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Only men bake cookies in school textbooks
May 2, 2003 5:57 AM   Subscribe

Only men bake cookies in school textbooks. What do dinosaurs, mountains, deserts, brave boys, shy girls, men fixing roofs, women baking cookies, elderly people in wheelchairs, athletic African Americans, God, heathens, witches, owls, birthday cake and religious fanatics all have in common? Trick question? Not really. As we learn from Diane Ravitch's eye-opening book "The Language Police," all of the above share the common fate of having been banned from the textbooks or test questions (or both) being used in today's schools.
posted by dagny (41 comments total)

 
yeah, and not before time. it makes my blood boil to read about mountains.
posted by nylon at 6:00 AM on May 2, 2003


I heard an interview with Ms. Ravitch on the radio a few days ago in which she claimed to have a very difficult time researching her book. According to her, the "bias and sensitivity panels" said their "standards" and the rationale behind them were private, and the publishers of the textbooks feared reprisals from the panels who reviewed the books.
posted by trharlan at 6:11 AM on May 2, 2003


It's great that the left and right can gather together under the banner of rewriting/sanitizing history. What a lovely bipartisan effort!
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 6:18 AM on May 2, 2003


From now on, I'm going to write my own history books. This time, I get a flamethrower.
posted by angry modem at 6:28 AM on May 2, 2003




it makes my blood boil to read about mountains

Are mountains something you have to live near mountains to know about?
posted by biffa at 6:33 AM on May 2, 2003


I can't say that I find this a horrible miscarriage of justice. Removing regional bias from test questions might actually make the tests fairer, and it's not as if you can't still come up with plenty of questions to test what you need to test. Presumably they're not pulling mountain-based questions out of geography tests.

I don't think you to worry too much about not seeing any women baking cookies or seeing any African American athletes, however: popular culture is more than picking up the slack there, and it's pretty laughable to think that anything these kids see (or don't see) in a school text is going to have more of an effect on them than what they see on TV.
posted by anapestic at 6:37 AM on May 2, 2003



Meanwhile, thanks to the fundamentalists, "controversial" subject like divorce, magic, ghosts and disobedient children have been banned from textbooks, while, thanks to their left-wing counterparts, children need not encounter nasty words like "handicapped," "hearing-impaired," "handyman," "fraternize," "brotherhood," "actress," "heathen" or "backward country" in their increasingly banal, denatured reading.


Why does this remind me of Fahrenheit 451 ?
posted by swordfishtrombones at 6:39 AM on May 2, 2003


Bullettin:

Nobody has a right to go through life unoffended. Trying to make it so, may be the most offensive thing of all.

I also can't decide whether these "bias and sensitivity panels" are neurotically over-sensitive, paranoid of lawsuits, or merely control freaks. Or all three.

This is doubly sad, because there is room for a certain amount of conciousness and sensitivity in what we educate our kids with. This is merely ridiculous. It presents a controversy-free neverland full unoffensively bland people. Kids will be in for a shock when the real world bears zero resemblance. Facist doublespeak in the name of sensitivity is still fascist doublespeak.

I would not want to live in a world run by these people.
posted by jonmc at 6:40 AM on May 2, 2003


To my mind, the real problem with this kind of censorship is that it ends up creating mind-numbingly boring material. If a child is not exposed to real books in the home, he won't see any reason to become a reader. We need to excite and challenge children, not keep them safe from all ideas and emotions.
posted by SealWyf at 7:03 AM on May 2, 2003


"World War II was fought mainly with large foam and plastic swords. The mushroom cloud at Nagasaki was made entirely of Cool Whip!"
posted by angry modem at 7:05 AM on May 2, 2003


I also can't decide whether these "bias and sensitivity panels" are neurotically over-sensitive, paranoid of lawsuits, or merely control freaks. Or all three.

What a mean-spirited thing to say! These are our annointed protectors of the (taxpayer-funded) Lowest Common Denominator.

[obscure Vonnegut reference] Where's Diana Moon Glompers when you need her? [/obscure Vonnegut reference]


I would not want to live in a world run by these people.

You will, jonmc, you will...
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:15 AM on May 2, 2003


no wonder kids think adults are crazy.
posted by whatnot at 7:22 AM on May 2, 2003


I work in this field and this is all very familiar territory, though I haven't run across some of the more extreme examples.

It's important to stress the bipartisan (and often non-partisan) nature of this phenomenon.
posted by furiousthought at 7:22 AM on May 2, 2003


It's important to stress the bipartisan (and often non-partisan) nature of this phenomenon.

