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Other segments from the episode on April 29, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 29, 2003: Interview with Diane Ravitch; Commentary on stylistic differences between writers; Review of Pee Wee Russell's latest album.

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DATE April 29, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Diane Ravitch on her new book "The Language Police:
How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

You're unlikely to see the words senile or Satan in a textbook. They are
among dozens of words that are virtually banned by the school boards and bias
and sensitivity committees which advise the publishers of standardized tests
and textbooks. These groups also exert control over the subject matter of
textbooks. My guest, Diane Ravitch, says some of the censorship is trivial,
some is ludicrous and some is breathtaking in its power to dumb down what
children learn in school. Ravitch is the author of the new book, "The
Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn." She's a
historian of education who teaches at New York University and she's a
non-resident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. Ravitch was
assistant secretary in charge of research in the US Department of Education in
the administration of George H.W. Bush. She was appointed to the National
Assessment Governing Board by President Clinton.

I asked Diane Ravitch who are the language police?

Professor DIANE RAVITCH (Author, "The Language Police"): The language police
is no longer people with names and faces. It really is just a process or a
system that's been created to censor textbooks and tests. It's now a system
that involves sanitizing words, topics from standardized tests and also
from--which are used across the country, both national test and state tests,
and it's the self-censorship that publishers have imposed. And it really
doesn't have to do with specific people anymore. It's about accepting as the
industry standard that whatever is put before American schoolchildren, either
in their textbooks or tests, has to be cleansed of certain words and language
and topics.

GROSS: Let's go over some of the words that are considered unacceptable and
that need to be replaced and some of the words that are totally banned. OK,
the word `devil' is in some places banned all together. Why?

Prof. RAVITCH: Right. Because what the--this banning process of putting
together words and topics that are banned comes from both people from the
right and people from the left. And the whole process is a response to left
wing and right wing censorship. Anything to do with the devil or fantasy or
Satan or witchcraft or witches is offensive to very conservative groups. And
so very conservative groups have imposed a ban on words like the devil or
anything to do with witchcraft. That explains, for example, why the "Harry
Potter" series today is not only the most popular series--it doesn't explain
why it's the most popular series, it's the most banned books in the country
because of the references to witchcraft and also because Harry Potter has a
dysfunctional family. And both of those are topics that the right wing hates.

GROSS: So if the word `devil' is banned, does that mean that you also can't
read books by, say, Nathaniel Hawthorne in high schools now?

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, you know, the fact is a lot of teachers assign novels
that are complete and they assign novels that contain words that are on this
list. Where this list has the most impact is on textbook publishing. And you
may occasionally find a word that's on that list that appears in a textbook,
but on the whole, and you know, for the most part, textbook publishers are
watching for these words and watching for these topics and very, very
carefully exclude them because they know that if they go to a state like
California or Texas with one of these words or topics included, they run the
risk of, first of all, setting off a huge controversy because groups will come
and complain about them, and not having their textbook adopted at all which
would be a huge economic loss. So the better part of wisdom for textbook
publishers and test publishers is to drop controversial words.

GROSS: Now the word `extremist' in some places can't be used because--it has
to be replaced with `believer, follower or adherent.' Now believer, follower
and adherent have a different meaning than extremist. Why can't you use the
word extremist?

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, amongst the different categories of words that are
banned are words that are comparative in nature. So, for example, the word
heretic is a banned word because that's an ethnocentric judgment. You know,
one man's heretic is another man's adherent. Also, the word dogma is a banned
word for the same reason and the word cult is banned. So all of these are
useful, valuable words but they're considered ethnocentric. So we--and also
words like culturally disadvantaged or economically disadvantaged are banned
and the word--the expression backward or backward country as a relative term
is banned. So all of these comparative judgments are considered ethnocentric
and those are all out.

GROSS: OK. Let's look at some of the stereotyped images that need to be
avoided in textbooks. There's a group of images of women that one should
avoid, women portrayed as mothers, teachers, nurses or secretaries. What's
the problem with that?

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, these have all been considered stereotyped roles for
women and so they're out. And feminist groups complained very mightily and
loudly in the 1980s and 1990s and that's why there is a long list of female
images or, you know, things that are considered female occupations in the past
that are not permitted anymore. So women are supposed to be portrayed as, you
know, truck drivers and soldiers and doctors and leaders, but not as wives or
nurses or secretaries or teachers.

