WASHINGTON – Major publishers tell writers to be careful about using the words “America” or “American” because they suggest “geographical chauvinism,” or the word “brotherhood” because it is sexist.
These are just some of the common words that Diane Ravitch,historian of education at New York University,found to be banned from history textbooks across the United States.
Ravitch and three other witnesses described what they said were woefully inadequate history textbooks to a Senate committee Wednesday.
Gilbert Sewall,director of the American Textbook Council said,“Textbook content is thinner and thinner,and what there is,is increasingly deformed by identity politics and pressure groups.”
Ravitch recently published a detailed study on the way that censorship has changed the context of textbooks in history and literature,“The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn.”
Ravitch,Sewall and the other witnesses asked the Senate Committee on Health,Education,Labor and Pensions to support a true free publishing market,to prohibit states from mandating certain textbooks for local school districts and to involve more people in setting standards.
Sen. Lamar Alexander,R-Tenn.,who chaired the hearing and was the only senator present for most of the hearing,said the committee was just beginning to examine the issue and would continue to investigate.
“Imagine how ridiculous it would be if the United States Senate had to conduct its business without using the words religion or race or America,” Alexander said.
“Since Sept. 11,more than at any time in a generation,our country has gone back to school on what it means to be an American,” he added.
Ravitch said that pressure groups demanding censorship of textbooks and standardized test questions do not come from one end of the political spectrum.
“They are right wing,left wing and every other kind of wing,” she said. “Anyone with a strong objection is likely to get a passage deleted or a story dropped if they object loud enough and long enough.”
Ravitch said that a true story about a blind young man who climbed Mount McKinley in an ice storm was eliminated from a textbook.
“The bias committee said that students who had never lived in the mountains couldn't understand a story that was set in the mountains; that was considered regional bias,” she explained. “They also rejected the story because they said it was demeaning to blind people to treat this young man as a an inspiring hero; blindness,they suggested,should not be treated as a handicap to overcome.”
On the other hand,the experts said that sometimes the bias and sensitivity reviews protect education boards from being sued on charges of racism or other offensive behavior that could prevent students from performing well on tests.
Publishers cannot afford to market a product that some groups could label as sexist,racist dangerous or extremist.
“Publishers claim that they are only responding to state pressures and state standards,” Sewall said.
The big publishing companies controlling the market cater to Texas and California,two states that enroll about 20 percent of the nation's students.
“They call the tune,and the publishers dance,” Ravitch said.
Sewall argued that publishers favor pictures and white space over text and information to make textbooks an attractive product on the market.
“Too many children cannot or do not want to read history,which contains concrete facts and complicated concepts,reading that requires some facility with language,” he said. “So textbooks become picture and activity books instead.”
Sewall said that determining what history children will learn is a crucial subtext in civic education.
“At worst,biased instructional materials are undermining students' appreciation for America and citizenship,” he said.
Alexander quoted former American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker as saying that public school “was invented to teach the three R's and what it means to be an American with the hope they would then go home and teach their parents. How can we teach our children the values we share as Americans if words describing them are banned by ‘language police’ at textbook companies?”