Exactly, I think the motivations are psychological, not political. I think it may be a variation on the same drives that send people to religious fundamentalism. It basically a 700 Club for the political minded.
posted by jonmc at 7:37 AM on May 2, 2003


Okay, not to try to break up the Outrage Backrubs being given out here, but ...

It's not as if these panels are taking texts that dropped from heaven or just existed on their own before humans intervened with them. In other words, they're not taking some neutral set of words -- there is no such thing.

Do those of you who are outraged think that the test questions these panels were reviewing were inflection-free? Can anyone speak without an accent?

So why are the inflections, worldviews and unconsciously sytematic biases of a (usually small) set of test-writers perfectly inoffensive, and the same from a review panel reminds us of the apocalypse? Is it because one precedes the other?
posted by argybarg at 7:42 AM on May 2, 2003


ZenMasterThis: [obscure Vonnegut reference]

And you may rest assured that no child educated under a system like this will ever run this risk of understanding this call out... That damned Vonnegut, so disturbing and disrespectful...

All I can say is, thank God for private schools. At least there's some choice left...
posted by JollyWanker at 7:43 AM on May 2, 2003


Don't forget homeschools.
posted by konolia at 7:52 AM on May 2, 2003


Why does this remind me of Fahrenheit 451 ?

Not sure - maybe you're just the melodramatic type?

Well, true to my general political leanings, the words the left cut seem reasonable to me - why say brotherhood when you can say humankind? Why use actress when we've discounted authoress? It doesn't make reading dull to make the language more inclusive. And not including certain words in a textbook doesn't amount to some orwellian state - there are already certain words we would not expect to find in a textbook (racial slurs, curse words, etc). Adding a few to make things more gender inclusive only seems reasonable. It's weird that the panels would feel they have to hide.

As to not letting witches, owls, ghosts, and bad children into textbooks, that's odd & I don't see the point, but the kids'll just have to read harry potter on the side. Which is probably how it should be anyway. Who ever enjoyed reading a textbook anyway? Maybe schools should just dispense with textbooks altogether- read the original texts, with historical contextualization... it's not like people retain the stuff they get from textbooks as adults...
posted by mdn at 7:54 AM on May 2, 2003


As a former Florida native, in whose home county the highest "mountain" was 34 feet above sea level, I don't recall ever once being offended by other regions' geographical diversity. I'll admit to a bit of pining for the fjords though.
posted by Foosnark at 7:57 AM on May 2, 2003


All I can say is, thank God for private schools. At least there's some choice left...

Unless this voucher thing catches on. Remember, he who pays the piper...
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:02 AM on May 2, 2003


angrymodem : Thank you. That's the first time I've laughed today. ;)

I'm off home to eat Robinson's jams (minus Goliwog) and read the Noddy stories where you have coloured charachers and a teacher with a cane...
posted by twine42 at 8:11 AM on May 2, 2003


If almighty God smites x heathens at a rate of....
posted by mblandi at 8:15 AM on May 2, 2003


And you may rest assured that no child educated under a system like this will ever run this risk of understanding this call out...

Buh-loney. Harrison Bergeron--like Shirley Jackson's The Lottery--is by far most freqently republished in high school English textbooks, which is where most people encounter it it: in high school. It's ironic, considering the milieu in which it is presented, but that's the simple fact of the matter
posted by y2karl at 8:15 AM on May 2, 2003


It ought to be required re-reading for some folks in MetaTalk, however.
posted by y2karl at 8:17 AM on May 2, 2003


Well, you know Harrison Bergeron is going to be posted ubiquitously on the web--this is the easiest on the eyes version I've found so far.
posted by y2karl at 8:27 AM on May 2, 2003


I don't want to alarm anyone, but textbooks have always been bland and so full of oversimplifications as to render them useless. Education is always what you make of it, and it begins at home.

I didn't read about frontier quilt-making in any textbook, yet I find myself able to function well. The author of the book is being an alarmist.
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:48 AM on May 2, 2003


The fact you're all butting your heads against is that education is either biased (according to somebody) or bland (according to everybody.) Those are the only two choices.
posted by jfuller at 9:00 AM on May 2, 2003


The fact you're all butting your heads against is that education is either biased (according to somebody) or bland (according to everybody.)

