Jewish World Review June 23, 2003
Live a sanitized life?
By Yitzchak Relkin
And that's a good thing; because if she were, I would never be able to say so in print --- or anywhere else, for that matter.
A historian of education and professor of education at NYU, Ravitch's "The Language Police," began as an essay for "Daedalus" (the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences) in the summer of 2002. It was quickly optioned by Alfred A. Knopf and expanded into a full blown expose of the political forces at work that are attempting to control what words can be used, how people can be described, and to make sure that, it seems, NO ONE will ever be offended by ANYTHING.
The professor, a former assistant secretary for educational research and improvement and a counselor to the U.S. Department of Education, seems to have stumbled onto some powerful forces at work concerning censorship and revisionist history of current and past school children's textbooks.
Ravitch traces the effort to sanitize books to the civil rights and women's movements of the late 60s and early 70s.
Initially, the move was a sincere attempt to correct some of the obvious wrongs of previous eras --- open and derisive use of words like "nigger" and "colored" and thinking of women only in mothering or nurturing roles. What Ravitch documents, however, is that the new Language Police are not liberators. Hardly. They've actually developed into the staunchest enemies of free speech and ideas.
And although at first blush, one might believe that textbook revisionism is purely a leftist phenomenon, Ravitch, in non-partisan fashion, also documents the Right has also engaged in "protecting" young, malleable minds.
Their targets? Not only textbooks, but also stories and tests. They've demanded that references to paganism, moral relativism, secular humanism, disobedient children, divorce, evolution, even fossils(!), be expurgated for fear of their malevolent effects on impressionable youth.
As a child, I stumbled across a story in Scholastic Magazine that by today's "sanitized" standards would likely have never been published, as it would be deemed morally harmful and ideologically injurious to our youth. For many, ahem, "good reasons," no doubt.
"The Lottery," by Shirley Jackson has been called "the most controversial piece of fiction ever published in the New Yorker." While told in a straightforward style, there's a disturbing tone about it. But it is not until the horrifying end, that the reader realizes why. (I won't give away too much of the plot. For those who have yet to read it, I strongly suggest you do so.)
Now that I have read "The Language Police," I suppose I could rant about why this story must have permanently desensitized and dissuaded me from ever reading another book or why I'm, no doubt, sexist, ageist or insensitive to any number of other groups.
But contrary to the beliefs of the Language Police that Ms. Ravitch exposes, not only did "The Lottery" not distract or permanently damage me -- well, at least that I know of -- it actually jarred me to ponder the ways of the world and ignited a life-long attitude of never accepting things must be the way they are simply because that's the way they are. The tale, in fact, was the impetus that ignited my love of reading and infatuation with ideas.
P.T. Barnum reportedly said, "You can't please all the people all the time." One wonders why publishers -- and the academics who goad them -- keep trying.
Yitzchak Relkin is a Brooklyn based web designer who is sometimes known to help out jewishworldreview.com. He is currently doing mostly freelance work and in need of fulltime employment. Anyone knowing of any full time work in the New York City area, please contact JWR's Editor-in-Chief.
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