Why US schoolbooks are ‘mind-numbingly dull’

Owls, ketchup, dinosours and old ladies with cats are among a long list of taboos banned from US schoolbooks, reports JULIAN COMAN

FICTIONAL tales involving dinosaurs, disobedient children, coffee, Irish-American policemen and “exemplary upper-class people of bygone days” are being excised from American schoolbooks, according to a newly-published study on classroom policy in the United States. 

The prohibitions are devised and enforced by educational publishers fearful of losing lucrative state contracts if they break the rules of political correctness, or offend Right-wing fundamentalists. Their self-censorship is backed up by “guidelines” issued by some state governments. 

The result, according to Diane Ravitch, the author of the study and an assistant secretary of education in the previous Bush administration, is that publishers are flooding schools with bland stories that she dismisses as “pap”. 

The state of California, the biggest buyer of education textbooks in the US, has instructed publishers not to include references to unhealthy foods such as “french fries, coffee, bacon, butter, ketchup and mayonnaise”. 

Apparently innocuous topics are judged too controversial for juvenile consumption. A “bias and sensitivity review panel” employed by one leading publisher recently ruled out the use of a test comprehension passage about owls. The owl, said the panel, is taboo for Navajo Indians, and its appearance in a test may “distract” a native American pupil. 

Meanwhile the Irish-American policeman, a favourite stereotype in 20th century American storytelling, is to be written out of history. Not only the Left is having an impact on American classrooms. References to dinosaurs are being excised because they raise questions about evolution which offend the religious Right. 

The educational publisher, AIR, now lists “dinosaur” in its glossary of banned words. All references in stories to fossils and dinosaurs must be substituted by “animals of long ago”. 

The obsessive attention to the content of children’s books is likely to stop a future American J.K. Rowling in her tracks. The Harry Potter series, which contravenes educational publishers’ guidelines by referring to the occult, satanism, violence, religion and owls, has been listed by the American Library Association as the “most attacked” book in the US. 

Other classics that have been targeted include John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (both for racial references). Jane Austen and Charles Dickens have been excoriated for perpetuating gender stereotypes. 

Ravitch spent three years investigating the workings of secretive bodies that censor the literature that reaches American schools for her study, The Language Police

She discovered that children must not be represented as disobedient, while elderly people should never be represented as feeble. Instead, positive images of pensioners keeping fit are encouraged. One contributor to a junior school textbook gave up her job after being asked to include a senior citizen in one story “and show her jogging”. 

Authors and illustrators for the giant American educational publisher, McGraw-Hill, meanwhile, are given a long list of gender stereotypes to avoid and, more controversially, invert. 

They are told to replace “mother bringing sandwiches to father as he fixes the roof” with “mother fixing the roof”. “Boys playing ball, girls watching,” should be replaced by “Co-ed teams, boys watching.” 

Companies that develop school tests and select reading passages for examinations have also assembled long lists of topics which must be avoided unless strictly necessary to the school curriculum.  

Riverside Publishing, which provides tests for children throughout the United States, rules out references to abortion; creatures thought to be scary or dirty, such as scorpions, rats and cockroaches; death and disease; disrespectful or criminal behaviour; evolution; expensive consumer goods; magic, witchcraft, the supernatural; personal appearance; unemployment and unsafe situations. 

Ravitch claims that her research lays bare the power exercised by lobby groups – from both ends of the political spectrum – over the reading matter of American children. Guidelines issued to children’s writers combine “Left-wing political correctness with Right-wing fundamentalism”, she writes, and aim “to create a new society, one that will be completely inoffensive to all parties”. 

The most depressing result of such censorship, says Ravitch, is the mind-numbingly dull literature that emerges at the end of the review process. 

“The guidelines guarantee the exclusion of imaginative literature from our textbooks,” she says. “They assume that everything that was not written in conformity with their mandates must be racist, sexist, ageist and harmful to any group that has ever known oppression and exclusion.  

“Is it any wonder that students who read such pap do not enjoy reading and that they see little connection between art and life?”  

America’s educational publishers say that they are powerless so long as lobby groups retain such influence. 

Charlene Gaynor, an executive director of the Association of Education Publishers, said: “It has become part of the business. You need to be aware of the pressure groups and their standards if you want to be able to sell the product.” – © Telegraph Group Ltd, London 

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