Ravitch, Diane. The Language Police. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. ISBN 0-375-41482-7.
One thing which strikes me, having been outside the United States for fifteen years, is just how dumb people in the U.S. are, particularly those 35 years and younger. By “dumb” I don't mean unintelligent: although there is a genetic component to intelligence, evolution doesn't work quickly enough to make much difference in a generation or two, and there's no evidence for selective breeding for stupidity in any case. No, they are dumb in the sense of being almost entirely ignorant of the literary and cultural heritage upon which their society is founded, and know next to nothing about the history of their own country and the world. Further, and even more disturbing, they don't seem to know how to think. Rational thinking is a skill one learns by practise, and these people never seem to have worked through the intellectual exercises to acquire it, and hence have never discovered the quiet joy of solving problems and figuring things out. (Of course, I am talking in broad generalisations here. In a country as large and diverse as the U.S. there are many, many exceptions, to be sure. But the overall impression of the younger population, exceptions apart, comes across to me as dumb.)

You may choose to attribute this estimation to the jaundiced disdain for young'uns so common among balding geezers like me. But the funny thing is, I observe this only in people who grew up the U.S. I don't perceive anything similar in those raised in continental Europe or Asia. (I'm not so sure about the U.K., and my experience with people from South America and Africa is insufficient to form any conclusions.) Further, this seems to be a relatively new phenomenon; I don't recall perceiving anything like the present level of dumbness among contemporaries when I was in the 20–35 age bracket. If you doubt my estimation of the knowledge and reasoning skills of younger people in the U.S., just cast a glance at the highest moderated comments on one of the online discussion boards such as Slashdot, and bear in mind when doing so that these are the technological élite, not the fat middle of the bell curve. Here is an independent view of younger people in the U.S. which comes to much the same conclusion as I.

What could possibly account for this? Well, it may not be the entire answer, but an important clue is provided by this stunning book by an historian and professor of education at New York University, which documents the exclusion of essentially the entire body of Western culture from the primary and secondary school curriculum starting in around 1970, and the rewriting of history to exclude anything perceived as controversial by any pressure group motivated to involve itself in the textbook and curriculum adoption process, which is described in detail. Apart from a few egregious cases which have come to the attention of the media, this process has happened almost entirely out of the public eye, and an entire generation has now been educated, if you can call it that, with content-free material chosen to meet bizarre criteria of “diversity” and avoid offending anybody. How bad is it? So bad that the president of a textbook company, when asked in 1998 by members of the committee charged with developing a national reading test proposed by President Clinton, why the reading passages chosen contained nothing drawn from classic literature or myth, replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, “everything written before 1970 was either gender biased or racially biased.” So long, Shakespeare; heave-ho Homer! It's no wonder the author of I'm the Teacher, You're the Student (January 2005) discovered so many of his students at a top-tier university had scarcely read a single book before arriving in his classroom: their public school experience had taught them that reading is tedious and books contain only boring, homogenised pablum utterly disconnected from the real world they experience through popular culture and their everyday life.

The author brings no perceptible political bias or agenda to the topic. Indeed, she documents how the ideologues of the right and left form a highly effective pincer movement which squeezes out the content and intellectual stimulation from the material taught in schools, and thus educates those who pass through them that learning is boring, reading is dull, and history is all settled, devoid of controversy, and that every event in the past should be interpreted according to the fashionable beliefs of the present day. The exquisite irony is this is said to be done in the interest of “diversity” when, in fact, the inevitable consequence is the bowdlerisation of the common intellectual heritage into mediocre, boring, and indistinguishable pap. It is also interesting to observe that the fundamental principles upon which the champions of this “diversity” base their arguments—that one's ethnic group identity determines how an individual thinks and learns; that one cannot and should not try to transcend that group identity; that a member of a group can learn only from material featuring members of their own group, ideally written by a group member—are, in fact, identical to those believed by the most vicious of racists. Both reject individualism and the belief that any person, if blessed with the requisite talent and fired by ambition and the willingness to work assiduously toward the goal, can achieve anything at all in a free society.

Instead, we see things like this document, promulgated by the public school system of Seattle, Washington (whose motto is “Academic Achievement for Every Student in Every School”), which provides “Definitions of Racism” in six different categories. (Interesting—the Seattle Public Schools seem to have taken this document down—wonder why? However, you can still view a copy I cached just in case that might happen.) Under “Cultural Racism” we learn that “having a future time orientation, emphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology, [and] defining one form of English as standard” constitutes “cultural racism”. Some formula for “Academic Achievement for Every Student”, don't you think? (Reading The Language Police is quite enlightening in parsing details such as those in the drawing which appears to the right of the first paragraph of this document. It shows a group of people running a foot race [exercise: good]. Of the four people whose heads are shown, one is a Caucasian female [check], another is an African American male [check], a third is an Hispanic man [check—although the bias and sensitivity guidelines of two major textbook companies (p. 191) would fault this picture because, stereotypically, the man has a moustache], and an older [check] Caucasian male [older people must always be shown as active; never sitting on the porch in a rocking chair]. Two additional figures are shown with their heads lopped off: one an African American woman and the other what appears to be a light-skinned male. Where's the Asian?) Now, this may seem ridiculous, but every major U.S. textbook publisher these days compiles rigorous statistics on the racial and gender mix of both text and illustrations in their books, and adjusts them to precisely conform to percentages from the U.S. census. Intellectual content appears to receive no such scrutiny.

A thirty page appendix provides a list of words, phrases, and concepts banned from U.S. textbooks, including the delightful list (p. 196) of Foods which May Not Be Mentioned in California, including pickles and tea. A second appendix of the same length provides a wonderful list of recommendations of classic literature for study from grades three through ten. Home schoolers will find this a bounty of worthwhile literature to enrich their kids' education and inculcate the love of reading, and it's not a bad place to start for adults who have been deprived of this common literary heritage in their own schooling. A paperback edition is now available.

May 2006 Permalink