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Throw out the language police

Last summer, an enterprising Brooklyn mother of a New York City high school student did a little literary detective work and discovered that the state English exams contained numerous passages from famous authors that had been stripped of virtually any reference to race, religion, ethnicity, sex, nudity, alcohol, even the mildest profanity, and just about anything that would offend anyone anywhere on the planet.

So an excerpt from the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer was altered to eliminate any references to Judaism – the essence of his writing. The language in a book by Hispanic writer Ernesto Galarza was cleansed of its natural tongue, so that a “gringo lady” became an “American lady” and a boy described as “skinny” became “thin.”

Frank Conroy’s memoirs couldn’t say “hell.” Anne Lamott couldn’t refer to someone who was gay.

This would be laughable if it wasn’t such a stupidly blatant attempt to strip literature of its essentiality and test children on a bland, dumbed-down version of reality.

But it gets worse. This clumsy effort to be “sensitive” is not confined to the quivering bureaucrats at the New York State Education Department. It is behind a surge in censorship of texts and tests in schools across the country, pushed by vociferous interest groups somehow afraid that their darling children will be ruined if they see a stereotypical image or read the wrong word.

Government isn’t mandating this censorship. It doesn’t have to. Testing services and textbook publishers have capitulated to the relentless demands of left-wing political correctness and right-wing religious fundamentalism.

Diane Ravitch, the education historian with impeccable credentials, has cataloged this trend in her new book, “The Language Police.” It should make you scream.

Ravitch argues that the “bias guidelines” developed to be inclusive of an ever-diverse American school population have instead emboldened a shadowy language police that finds every controversial subject and even ordinary phrases objectionable.

So women are not allowed to be portrayed as mothers; men as lawyers; old people as feeble; the blind as disabled. Certain words are expunged – oddly enough, both “devil” and “God” are deemed too controversial. References to “owls” are taboo to the Navajo, Mount Rushmore is offensive to the Lakotas and dinosaurs bother creationists.

No wonder a national commission last week decried the poor writing skills of American students. They can’t write because they’re not being given the chance to think for themselves about complicated matters.

While not ubiquitous, these guidelines are widely followed because textbook publishing is now a concentrated industry that depends on populous states like California and Texas for large contracts. It’s better business to stifle ideas and limit knowledge than to risk losing sales.

Most disturbing is Ravitch’s description of how history is homogenized and distorted to assuage modern sensibilities. The telling of history has never been free from bias, but it seems now that it is being twisted to new extremes.

For example, many history texts exaggerate the role of women in ancient societies to such a degree, Ravitch writes, that students “may well wonder if the United States was the only culture in which women had to fight for equal rights.” The textbooks are also selectively critical: Slavery by the West is condemned, while slavery in Africa and the Middle East is not.

One of the most infuriating examples is of a passage written for a fourth-grade test about Mary McLeod Bethune, who opened a school for black girls in Florida in the early 20th century. The bias reviewers objected to the fact that the name of the school included the word Negro.

My gosh, so does the United Negro College Fund. Is that something we’re not allowed to talk about in front of the kids?

Ravitch believes this invidious assault on education can be stopped, and she suggests how. Stop the statewide adoption of textbooks to squash the power of pressure groups. Expose all state and federal bias guidelines to public scrutiny. Empower better-educated teachers to choose what is taught in their classrooms.

And, she concludes, fire the language police: “Let them return to the precincts where speech is rationed, thought is imprisoned, and humor is punished.” Sounds like other nations. Not our own.

Jane R. Eisner is a columnist for Philadelphia Inquirer.