The same is true for what they call office culture, where that soul deadening English teacher you had in 7th grade is often replaced by the Human Resources Director. People who think PC is a leftist conspiracy should work for a law firm or a branch office of a large--hi tech provisionally excluded--corporation sometime. There's where your Handicapper Generals are usually to be found.
posted by y2karl at 9:21 AM on May 2, 2003


A relative of mine who edits childrens school books said that she never knows what is going to be dubbed offensive for the US market. The publisher as given up trying to pre-empt the changes required for the US market because they are so random.
e.g. Picture of Nelson Mandela in traditional robes (showing shoulder) = BAD, replace with riot scene.
Pictures of children together in various settings around the home not completely clothed (for a book about families and friendship) = BAD, remove images from book.
Makes me wonder.
'Teachers were openly affectionate to the little kids, giving them hugs and kisses. Such behaviour would be subject to censure or a law suit in many of the more materialistic developed countries, whereas here the children seemed to thrive. After school, they were always outside playing stick-ball or other games. I encountered no street gangs or teenagers with badass attitudes and malevolent intentions.'
From 'Waking up in Cuba', Stephen Foehr
What is are our priorities in education?
posted by asok at 9:34 AM on May 2, 2003


Try the NYT review to get a more general perspective on the kinds of issues this book covers. It isn't limited to removing bias from standardized tests and it doesn't stop at making words gender-neutral. It deeply affects the contents of school texts, and Harry Potter's a fine remedy for it but for the fact that the kids reading Rowling in their free time aren't the ones who are really going to be needing help from their textbooks.

The phenomenon isn't rooted in extremism so much as it is in overprotective parenting and the simplistic notion of education by role model. So it's a deep cultural issue and just beating up the textbook companies and these bias panels isn't necessarily going to fix it.

There is, however, a certain point to the anti-stereotyping initiatives, as such efforts counteract a media that completely shafts minorities when it doesn't ignore them altogether. Still, it can be taken to silly extremes.

Asok: Randomness? Oh yeah, definitely.
posted by furiousthought at 9:37 AM on May 2, 2003


There is a chapter in Richard Feynman's bio about his stint on a textbook review board. Simply put, if it won't pass muster in Texas, it won't be produced.
posted by dr_dank at 9:49 AM on May 2, 2003


I think the other 49 states should start a Texas secession campaign.
posted by callmejay at 10:14 AM on May 2, 2003


What is are our priorities in education?
and is our children learning?
posted by mitchel at 10:19 AM on May 2, 2003


...where that soul deadening English teacher you had in 7th grade is often replaced by the Human Resources Director. ... There's where your Handicapper Generals are usually to be found.

HR: Where résumes go to die.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 10:20 AM on May 2, 2003


It's impossible to remove all allusion from reading and test materials, but that doesn't mean there should be no standards at all. Here in Boston recently there was a problem with "weather bias" on the controversial state assessment test: an essay question for 4th graders asked them to describe what they would do on a snow day home from school. Oops -- Massachusetts nine-year-olds have had few or none of these in the last four years, because of the freakishly mild winters (this year made up for it in spades, but still). Many kids struggled with the question and it was retroactively taken out of commission...sheesh. That's lame, but I remember an SAT or Achievement question back in high school about "yachting," with no picture or context clues...it seemed like a mean trick, though I knew the word...grrrrrr.
posted by serafinapekkala at 10:27 AM on May 2, 2003


I was writing a math textbook and doing a chapter on probability when my editor told me I had to remove all mention of the word "dice" and instead use the completely-confusing term "number cube" So, instead of saying "Jenny has three dice" you have to say "Jenny has three number cubes with the numbers one through six on each side." Every single kid that speaks English [and many who don't] know you are talking about dice. It makes the textbook writers look like idiots more than it helps keep kids from thinking of gambling.

But, with so much riding on the results of one standardized test, it's not at all surprising that people get really ornery when the questions are confusing or, worse yet, ambiguous. The sad thing to me was how many questions in the other chapters of the book I was working on were about malls, shopping and bank accounts. I tried to make my questions about farms and insect collecting. When I was on the other end of the spectrum, grading essays for the California Achievement tests, it was sad to see how bereft of depth many of the questions had to be in order to try to get uniform [and scorable] responses.
posted by jessamyn at 10:48 AM on May 2, 2003


You can't talk about dice in a math text? Sheesh, they can't really have overlooked the fact that hundreds of board games use "six sided number cubes" can they? Is Ned Flanders somehow involved with this company?

