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World Without Spice

May 04, 2003

Here are some words our schoolchildren will never read, as the folks in charge of providing textbooks and standardized tests now have it: handyman, landlord, devil, senility, soda, God. No one carries a tote; instead it's a brown paper bag, even when it's not.

This is just a start on the silly lists of "don'ts" drawn up by assorted educational publishers and state school boards to sanitize depictions of the world beyond all recognition. In her new book, "The Language Police," respected educational historian Diane Ravitch chronicles how a once-necessary effort to trim derogatory racist and sexist bias from school materials ricocheted way past common sense. Harassed by both the right and left, publishers now self-censor their work by hiring their own bias review committees. They weed out anything that hints at religion, regionalism, troubled families or trouble within developing countries.

In one case, they strike from consideration a story about a blind man climbing an icy slope. It's not OK to imply that mountain climbing might be tougher for a blind person. And mountains -- regionalism of the worst sort. Unfair to prairie dwellers. But the mountain dwellers presumably would suffer in turn from tales about dolphins that guide ships through rocky waters. Only coastal dwellers could cope with that. New York state education officials pulled references to Jewish culture from a memoir by Isaac Bashevis Singer, even though the Nobel Prize-winning author's Jewish heritage was central to his life and literature.

This watering-down goes beyond preposterous examples. Ravitch documents extensively how the language police are locking in an inferior generation of bland, jargon-filled textbooks that distort the truth. In various textbook accounts of the world, Chinese women have wielded power throughout the history of their nation, the African slave trade in the Middle East was benign and every major culture of the 1300s and 1400s abounded in artistic achievement except Europe's. Stripped of drama, robbed of regional flavor that inspires the imagination, these texts bore students and confirm for them that school has little to do with real life.

God forbid (oops, a religionism) that a textbook should depict elderly people as poor, using a cane or feeling ill or lonely (ageism). Senior citizens (another forbidden term) jog in the new textbooks. Young people will never learn to care about the physical decline, meager incomes and social isolation of many elderly people with this fiction that passes for education.

The first step, Ravitch proposes, is to expose these lists to public light, where people of common sense can guffaw at them. Special-interest groups and a few dominant publishers must not hijack education.

So what's wrong with the noun "tote"? Regionalism, Southern Atlantic in this case. Same problem with soda and pop, to be replaced with brand names, such as Coke or Pepsi. Except that California bans those. Commercialism.

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