GROSS: So are there really a lot of textbooks where a woman can't be a mother
in a story?

Prof. RAVITCH: You know, there may be here and there a story with a woman
portrayed as a mother, but that would not be her primary role. Mainly what
you would see is complete gender equality where men and women, girls and boys
are all doing exactly the same thing.

GROSS: OK. African-American images to avoid include African-Americans in
crowded tenements or chaotic streets, in big bright cars, in abandoned
buildings with broken windows or living in innocuous dull white picket fence
neighborhoods. Your comment.

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, it's very hard to know how someone who's illustrating a
textbook can fairly and honestly portray any ethnic group unless they just
show them as being without any characteristics. I mean, as you look through
the different kinds of images to avoid, the so-called stereotypes, it's
anything that would be culturally specific that would make one appear to be
African-American or Asian American or Hispanic American, anything that would
be--actually highlight differences. So the odd thing about this is that so
many of these bans are intended to promote diversity when, in fact, they
promote homogeneity. Because everyone ends up looking the same but with a
slightly different skin hue.

GROSS: So for Asian Americans, it's considered a stereotype if you represent
an Asian American as very intelligent, an excellent scholar, ambitious,
hardworking or competitive.

Prof. RAVITCH: This is considered a stereotype. It's called the model
minority myth and this is offensive to someone so that's one of the ways that
you're not supposed to portray Asian Americans.

GROSS: OK. Older Americans, images to avoid include older Americans in
nursing homes or with canes, walkers, wheelchairs, orthopedic shoes or
eyeglasses. I mean, is it not a fact of life that at some point, and people
are living into their 80s and 90s now, that at some point you need help
walking or you certainly need eyeglasses.

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, I think that the stereotyped images of older Americans
is one that I find the most amusing because I am now, I think, an older
American. I'm 64. And there are days when I feel weak and dependent and
sickly, but I can't be portrayed looking that way so I think this whole thing
is very amusing because I believe the intention is that you're only supposed
to portray men and women, let's say, in their 70s or 80s snowboarding and
climbing up on the roof to repair the roof or jogging or running a marathon.
It's really ridiculous because what these kinds of images suggest, what the
avoidance of these images suggest is that you can't describe reality.

GROSS: Now how many states would you say have to follow the majority of the
guidelines that you've just discussed in terms of language and stereotypical
images. Are we talking about three or four states? Are we talking about 40
states?

Prof. RAVITCH: My description of censorship in the testing industry and the
textbook industry does not affect three or four states. It describes what's
happening in every part of the United States because it affects the four
megacorporations that dominate educational publishing. It also affects every
major testing company. Every major testing company uses what's called bias
and sensitivity review to make sure there are no offensive or insensitive
words or topics. And the process that I've described as language policing is
omnipresent throughout educational publishing, throughout the textbook
industry and throughout the testing industry. There is no state that escapes
this. There may be individual classrooms that escape it because their
teachers are using, let's say, real novels that have not been sanitized or
bowdlerized and they may be making up their own tests which would consist of,
let's say, essays about what they've read. But if they're using standardized
tests and if they're using mass produced textbooks, then what the students
encounter has been sanitized and to some extent bowdlerized by the language
police.

GROSS: My guest is Diana Ravitch, author of the new book "The Language
Police." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Diane Ravitch. She's a
historian of education. Her new book is called "The Language Police: How
Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn."

You first came across bias and sensitivity review panels when you were working
on a standardized test. You had worked to come up with readings and to
approve them and then you found out what?

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, I was appointed to something called the National
Assessment Governing Board. It's a federal agency that administers national
tests. And I was appointed during the Clinton administration by President
Clinton and President Clinton had decided in 1997 that he thought there should
be a voluntary national test that included a fourth-grade reading test. And
so the first thing that I did as a member of that federal organization was to
read fourth-grade passages that might appear on this voluntary national test.
And as a member of a fairly sizeable committee of people reading passages, we
approved--Oh, I don't know--dozens of passages that would be appropriate for
fourth-grade children. And about 18 months later, about 15 or 20 of these
passages were returned to us and we were told that they were biased or
insensitive and should be deleted. And I was--frankly, I was shocked because
some of them were just--I mean, all of them were completely innocuous passages
and I didn't see any bias in them.

