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Left Fields

In the current (August/September) issue of First Things magazine, the lead article is “True and False Reform,” by Avery Cardinal Dulles. Fr. Dulles is an eminent Jesuit theologian, a spry octogenarian and the first American theologian ever to be elevated (in February 2001) to the cardinalate of the Roman Catholic Church, to which he converted in 1940.

His conversion was from the free-thinking, agnostic remnant of New England Presbyterianism to which his prominent family belonged — a long line of public servants (his father was John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s secretary of state) gifted with brains, wealth, and liberal self-assurance.

In “True and False Reform,” Fr. Dulles takes issue with many of the reform movements that have proliferated in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. He avers that excesses have come from both the left and the right. On the right, for example, are movements to undo Vatican II and restore Tridentine Catholicism: reactionary traditionalists and “sedevacantist” screwballs who believe that John Paul II is a usurper, a false pope.

After this nod to the right and a few paragraphs of definition regarding “restorative reform” and “progressive reform,” Fr. Dulles spends the bulk of his essay going after the excesses and the many “ill-considered projects” of the left. He even concludes with an admonition characteristically unpalatable to the left: Real reform begins with personal reform — “purification of the heart from pride, sensuality, and lust for power.”

SOMETHING SIMILAR HAPPENS in Diane Ravitch’s latest book, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (Knopf, $24.00). Ravitch goes after the elaborate “protocol of beneficent censorship” applied to public school reading materials by textbook publishers, testing agencies, and state and federal bureaucracies. Under the pinched care of ignoramuses trained as “bias detectors” in the Orwellian methodology of “sensitivity guidelines,” public school students are now served “language arts” texts of no literary merit and history texts packed with flashy graphics, artless prose, and wild distortions.

The censorship, according to Ravitch, is in response to pressure groups of both the left and the right. Yet her chapter on “Censorship from the Right” is mostly historical, with an interesting anecdote about Ravitch’s firsthand experience of right-wing bias in the Houston public school system during the 1950s.

Ravitch was a junior high student when the Minute Women of the USA had sufficient members on the Houston school board to enlist the schools in the fight against communism, creeping socialism, the U.N., and racial integration. Ravitch, whose parents were “yellow-dog Democrats” (i.e., they’d vote for a yellow dog before they’d support a Republican), would hear one thing at the dinner table and quite another in the classroom; she preferred her folks’ liberal sentiments.

Her survey of right-wing pressure on the schools thins out, though, as she gets deeper into the twentieth century. By the 1990s we get intermittent stories of evangelical Christian and conservative family groups raising hell over the moral content of textbooks. There is also the battle over evolution in science texts, which Ravitch inadvertently distorts by identifying “creation science” with “intelligent design” — applying the requisite liberal quotation marks to both terms and thus revealing that she hasn’t looked at the controversy very closely.

No matter. Dr. Ravitch is an eminent historian of education, a professor at New York University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; she served in the Department of Education in the earlier Bush administration and was appointed by the Clinton administration to the ill-fated National Assessment Governing Board. Like Fr. Dulles, she is by breeding and temperament an aristocrat, with a liberal heart and a conservative brain. In other words, she disdains the far right but positively despises the far left, and so directs most of her fire against the latter.

For one thing, left-wing pressure groups — prominently, the Council on Interracial Books for Children (CIBC) and the National Organization for Women (NOW) — have been more successful over the past forty years in shaping the “bias guidelines” of the educational publishing industry. Their hectoring is more persistent, their philistinism more shameless, their claptrap more pervasive.

They also get a more sympathetic reception from the craven publishers, who themselves generally belong to the political culture of the left. One editor at Holt described left-wing critics as “positive pressure groups” and right-wing critics as the kind of “censors” one finds in “totalitarian societies.” Then too, the liberal media watchdogs tend to be sluggish in responding to the outrages of left-wing “sensitivity guidelines.”

WHAT ARE THESE “GUIDELINES” FOR the hacks who grind out the textbooks? Males can’t be shown as strong or assertive, females can’t be nurturing or passive; Asians can’t be portrayed as academics or laundry workers, blacks can’t be athletes or maids, whites can’t be Irish policemen or Anglo businessmen (oops, I mean “police officers” or “businesspeople”); whites also can’t be in affluent suburbs, nor blacks in urban settings; topographical backdrops must be vague and flat: no mountains or oceans or deserts or valleys or other demeaning appeals to regional bias.

If a historical event is deemed “cognitively accurate” but “affectively negative,” guess what happens to the event in the history texts. Did you know that all religions are the same? (Except Islam, which is rather superior to its Judeo-Christian predecessors, and more humane to boot: “Christian Europe invades; Islam spreads.”) Of course, slavery in the Western world was evil, but contemporary slavery in Africa and the Middle East is a benign means of social mobility — and watch it with “Eurocentric” terms like “Middle East”: Palestine is in western Asia, you know.

With few exceptions (which Ravitch identifies — homeschoolers, take note), current textbooks in U.S. history go way beyond the linguistic sanitizing of the language arts texts to inject left-wing political biases in a “smug tone of omniscience.” The left’s “cultural equivalence” paradigm downplays European influence on the American experiment while overstating (or just inventing by irrelevant juxtaposition) other cultural influences. Did you know that Mayan pyramids antedate skyscrapers? (Do today’s high school students know what “antedate” means?)

A constant moralizing about the past has American women forever chafing under sexism, Europeans inventing African slavery, indigenous pre-Columbian peoples (American Indians) living idyllic lives of peace and harmony before the arrival of the European devils. Democratic presidential candidates are good; Republicans are bad, though perhaps mostly stupid. The counterculture and student rebels of the 1960s were avatars of social justice, the Black Panthers a beneficent social service organization. Get the picture? By the time Ravitch is through with her catalog of pedagogical deceptions, there’s no more talk about dangerous lunatics being “well-meaning.”

So how can the malicious nonsense be stopped? Succumbing a bit to the educationese she often mocks, Ravitch offers a threefold “strategy to achieve this goal.” First, “eliminate the state textbook adoption process,” which gives California and Texas, with their huge public school markets, undue control over decisions made by a few giant publishers. The leverage of the two big states allows the extremists to concentrate their pressure tactics and force adoption decisions that affect the whole nation.

Ravitch favors a radical deregulation of textbook adoption, freeing teachers to choose their own materials and thus forcing the political busybodies “to make their case to millions of teachers and thousands of schools” rather than threaten a few big publishers at statewide hearings. The competition would bring in new publishers and truly talented writers. “Bad textbooks would die a natural and unlamented death.”

But the market solution depends entirely on two other “prongs” of the Ravitch strategy. We must first expose the bastards (Ravitch is more delicate: she favors “sunshine” laws that require the publishers and state agencies to open their secretive “bias guidelines” for public scrutiny), and we need “better-educated teachers” who can make wise use of the freedom to select their own materials.

Critical skills question: Which of these three “prongs” is so remote as to render the Ravitch strategy nearly hopeless? Read the book, and decide for yourself. And think about homeschooling.

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