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May 8, 2003 - 'The Language Police,' Part 2 - 2003-05-07

Broadcast on "Coast to Coast": May 8, 2003

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble and this week on Wordmaster -- a response to the issues we raised last week when we talked about a new book called "The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn."

RS: The author, Diane Ravitch, says educational publishers -- pressured by all kinds of groups and by consolidation within their own industry -- have gone too far with what are called "bias and sensitivity guidelines."

AA: This week, we hear from the other side, the major publishers of textbooks for kindergarten through twelfth grade. Steve Driesler is executive director of the school division of the Association of American Publishers.

DRIESLER: "I think the most important thing that your listeners need to understand is that the textbooks that are published today are published to the designs and specifications of what our customers want and demand. Textbook publishers, particularly in the 20 adoption states -- those are the states that have some centralized system of reviewing and approving or disapproving textbooks for purchase within that state, and we're talking about states like California and Texas and Florida. And they specify, and sometimes with great detail, what they want and what they don't want in their textbooks.

"And the publisher then has one of two options: either they publish a book that the customer wants and will purchase, and will get approved in those states and in those markets, or they don't. And since you're talking about states -- nearly half the states in the country but probably in terms of the purchasing power probably over half the books that are purchased, the market reality is that you've got to listen to your customers and produce books that they tell you that they want."

AA: "Now what about the power and influence of what Diane Ravitch calls 'pressure groups' -- both on the right and the left politically -- which she contends are pressuring the customers, the schools, and I guess then the publishers, to -- in her words -- 'censor' and 'sanitize' their language of anything that seems even remotely controversial"?

DRIESLER: "Well, I think she's right in terms that there are pressure groups out there. Remember, we live in a democratic society, a very pluralistic diverse democratic society, and so, yes, groups from the left, groups from the right, interest groups representing race, religion, ethnicity, gender, all often times want to have a say in the textbooks that their children use and that are purchased with their tax dollars."

RS: "The result, she contends in her book, is sometimes that the book becomes unreadable in some senses, that there are words or euphemisms that are used for words that are not natural. Do you have some of those words there?"

AA: "I'm looking through the back of her book. Here's a glossary of banned words -- 'backward country,' banned as ethnocentric when referring to cultural differences. 'Backwoodsman,' banned as sexist, replace with 'pioneer.' 'Ball and chain,' banned as sexist, replace with 'spouse,' 'wife,' 'partner.' Now I could see, if I were writing a textbook, I wouldn't want to refer to a spouse, a wife, as a 'ball and chain.' Clearly that would be sexist. (laughter)"

DRIESLER: "That would probably be a little bit offensive to some people."

RS: "But how do you react to -- I mean, is it true that there are these word lists?"

DRIESLER: "Well, again, each publisher decides how they're going to deal with this. But yes there are -- you know, the publishers are in a situation, quite bluntly, where they're sort of dammed if they do and damned if they don't. If they used words like 'backwoodsman' or 'ball and chain' or whatever those other words were that you just read off to me -- "

AA: "Even the word 'hut' here, you're supposed to use 'small houses' instead, because huts could be construed as ethnocentric, according to this one publisher's guidelines."

DRIESLER: "Then some parent or parent groups go to a board of education meeting and they complain that their child felt discriminated against because the country of their ethnic origin was described as 'backwoods' or 'backwards,' and people living in 'huts,' and that it didn't really reflect the true richness of the culture of that country. So if they make those changes to solve the sensitivity or to be sensitive to the complaints of that group, then Miss Ravitch comes along and complains that it's censorship."

AA: Steve Driesler, executive director of the school division of the Association of American Publishers. And that's Wordmaster for this week.

RS: Our e-mail address is, and you'll find all of our programs on the Web at With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.