Utterly Meaningless » Blog Archive » BOOK REVIEW: THE LANGUAGE POLICE

    Filed at 4:46 pm under by dcobranchi

    It seems that everyone and his brother have already given this book a glowing review (here’s the WaPo’s version), so I may be a little late to the party. I hope, though, to come at it from a slightly different angle.

    Overall, Diane Ravitch does a wonderful job picking apart the censorship and political correctness that dominate textbooks and schools. A summarizing paragraph warns of Newspeak:

    The goal of the language police is not just to stop us from using objectionable words but to stop us from having objectionable thoughts. The language police believe that reality follows language usage. If they can stop people from ever seeing offensive words and ideas, they can prevent them from having the thought or committing the act that the words signify. If they never read a story about suicide or divorce, then they will never even think about killing themselves or ending their marriage. If they abolish words that have man as a prefix or suffix, then women will achieve equality. If children read and hear only language that has been cleansed of any mean or hurtful words, they will never have a mean or hurtful thought. With enough censorship, the language police might create a perfect world.

    Orwell would understand completely. I do have a couple of bones to pick, though. The first is technical in nature; the other, fundamental.

    Ms. Ravitch spends many pages railing against standardized tests and the “differential item functioning” (DIF) used to eliminate test bias. “Bias” used this way just means that different groups score differently on an item even though they score identically on the rest of the test. For some reason, that item is “biased.” Ms. Ravitch proposes that items removed because of DIF analysis should be released to the public with an explanation of the “specific reasons.” Perhaps Kim will weigh in via comment, but I’m pretty sure the test developers don’t know the reasons nor are they likely to care. It’s just a statistical anomaly that they seek to eliminate.

    My other complaint, though, is about Ms. Ravitch’s solutions. She proposes that competition in the textbook market, public ridicule, and better-educated teachers will defeat the lanuage police. All these may make a dent but they don’t go far enough. As long as the government has a near monopoly on education, schools will be subject to political pressures and political correctness. Without educational choice, the rest are just half-measures.

    On the whole, The Language Police is an eye-opening read.


    Comment by
    Stephanie Herman
    August 16th, 2003
    at 11:19 pm

    Daryl, this book strongly influenced many of my decisions on how to proceed with Cost Benefit Jr. ™, and is why I never even considered approaching a publisher. I agree with your take that educational choice will be pivotal in breaking the stranglehold. Ravitch is right about injecting competition, but not just between publishers.

    Comment by
    August 17th, 2003
    at 1:04 pm

    C.S. Lewis, in his “Abolition of Man”, described how an English textbook he was asked to review contained all kinds of propaganda. He thought the writers meant well and earnestly thought that their viewpoint was the correct one to have, and that it did not occur to them that it was unnecessary and intrusive for them to include their popular but by no means universal worldview in a textbook that was supposed to teach grammar and composition. So this is an old problem.

    My daughter’s 8th grade math book was one of those huge, shiny backbreakers they give out nowadays. It was full of timelines about the first woman who did this and the first African-American that, many of which had nothing to do with the math on the page. And even if it did, who cares? I haven’t seen anything quite like that in her other textbooks.