying anything." In her book, Ms Balistreri identifies 11 different uses of "whatever", running the gamut of concealed emotion from jealousy to apathy by way of scepticism, impatience, self-pity and disapproval masquerading as indifference.
And she has enormous fun replacing various evasive words with ones more properly conveying the emotion at hand. When couples refer to "the relationship", for example, they would almost always be more honest to say "you". As in: "I just don't feel like I'm getting what I want from the relationship".
Her brilliant exegesis of the word "like" remains the centrepiece of the book. She has even performed it in public, in bars and poetry clubs in Manhattan where she lives - quite possibly making her the first person to turn a dictionary into a piece of comic theatre. She cites Cuvier's theory that from a single bone a scientist can construct an entire animal, and suggests that "like" is the English language's very own Cuvier's bone, "our culture's telling trifle... from which the less sterling aspects of our character can be constructed". You could call her a word shrink, someone capable of unmasking whole layers of hidden meaning in a seemingly trifling interjection. It's a description she relishes, because she loves to rail against the psychobabble of self-help books and contemporary therapy which, in her view, validate many of the linguistic evasions instead of exposing them.
It is all part of what she sees as the infantilisation of American society, in which linguistic habits - along with much else - are passed up from children to parents, rather than the other way around. "We have a cult of parents who want to be cool in the eyes of their kids, so they copy the speech of the kid," she said. "I think it is corrupt and pathetic. And with it comes inarticulate speech because a kid isn't fully formed ... To overvalue the way a kid speaks is a lie in itself."
The Evasion English Dictionary is published in the US by Melville House.
Source: The Independent (UK) 1 December 2003 © Independent Digital (UK) Ltd
My son Wolf and I spent two hours each Thursday in the art lab the first few weeks of this semester. This is where we first noticed the "like" language phenomenon. A nearby table of young girls conversed non-stop (seldom interrupting their conversation to actually draw anything). The conversation was so constantly sprinkled with the word "like" as to be virtually unintelligible. This sensitised us to listen in on conversations in the cafeteria and the hallways. The perpetrators are almost invariably 18 - 20 years old girls. The sad thing is that this verbal tic has become so ingrained that they no longer realise what they are doing - nor are they any longer able to control it. They must not know what a poor impression they are certain to make on potential employers (or potential in-laws). Reversing this addiction will be very difficult. In the meantime they sound like, well, morons.
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