Friday, April 4, 2003

Language police: Gone amok

By Linda Cagnetti
Cincinnati Enquirer

    'Weekend memos' give our editorial writers a chance to express their own opinions, comment on topics they have been writing about, or take a lighter approach. The opinions in 'Memos' do not always follow the Enquirer's editorial positions.
You won't see words such as snowmen, bookworms, fairies, slaves, huts, busybodies, craftsmanship, soul food or yachts in today's textbooks. Neither will you find phrases such as one-man band, turning a deaf ear or old wives' tale.

These, and hundreds more words and images, are effectively banned as offensive, sexist, elitist, ethnocentric or otherwise politically incorrect. They're on lists now used by schoolbook writers and editors of history, literature and other classroom material. The goal is to eliminate anything that might offend various groups of people, writes Diane Ravitch in a book, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, published this month by Knopf.

"With the best of intentions," says Ravitch, an education historian at New York University, textbook publishers have established a code of censorship that's widely accepted among publishers, authors, policymakers and educators, yet mostly out of public view. It has led to a more inclusive curriculum, Ravitch told Education Week, "but the literal interpretations of seemingly innocuous terms have placed absurd restrictions on authors and in some cases, even forced rewrites of classic texts."

Ravitch compiled a long glossary from bias guidelines issued by educational publishers and state agencies. Here are a few examples, published recently in The Atlantic Monthly.

Stereotyped images to avoid, according to the language police:

People of color portrayed as angry or politically liberal. Hispanics who are expressive and emotional. Asian Americans as ambitious and hardworking.

Men playing sports or working with tools. Women of achievement who are domineering or aggressive. Boys as intelligent and logical. Girls as peaceful or emotional.

Middle East is banned because it "reflects a Eurocentric world view."

Never use the words God or Satan.

In one case, Ravitch writes that a California review board ordered the removal of an illustration of a birthday party because it included a birthday cake, a food item not deemed nutritious under state guidelines.

Obviously, absurdity is not banned.

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