And just to give you some examples, one of them was a short biography of the
man who designed Mt. Rushmore, Gotzun Borglum and it seemed appropriate for
fourth-graders. Everybody is--almost everyone is familiar with the image of
the four massive presidential heads. But the bias reviewers said that we
could not have that question because Mt. Rushmore was built on the land that
was sacred to the Lakota Indians and therefore, this whole passage should be
deleted and they recommended that it be eliminated.

Another passage was about a woman named Mary McLeod Bethune who was an
African-American woman, a leader. She created a school for girls in Daytona,
Florida, in the early 20th century and we thought it was a great passage,
wonderful hero story. And they said it should be deleted, first of all
because the school was called the Daytona Industrial and Training School for
Negro Girls and they said that the word `Negro' should not appear on a
standardized test, even though that actually was the name of her school. And
secondly because her son Albert attended and they said if they mentioned
that--if that was mentioned then kids would know that she was separated from
her husband and we could not have separation as a topic or acknowledging that
women and men separated in their marriages.

A third passage that I thought was an excellent passage was a true story about
a 25-year-old man who was blind who was the first blind man to climb Mt.
McKinley and he did this in an ice storm and it was an inspiring story. And
they said this should be eliminated, first of all because the story contained
regional bias. It happened in an ice storm and kids who had never seen an ice
storm wouldn't be able to understand the story. So that was regional bias.
And then they said it should be eliminated because it was biased against blind
people. And since it was a heroic story, I couldn't understand why that was
bias, but then they said, `Well, it's bias against blind people because it
suggest that it's heroic for him to have climbed Mt. McKinley as a blind
person and blindness should not be treated as a handicap.'

Well, I thought all this was bizarre and then I went back and realized that
the test publisher had actually given us a set of guidelines and I had looked
at them thinking how odd they were and I went back and reviewed them and
discovered that we had about 25 or 30 pages describing all of these topics,
regional bias and, you know, that you couldn't treat blindness as a handicap,
all of that was laid out. And I became fascinated with the idea of where this
notion of bias came from, that so many commonplace ideas should suddenly be
construed as bias and I began gathering bias guidelines from many different
publishers of textbooks and tests and that was the genesis of this book.

GROSS: One of the textbook publishers that you got guidelines from was called
Riverside Publishing. What do they publish?

Prof. RAVITCH: Riverside was the test publisher for the voluntary national
test. They also published the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and they were the
first to show me these guidelines. Now I don't think they're publicly
available. We only got a copy of them because we were members of a federal
agency overseeing the development of the voluntary national test. But this is
a very important mainstream test publisher and what I've learned since I've
contacted many other test publishers is that the Riverside guidelines are very
similar to the guidelines of ETS, National Evaluation System, American
Institutes of Research and virtually all the state testing agencies and that's
how I came to understand that the scrutinizing of tests for anything that
might offend anybody anywhere is considered the industry standard.

GROSS: Now the guidelines for Riverside Publishing say that you cannot refer
to evolution, but you also can't refer to fossils or dinosaurs because they
suggest evolution?

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, that's correct. You can't refer to anything that might
imply evolution. You also can't refer to Halloween because Halloween suggests
witchcraft and witchcraft is another one of those banned topics because it
offends right-wing parents.

GROSS: But you also can't discuss social problems like poverty, alcoholism
and divorce.

Prof. RAVITCH: Correct. Those are out because they upset somebody. I'm not
sure whether it's the right wing or the left wing, but however you
discuss--raise those problems it's going to be offensive to someone.

GROSS: Slavery and racial prejudice are taboo?

Prof. RAVITCH: Right. Those are offensive, too. Again, you can't always
say who it will offend, but they know from past experience that they will get
letters from one or more people saying, `I don't like that question. I don't
like that topic.' And so the simplest thing to avoid controversy is just to
delete it.

GROSS: Catastrophes like earthquakes and fires are to be avoided. That's not
a politically correct issue, is it?

Prof. RAVITCH: That's considered a topic--earthquakes, fires or, let's say,
references to creepy animals or to rats and mice, those would be upsetting to
sensitive children and the claim is that if children encounter something on a
test that upsets them, they won't be able to do their best. And so you must
take care to avoid, you know, let's say, cancer, someone losing their job, you
know, unemployment. All of these are--earthquakes, fires, this is all very
upsetting to someone somewhere, so therefore it should not be mentioned.

