Monthly Archives: May 2008

Diane Ravitch: The Language Police

Diane Ravitch´s book, “The Language Police” is about political correctness in the widest sense. Her main argument is that the unnatural and alarming, hidden censorship of school textbooks is now out of control. She shows that, originally, the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements in the 1960s and 1970s sparked censorship of educational materials on a large scale. Their primary goals were to eradicate prejudicial and unfavourable phrases, to offset the imbalance of women’s under-representation in all kinds of publications and to adapt textbooks accordingly.

Today’s censorship has reached a level of madness almost difficult to comprehend. Both left and right wing pressure groups such as feminists, multi-culturalists, special interest groups, the sensitivity law-suit awareness groups, to name a few, have set up “bias and sensitivity” guidelines, including codes of representational fairness, social content, regional bias, and adverse reflection. Textbook publishers have assented without demur to the demands made by these groups for obvious reasons.

While the left-wing corrects for sexism, racism, regional bias, the underprivileged and other such things, the right-wing does so for any reference to disobedience, family conflict, evolution, sorcery and similar themes. According to the standards set by the two camps, there must be gender and racial balance in stories, illustrations, poems, and their authors, illustrators, and poets.

Here are some of these outrageous corrections taken from the 30-page glossary of banned words, usages and stereotypes which Ms. Ravitch has included in her book: The better half is banned as sexist and should be replaced with spouse, wife, partner or mate. Brotherhood is banned as sexist, and to be replaced with amity, unity or community. Egghead is banned as offensive and should be replaced with intellectual. Majority group is banned as an offensive reference to cultural differences. America / Americans should be used with care because they suggest geographical chauvinism unless they apply to all people living in the Americas (i.e. North, – Central- and South America) – to be replaced with people of the United States. Poetess is considered sexist and to be replaced with poet. Food items which should be avoided in textbooks make fascinating reading – the most outlandish being butter, margarine, lard, bacon, coffee, salt and sugar.

Ms. Ravitch points to another disquieting aspect. Literature written before 1970 is likely to contain bias because it would not have the necessary balance. Ms Ravitch points out that fewer selections of classical literature are included in textbooks and if they are at all, they are bowdlerized and mutilated beyond recognition. The modified versions are insipid, sterile, and far removed from reality – as well as containing inaccurate facts in many cases.

Ray Bradbury discovered about 30 years ago that his publishers had removed 75 sections from his book, “Fahrenheit 451” without his permission in order to make textbook adaptations. It must have been the dangerous degree of enlightenment contained in this popular book that provoked the call for so many cuts.

What can be done about these wanton excesses of an educational apparatus that is out of control? Ms. Ravitch suggests a number of measures to be taken. The three major steps necessary to contain this lunacy are beyond the power of ordinary citizens, because they require changes to official procedures and laws. These are the restriction of state-wide selection of textbooks, more transparency for this process, and a shift in teacher training away from general education to expert knowledge to enable them to provide perspective.

However, Ms Ravitch´s advice to us is: “We must pay attention to what they do and be prepared to laugh out loud at their excesses… I want them to be afraid of looking ridiculous”. Each of us can take this immediate action right now.

The Language Police is an alarming book – hard-hitting in places but well researched and documented. Ms Ravitch´s insider knowledge gained as a member of the national testing board and writer on education issues lends credibility to this important, provocative and revealing book.

© cfbrinkmann 2006

Advertisements

The linguist Raffaele Simone believes the Internet to be the “enemy of the book”

The Italian linguist discussed the Internet with the Spanish philosopher Savater at the Santillana group in February 2000. He stated that the Internet was “the principal enemy of the book and of reading in itself, although on the surface it appears to be the ideal medium for reading and writing”. Simone, who gave a lecture organised by the Santillana foundation, said that knowledge accumulated during 20 centuries had been turned on its head during the past 20 years, which signified an evolutionary retrograde step with the process of reading being replaced by the mere glance.

Simone, who is professor of linguistics at the university of Rome Three and author of the book La Tercera Fase, formas de saber que estamos perdiendo, published by Taurus books, (The Third Phase, manners of learning and finding out what we are losing) maintains that the 21st century marks the third phase in the history of the accumulation of knowledge, which will be dominated by a culture of audiovisual input.

The linguist dedicated his lecture to the four major changes which have caused the dissolution of a paradigm of culture, of the ways of information exchange, and of education in general. To Simone, the priorities in our visual perception have changed (now natural vision prevails over the alphabetical); the importance of the picture has increased (and hence, the predominance of less complex over more complex structures). The nature of penmanship and the typography of texts have undergone changes, too, (which can be modified endlessly), and finally, a new way of processing information has developed, which the linguist has taken to calling “non-propositional logic”.

According to Mr. Simone, this new manner of creating information has lost all long-established characteristic features of being analytical, well structured, contextual and referential and “has transformed itself into an indifferent mass in which anything is contained in everything” and analysis and experience are valued only little.

Knowing that his ideas on this subject take up a “controversial position”, Mr. Simone adds the concept of slowness to the three conceptual characteristics (peace and quiet, solitude, and a cultural memory), which, according to the philosopher George Steiner constitute the classical view of the reading process. He also agrees with Mr. Steiner`s opinion that,” in this day and age, our reading habits are vague and contemptuous.”

In his final thesis, Mr. Simone said that access to information through the Internet was “the most formidable, unprecedented barrier to the contact with reality.”

The philosopher Fernando Savater warned of the progressive simplification of the language used by young people. He emphasised that he strongly opposed both “apocalyptic visions” and excessive storms of enthusiasm sparked off by the Internet, concluding that “these days, young people do not read, because they understand only very easy texts.” The philosopher gave examples of the dangerous influence the new technologies have in education – in particular, the disappearance of orthography and syntax, which is characteristic of many e-mails.

About this posting

This posting is part of a series dedicated to topics dealing with various aspects of the English language which usually get short shrift on the internet and in other publications. It is, in a wider sense, concerned with the English language crumbling into incomprehensibility at alarming speed and how society is influenced by it. How do schools and universities react and in what way is literature affected by all this? Furthermore, how do people working in education and linguistics cope with this avalanche of “Local English neologisms”?

What often sounds like modern Pidgin English can generally be put down to neo-pidginicity. It is an artificially accelerated and manipulated process – or rather linguistic genetic engineering – of attempting to oversimplify Standard English, the result of which is in all cases some sort of Neo Pidgin English or Simplified-Simple-Speak. Four major fields of contact contribute to the gradual encroachment on Standard English: Basic Global English, as advocated by Dr. Joachim Grzega, machine translations of any kind, unedited documents and publications – frequently of international validity – being passed off as standard English but in fact written by non-native speakers of English, the acceptance of “Local English” and non-native speakers of English teaching their version of “Local English”. The result of the English “produced” in all these areas of contact is often, at best, a barely elevated Pidgin English.

And to compound matters, Globish appears to become a composite haphazard mixture of all about 180 Local Englishes and may for that very reason not be as easy as some people think once it has evolved into a sub-language of Standard English.

Finally, it would be interesting to see the first book written in Basic Global English, Dr. Joachim Grzega`s novel and daring invention and see in which section bookshops will display such a work of art