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May 1, 2003 - 'The Language Police,' Part 1 - 2003-05-02

Broadcast on "Coast to Coast": May 1, 2003

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER we discuss a new book: "The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn."

RS: The author is Diane Ravitch, a historian of education and a professor at New York University. She was appointed assistant secretary of education for research in 1991 when George W. Bush's father was president. Then Bill Clinton appointed her to an agency that supervises national testing.

AA: Through her work, Diane Ravitch learned that publishers develop what are known as "bias and sensitivity guidelines.” Her position is that publishers use these guidelines to censor and sanitize tests and textbooks.

RAVITCH: "I had trouble obtaining many of those that I eventually obtained. And I ended up with something like, oh, 32 single-spaced pages of words that you're not supposed to use. So, for example, you're not supposed to use the word 'cult' or 'fanatic' or 'extremist' or 'dogma.' These are all considered ethnocentric words. You're not supposed to use the expression 'The Founding Fathers.' This is considered a sexist statement. Any word that has the word 'man' or the three letters M-A-N, whether it's 'manpower' or 'businessman,' these are banned words. Two of the publishers say that you mustn't say 'the elderly,' so you replace that with 'older persons.'"

AA: "I read from your book that 'slave' is no longer an acceptable word."

RAVITCH: "Right, the word 'slave' is supposed to be replaced by the expression 'enslaved person.' And I had a discussion the other day with an African American talk show host, and we agreed that this is what you would call a distinction without a difference, because neither of these is a voluntary condition. No one chooses to be a slave, just as no one chooses to be an enslaved person, and it's really a linguistic nonsense issue, as far as I'm concerned."

AA: "I've heard it said that conservatives get upset about ideas and liberals get upset about words."

RAVITCH: "That's exactly the divide that I found, that conservatives were eager to ban certain topics. For instance, the mention of divorce or the separation of family. They also objected to stories about disobedient children or they objected to stories about crime that goes unpunished, whereas liberals were concerned about any words that reflected on women as being in let's say a wifely role or appearing as a nurse or a secretary or a teacher or in a role that they just didn't want women portrayed in. The irony is all of this to me is that language does change, language does evolve, and many of the terms that are in this glossary of banned words have disappeared just through the natural evolution of language.

"Our language, the English language and particularly American English, is very dynamic in the sense that words enter our language that are new, they come about through technological change and social change, and then other words, older words simply disappear."

RS: "If a student of English as a foreign language were to read a history or a literature textbook written for an American audience, what kind of impression would he or she come out with?"

RAVITCH: "If they were reading a textbook that was prepared for high school, it would be extremely, I don't know, mixed up in terms of genre. There would be items about science, about global warming, about social studies, and at a certain point you would not get any sense of what is the American literary tradition. You would not know who are considered the greatest American writers because there would be no distinction made between, let's say, an essay written by a 16-year-old somewhere, a piece of a television script from a recent TV program, some sort of encyclopedia-type article, and then maybe some classics mixed in."

RS: "Is this because we can't sell textbooks or we can't make tests that can be approved by a committee?"

RAVITCH: "This whole situation has come about because we have this practice across the country of statewide textbook adoptions. So if a publisher wants to sell textbooks in today's marketplace, they must attempt to sell in California and Texas, which are the two biggest states, they have the largest number of students, and so the worst thing for a textbook publisher is controversy. And so they remove whatever might be offensive to people who might have strong views, either on the right or on the left. The result of this situation is that there has been enormous concentration in the textbook industry. We now have four huge corporations that dominate about eighty percent of the textbook market."

AA: Historian Diane Ravitch. Her latest book is "The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn." And that's Wordmaster for this week.

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