GROSS: Now you say that the method in which textbooks are purchased has a lot
to do with the kind of patrolling of language that we're seeing now. What has
the system of purchasing textbooks that has influenced the content of
textbooks.

Prof. RAVITCH: Today there are 22 states in which the state Board of
Education selects the textbooks that are to be used throughout the state. Now
some teachers can buy other books, but their district has to put the money up.
The state won't pay for it. So it becomes a very powerful tool with which the
state Board of Education can make these purchases and influence what's taught
in the schools. The problem comes about because there are two states in
particular--California and Texas have a huge amount of power. They have such
large enrollments and if a publisher can't get their textbooks sold in these
two states, the chances are they're not going to make it as a publisher. They
may even go out of business. Or they won't even attempt to get a national
adoption at all.

So these two states wield huge power and because they're like a choke for the
textbook process, pressure groups can come before the Texas state Board of
Education and the California state Board of Education and wield enormous power
way out of any relationships to their size. So what's happened is this
narrowing of the marketplace to conform to the needs of Texas and California,
has first of all caused tremendous concentration in the publishing industry.
There are today only four big corporations that publish textbooks. They're
not the only ones, but they dominate about 75 to 80 percent of the textbook
market. The only one of these that is American owned at the moment is
McGraw-Hill. The others are Read al Xavier(ph), which is Dutch, Pearson(ph),
which is British and Vivendi which is French. And Vivendi has been in the
process of selling off Houghton Mifflin, so it will hopefully soon be again an
American-owned textbook company.

But there are basically right now only four big companies publishing for most
of the market. Because of the way state textbook adoption has narrowed
competition, it's made it so expensive to get into the business at all. So
what has happened over the past 15 or 20 years is that the publishers have
accepted the responsibility for self-censorship. The groups that I've
described in my book no longer need to go before the state Board of Education
and harass them about textbooks because they have successfully gotten the
publishers to self-censor.

GROSS: So when Texas and California were more active with their own bias and
sensitivity reviews, were their concerns similar or were their concerns
different?

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, California was considered the liberal state and Texas
the conservative state and so that the California social content guidelines,
which are still in effect, require publishers to have, you know, a very
careful gender balance, but then so did Texas require gender balance. And NOW
went before the state boards in both states to demand gender balance, to the
extent where Open Court, which is one of the books where I was able to get the
internal correspondence because it changed hands, and so, you know, the
publisher who no longer owns the company gave me the internal correspondence.
Open Court in its book had to change `the little engine that could' into a
female engine as a way of increasing the representation of females. There
were other books where the textbook publisher had to literally change the
gender of a character. And in one case that I found, the author went along
with the idea of changing Freddie to Maggie in order to increase the
representation of women.

GROSS: Diane Ravitch is the author of "The Language Police: How Pressure
Groups Restrict What Children Learn." She'll be back in the second half of
the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

GROSS: Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the stylistic differences
between writers on the left and the right. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead
reviews the new reissue featuring clarinetist Pee Wee Russell. And we
continue our discussion with Diane Ravitch, author of "The Language Police."

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Diane Ravitch,
author of the new book "The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict
What Students Learn." It's about the school boards and bias and
sensitivity committees which have virtually banned certain words and subjects
from textbooks and standardized tests. Ravitch says now textbook publishers
practice self-censorship. Ravitch is a historian of education. She teaches
at NYU and is a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.

You try to trace the beginnings of this move toward politically correct,
sanitized language in textbooks and standardized tests, and you date it to the
late '60s, early '70s and the civil rights movement of that period. What were
the original intentions and what were the original issues?

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, the original issues were valid. There was a complete
absence of stories about American blacks. There was a tremendous imbalance in
terms of how girls were portrayed. Girls were always the helper; they were
never the active participant in anything. And girls were--well, it was the
kind of Dick and Sally routine where Dick in the "Dick and Jane" textbooks
was always the one who was actively doing things, and Sally or Jane were
holding his coat for him or urging him on. So I think there was quite a valid
concern about, you know, the role of women was changing and the representation
of girls should reflect that.

GROSS: Where do you feel that that movement that you think of as being very
justified went off track?