As far as experience based bias on test results goes, I have a recent story. On a test given in Las Vegas, there was a story about a family going to the Grand Canyon, and a set of comprehension questions. The tough question was: "How did they get there? a) airplane b) car c) helicopter d) mule." Well, from Vegas you can use any of those methods, but if you understood the story, you knew that they drove a car. I don't know that a kid in Chicago would even think of taking a copter.

This is of course an entirely different beast than "Oh, we can't let the kids know that sometimes old people need wheelchairs." It does explain why the oldest handicapped person I've seen in a kid's show recently was Chris Reeve.
posted by ilsa at 11:27 AM on May 2, 2003


My parents recently sold their house. I grew up there from the age of 5, and the back garden was superb. Big trees, slopes where we used to launch ourselves off in improvised vehicles, a really diverse mix of cultivated and wild plants, and the inevitable wildlife - it was great.

The new owners brought the earth movers in, uprooted the trees, destroyed every living thing, and flattened the entire area to a single, smooth level of earth. Why? They had a small child. They said to my Dad: "We're afraid that he might prick himself on a rose, or fall over."

One day that kid will be pricked by a rose. One day he will fall over. Hopefully he will not need too much psychiatric care to get over those horrific events.
posted by chrid at 12:34 PM on May 2, 2003


The new owners brought the earth movers in, uprooted the trees, destroyed every living thing, and flattened the entire area to a single, smooth level of earth. Why? They had a small child. They said to my Dad: "We're afraid that he might prick himself on a rose, or fall over."

I agree that's ridiculous, though on the other hand americans are famous for those flat lawns... but that's a completely different issue than words in textbooks. This isn't about "saving" children from hearing words they're gonna hear, it's about bringing them up with a vocabulary that reflects the ideals of the culture. If kids are brought up to say "police officer" instead of "policeman," it may never occur to them to think it odd that there are women on the force. 50 years ago it would have.

Like I said, these guys sound a little dotty, but the idea of editing new copy in textbooks to embody the future we're working towards seems like a normal thing to do. All words have connotations; I'm sure you wouldn't find it odd if they didn't allow words like "darkies" or "colored."

Again, I don't quite get it with the witches and magic and stuff, but some major percentage of kid's books are all about that anyway; if they have normal parents they'll get their fill from roald dahl & cs lewis. I guess I'd have to look at the individual textbooks to see if I thought they'd be massively better with a few owls in there, but generally it doesn't seem like a great loss. Textbooks are for memorizing and getting basic layouts of information that you can later read up on and find out the truth about if you're interested enough. If they start censoring real books, we can talk; this is just about editorial guidelines for mass produced information packets.
posted by mdn at 3:00 PM on May 2, 2003


This isn't about "saving" children from hearing words they're gonna hear, it's about bringing them up with a vocabulary that reflects the ideals of the culture.

That is what you want to take from this since it fits your political leanings. Fine, but you're theorizing; were these kinds of restrictions limited to making texts gender-neutral it would not be an issue. You are walking into this with blinkers on if you think that the removal of a) historical illustrations of women doing housework, b) witches, and c) kids climbing trees and such do not come from the same impulses as dictated by different political concerns.

the idea of editing new copy in textbooks to embody the future we're working towards seems like a normal thing to do

In history books? Who's we? What future does that look like? Is it realistic or even vaguely rational, or just a mud of barely expressed hopes and fears? What happens to it when there are different we's with different ideals all saying no to different things?

if they have normal parents they'll get their fill from roald dahl & cs lewis.

Again with the blinkers. Look, your kids who get their fill from C.S. Lewis are not normal anymore, first of all, and secondly are going to be intellectually curious enough (or parent-whipped enough) to be pretty much beyond their textbooks for a good long while.

I guess I'd have to look at the individual textbooks to see if I thought they'd be massively better with a few owls in there, but generally it doesn't seem like a great loss.

Glossy. Consider the aggregate, and the avoidance of conflict or, heck, even tension or suspense in such texts, and what that does to the snooze factor of their content. Which leads nicely to:

Textbooks are for memorizing and getting basic layouts of information that you can later read up on and find out the truth about if you're interested enough.

Okay, one, language arts books: kids memorize these? But never mind that, those last four words are key. Because an educational text has to do everything it can in order to get its students to improve, and that does not just include throwing data bricks at them to gnaw on. Sparking a student's interest is a vital tool in the educator's kit as any teacher will tell you and to just toss this leverage away out of cynicism towards "mass produced information packets" is to actively destroy the intellectual future of a great many students.
posted by furiousthought at 11:20 PM on May 2, 2003


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