Prof. RAVITCH: I would say that the movement went off track when it veered
into censorship. I found that, for instance, with an organization that was
quite instrumental in the advance in the language police is the Council on
Interracial Books for Children. It began as an advocacy group that said
there should be more and better stories about the life of minorities, of
blacks and of Hispanics and also of women in textbooks, and it went from
advocating adding to what children read and improving the quality of what they
read to issuing censorship lists, to issuing lists saying, `We don't like
what's in this book. It shouldn't be read. These stories should be
stigmatized.' They even suggested to the American Library Association that
certain books which did not have the correct representation or portrayal of
these groups should be removed from the library shelves or should be labeled
in such a way that would stigmatize them.

That became a censorship campaign and, you know, quite frankly the National
Organization for Women did some of the same thing. When you urge people not
to read books, when you stigmatize books because you don't like the portrayals
in them, then that's censorship. And it goes beyond trying to say, `Here's
something I think is better, I hope you'll read it,' to, `Don't read "Mary
Poppins" and don't'--I mean, the Council for Interracial Books for Children
actually urged that fairy tales be eliminated. And there was a long list of
classic works, including "Mary Poppins" and the Roald Dahl books, that they
considered to be inappropriate.

And, of course, another series of books that was banned at the urging of the
Council for Interracial Books for Children was the Hugh Lofting "Dr.
Dolittle" books, and I tried to find the original copies, the original
language of the "Dr. Dolittle" books, and it's virtually impossible. I
couldn't find it in the library. I couldn't find it on the Internet, and only
the books, the rewritten version, is available. Then I discovered the New
York Public Library has them in a special collection, apparently because it
has portrayals of Africans that are unacceptable.

GROSS: Now you reviewed a dozen world history textbooks while writing your
new book. What are some of the things that you found could not be discussed
or could not be discussed in a clear way?

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, what I got for the most part from reading the world
history books was just, first of all, a huge sense of boredom. It's just an
unbelievable mass of material that has no thematic connection. What's
missing, I think in part because of these bias guidelines, is any effort to
compare cultures or civilizations. You're not allowed to say that one is more
or less advanced than another. That's out. And so when there's a discussion
of the Mayans and the Aztecs, they're presented as a glorious civilization,
which I am sure that they were, but without the downside, which is that they
practiced human sacrifice and that it was, you know, a pretty terrible time to
be alive.

Also, only one of the books that I reviewed mentions the fact that they had
not yet discovered the wheel, which was kind of an important technological
discovery. But there's an effort on the part of the publishers and the
authors to present every civilization as glorious, and because this represents
a kind of sanitizing of history and a kind of prettifying of it that takes
away from reality, which is that a civilization can be quite glorious in its
art and even in its architecture and be quite brutal at the same time, and
you're not telling the whole story if you only tell the pretty parts.

GROSS: You say that it's very difficult to discuss religious now in history
texts. What are the problems?

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, all religions have to be presented in a positive light,
and I looked at this in terms of how is Islam presented. And, you know, Islam
is a great religion. There's no question that the Islamic civilization in the
Middle Ages was the greatest civilization at that time. But when the
textbooks deal with modern-day Islam, they become tongue-tied. They have a
hard time discussing the role of women in Islam, for example, and they talk
only about how women's rights have expanded under Islam. And one of the
textbooks has a photograph of a group of women, head to toe burqas, going on a
boating expedition. And, you know, I think it's a problem that American kids
have to talk about, quite honestly, about the question of the role of women in
Islam.

The reason the textbooks have such a hard time discussing Islam or any other
religion, for that matter, is that all of them, almost all of them--there's
one exception--has a multicultural advisory board, three of the major
publishers have exactly the same adviser on the Islamic religion, and so they
all echo each other with a very positive picture of the role of women in Islam
and not mentioning, for example, that what we would consider somewhat brutal
treatment of minor crimes like having your hands cut off or being beheaded,
and, you know, maybe this is or is not brutal, but at least it should be
discussed. It isn't even discussed because everything has been reviewed by
the same Islamic advocacy group, a small group out in California, and three of
the four publishers submit their materials for this person's approval.

GROSS: My guest is Diane Ravitch, author of the new book "The Language
Police." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Diane Ravitch. She's a
historian of education. Her new book is called "The Language Police: How
Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn."

After, you know, researching this long critique of American textbooks, what
are your conclusions about what the larger problem is? You know, if the
textbooks have been vetted and in many cases censored, what's the larger
educational problem this is creating?

Prof. RAVITCH: I think it's important for children in school, young people in
school, to read exciting narratives, and they're not gonna find that in the
textbook. Now a textbook may be a perfectly useful reference work, and I did
find a few that I liked. In world history there was one called "World
History, Continuity & Change." In the US histories, some were better
than others, and I describe those. But the overall problem with textbooks is
that there's a narrative. It says, `We know the answers to these questions.
They've all been settled, and here's fact.' And that's deadly. That's
deadly. What kids need to learn in school is, `No, we don't know the answers.
We're still struggling to figure things out.'

Historians are arguing that at the time things happened, nobody knew how
things would turn out. I mean, when you watch something on TV and it's a
terrific documentary and get a sense of the times, it's so exciting, and the
textbook kills that. And the textbook kills the sense of not knowing the
answer, and how uncertain people were at the time of the adoption of the
Declaration of Independence. I mean, these guys put their life on the line.
They could have all been strung up and killed by the British for signing that
document. But it's never presented as contingent, as controversial, but as a
settled fact, and I think there's an overall problem of boredom that results
from all of these settled facts being strung together.

GROSS: Now I went to public schools in the 1960s before the language police
era, and I can tell you that the textbooks that I read were dull and they
weren't controversial. They didn't examine issues or the past in an
interesting way. So, I mean, has anything fundamentally changed?

Prof. RAVITCH: I think that some things--I mean...

GROSS: In other words, have the textbooks ever been good?

Prof. RAVITCH: Right.

GROSS: Have they ever been interesting?

Prof. RAVITCH: I think that you'd have to probably go back to the earlier
part of the 20th century to find textbooks that were engaging. And the reason
that they were engaging was that they were written by one person. And when
you have one person writing the book and taking responsibility for the words
in it, then there's a better chance you're gonna have a voice. I mean, the
biggest problem with textbooks--and it would've been true with the textbooks,
whether it was the '60s or the '50s or now--is the lack of voice. And the
lack of voice creates this kind of omniscient, `You are reading an
encyclopedia, you are reading fact and you are being bored out of your skull.'
That's a problem, and so I think about textbooks that I've read that were
written many years ago, and I think about David Savel Muzzy's(ph) textbooks,
which were lively and engaging, and there were others. You know, Charles
Beard wrote textbooks. There were other wonderful historians, but they took
responsibility for their language and they weren't gonna put out something
that had been generated by committee.

And today the textbooks, some of them, have authors' names on them where the
authors are dead. And, you know, who knows who writes them? They go through
a process of almost like a meat grinder, and what comes out is this kind of
plodding prose.

GROSS: What do you think it would take to change the course of history and
literature textbooks and to undo the work of what you described as the
literary police, the language police?

Prof. RAVITCH: To remove the language police from our schools would mean
removing them both from textbook publishing and from testing, and I think the
first thing that has to happen is to end state textbook adoptions. I think
this is the beginning of the corruption of this whole process of buying books
for schools is giving the states the power to anoint one textbook and to
reject everything else. I think that the decisions about what books to be
used in the classrooms should primarily be made by individual teachers. And
this would right away encourage a real marketplace. Instead of having a
massive concentration of textbook publishers, there would be the possibility
of small publishers selling to classrooms and to teachers because their
product is better. So that would have, I think, a beneficent impact. It
would take time, because this current system is so deeply ingrained that it
would take time to in effect revive a marketplace for real publishers to sell
things to the classroom.

Secondly, I think in terms of test publishing, there should be much more
openness and transparency than there is today. Today there is virtually no
transparency. I wrote to one state education department--I wrote to many
state education departments and asked them for examples of works or passages
that had been censored for their state test, and got some responses, but in
one case a state education department wrote me and said, `We don't have to
tell that to you.' Now this is a public agency and they're censoring literary
materials and their view is they don't have to explain that to anyone. I
believe they should, as a matter of law, be required to put on a Web site what
kinds of materials they're using for their state tests. We would find out
whether they're using good literature or junk. And they should also show what
they've excerpted, or what have they sanitized, what have they censored, what
have they bowdlerized. So that would be a huge step forward is just to open
up the censorship of the testing process.

Also put on their Web site what their bias guidelines are. People like me
wouldn't have to dig so hard to find out what's actually being censored. It's
going on everywhere, and we just don't even know what it is. So that to me is
the great scandal is that most of this censorship is taking place behind
closed doors. It's considered a good thing to do, and it has to be brought
out into the open.

GROSS: Well, Diane Ravitch, I want to thank you very much for talking with
us.

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, it's been a pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: Diane Ravitch is the author of "The Language Police: How Pressure
Groups Restrict What Children Learn." She's a professor of education at NYU.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: Stylistic differences between the left and right
TERRY GROSS, host:

Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, has been reading political newspaper columnists
from the left and the right. He's observed that their differences are not
just in what they say but how they say it.

GEOFF NUNBERG:

The stylistic differences between the left and right aren't just a question of
the words they use but the tunes they sing them to. Listen to a recent piece
by The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan on the resurgence of patriotism, or,
as she calls it, `the simple idea of the goodness of loving America. The
nation that won the war,' she said, `wasn't made up of the big-city elites.
It was a bigger America and a realer one, a healthy and vibrant place full of
religious feeling and cultural energy and Bible study and garage bands and
sports love and mom love and sophistication and normality.'

And and and and and and and and. That repetition of conjunctions is the
device that rhetoricians call polysyndeton. It does a lot of work for Noonan
here. Each of those ands implies and `and not,' an opposition to the urban
cosmopolitans who don't have religious feeling, don't study the Bible, don't
love their moms and don't have garage bands, most likely because they don't
have garages. They're the people that Noonan describes as the intellectuals,
academics and leftist mandarins, not to mention the local clever people who
talk too loudly in restaurants. Now who would they be?

Then, too, the ands flatten the differences among all those unlike things.
Replace the conjunctions with commas and all of a sudden the thought emerges
in all its vacuous incoherence. A place full of religious feeling, cultural
energy, Bible study, garage band, sports love, mom love, sophistication and
normality. You hear that rhythm a lot in Noonan's prose. It was daring and
brilliant and brave. You want to really feel it and experience it and smell
it and touch it and thank God for it.

But then a lot of columnists use this device, particularly the ones on the
right. Take Michelle Malkin's letter to American soldiers. `You hail from
Middletown and Middleboro(ph), in Greenville and Redding and Thousand Oaks
and Maple Tree(ph).' She forgets to mention the Bronx. William Bennett
writes that `real fatherhood means love and commitment and sacrifice and a
willingness to share responsibility and not walking away from one's children.'
Paul Greenberg talks about `country breakfast and jukeboxes and cowboy hats
and denim and mamas and papas.'

True, you won't hear this rhythm from conservatives like William F. Buckley,
George Will, Jeane Kirkpatrick or William Safire, none of them writers who are
given to flights of gush. And there are certainly liberal writers with a
weakness for the device, like the tirelessly expansive Molly Ivins. But even
so, you're about five times as likely to encounter this pattern on
conservative sites like the National Review and Townhall.com as on liberal
sites like The Nation or the American Prospect.

Of course, it isn't as if polysyndeton has an inherently political meaning,
or any inherent meaning at all. It's a device that's been used by everyone
from Shakespeare to Lewis Carroll to Bob Dylan. But the pattern has a
particular cadence in American writing, where it signals plenitude and
immediacy, as if you're laying your thoughts down one scoop after another. It
bubbles up whenever people are waxing sentimental about dogs, baseball or the
English language, particularly about the English language, I've noticed. And
it's a staple of eulogies and, of course, book blurbs where it's often
compounded by alliteration: wise and weird and witty and warm.

Ultimately this is just another one of the things we can blame Walt Whitman
for, along with all the other writers who mimicked his voluble spontaneity.
But it's not likely that Peggy Noonan picked this up directly from Whitman,
much less from Allen Ginsberg or Gary Snyder. If you listen to her sentences
you hear another even more familiar voice.

(Soundbite of "It's a Wonderful Life")

Mr. JAMES STEWART (Actor): Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this
rabble you're talking about--they do most the working and paying and living
and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay
and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?

NUNBERG: Or who can forget this speech, a favorite of people who do Jimmy
Stewart impressions?

(Soundbite of "It's a Wonderful Life")

Mr. STEWART: No, but you're thinking of this place all wrong, as if I had the
money back in a safe. The money's not here. Well, your money's in Joe's
house--that's right next to yours--and in the Kennedy house and Mrs.
Mapelands(ph) house and a hundred others.

NUNBERG: It's all there in Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life," not to
mention "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "The Grapes of Wrath" and dozens of
other movies and plays from the '30s and '40s. It's the pattern that
playwrights and screenwriters used when they wanted to invoke the artless
wisdom of the common man.

That's what Noonan and the others are aiming for with this pattern, the rhythm
of the simple feelings that are obvious to everybody but the clever people who
make life too complicated. But the device is apt to sound a bit calculated
and self-conscious when you run into it in The Wall Street Journal,
particularly in an age as knowing as ours is. Back in Capra's time, people
didn't make it a point of pride to be in touch with their feelings. Reading
Noonan's column, I kept thinking of the recent remake of Capra's "Mr. Deeds
Goes to Town" with Adam Sandler in the Gary Cooper role.

At the end of her piece Noon says, `Is this corny? Too bad.' Well, no.
Capra was corny, and so were Robert Riskin and Nunnally Johnson and Joe
Swirling and Sidney Buckman and Clifford Odets and Robert Sherwood, even if
they lived in big cities and didn't go to Bible study classes and talked too
loudly in restaurants. But what Noonan does isn't corny, it's kitsch.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and the author of
"The Way We Talk Now."

Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a reissue of Pee Wee Russell's
recording "Ask Me Now!"

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Clarinetist Pee Wee Russell
TERRY GROSS, host:

Clarinetist Pee Wee Russell was born in 1906, and usually recorded in
Dixieland settings. But with his oblique solo style, Russell never really fit
in, an oblong peg in a square hole. In the 1950s and '60s, his champions
presented him alongside progressives, like Jimmy Giuffre and Thelonious
Monk. Now comes a reissue of a 1963 album where Pee Wee Russell played tunes
by groundbreakers like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Jazz critic Kevin
Whitehead has a review.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:

That modern blues is Ornette Coleman's turnaround. That solo, with those sour
notes, muttered asides and throwaway line endings, is vintage Pee Wee Russell.
His solos could sound misshapen or haphazard, but they had their own
unpremeditated grace.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

WHITEHEAD: Pee Wee Russell's improvising is a metaphor junkie's dream. He's
always stepping off a cliff, running up a blind alley or rummaging blind in
the knife drawer. Fed up with the Dixieland scene, in 1962 he began leading a
quartet masterminded by valve trombonist and bass trumpeter Marshall Brown.
The lack of piano and the space-age repertoire aimed to highlight Russell's
revamped image as a modernist before his time. The quartet's second album,
"Ask Me Now!" is back out on Impulse. This is John Coltrane's "Some Other
Blues."

(Soundbite of "Some Other Blues")

WHITEHEAD: In the long run, Russell wasn't too happy with his new quartet.
Musical director Marshall Brown had been a high-school teacher and leader of
the Newport Youth Orchestra(ph), and treated the master like his protege.
Brown wanted his free jazz jams mapped out in advance. Pee Wee grumped, `I
haven't taken so many orders since military school.' And Brown's foursquare
phrasing made for an awkward fit with the unpredictable clarinetist.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

WHITEHEAD: Ronnie Bedford on drums and Russell George on bass. Putting Pee
Wee Russell in a modern band was a good idea, but he needed better company.
In hindsight, the right players were close at hand. That same season, his
trombonist friend Roswell Rudd was playing Monk tunes in a pianoless quartet
with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, another modernist who came up in
Dixieland bands. Lacy and Rudd's 1963 classic, "School Days," has just been
reissued on hatOLOGY, and it makes for an instructive comparison with Pee
Wee's day. If only they'd invited him in for his say.

(Soundbite of "School Days")

WHITEHEAD: Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd, alas, without Pee Wee Russell. So
much for what might have been. That summer, Russell sat in with Monk's
quartet at the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival. Columbia reissued those sides last
year. But they hadn't rehearsed and barely interacted, and Pee Wee felt ill
at ease all over again. In a way, his unsettled career was like one of his
solos writ large. He could never find a good place to alight, so he kept
hopping around. His perpetual discomfort sparked his creativity.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for the Chicago Reader and the Chicago
Sun-Times.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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