On Desexing Anglo-Saxon

“Book publishing,” Ann Coulter once astutely observed, “has long been another method for the ruling class to take in one another’s laundry and give each other jobs.”  [Ann Coulter, Slander (New York, 2002), pp. 96-97.]  Regrettably, one area of this industry -- textbook publishing -- has enjoyed benign inattention from conservative writers like Ms. Coulter. While such pundits often impugn powerful lobbying organizations like the National Education Association (NEA), they rarely look at school and college textbooks as vehicles of revisionist liberal propaganda.

In fact, the “el-hi” textbook publishing industry is probably a far more effective purveyor of such propaganda than almost any book promoted in the bestseller lists published by the New York Times. These books, after all, are written for adult readers -- individuals who, one would hope, can exercise some level of mature judgment. Elementary and high school students, however, are not adults. They lack both the experiential and the historical background one needs to discern the difference between the “factoids” of politically-correct ‘narratives’ and the facts of real life.

By 1976, the American feminist movement had probably achieved the nadir of its pubescent public virulence, for by then feminists everywhere were confusing themselves with fish and men with bicycles. It was also the year when I was hired by Random House to edit a K-8 reading program titled Random House Reading House” in which that company was investing millions of dollars to capture the then new “Mastery learning” market developing in public school systems across the United States.

In April of 1976, the American Association of Publishers (AAP) issued its “Bias-free Materials Statement” proclaiming that educational literature should “represent proportionately the historic and current achievements of all people, especially women and members of minorities” and that “the use of man and its derivatives to denote the average person or the human race” should be avoided in all publications. According to the AAP, therefore, the correct (i.e., socially just) pronoun form that should be used in a sentence like Everyone should vote for his favorite candidate is either their or her because his is a “derivative” of man.

As a direct result of the AAP’s “Bias-free Materials Statement”, my female project director ordered an affirmative-action warlock hunt. The instructional materials my fellow mostly female editors and I were working on comprised many different components including teachers’ guides, test booklets, lesson plans, audio cassettes, classroom readers, and a significant amount of art work depicting imaginary characters like Sylvia Syllable, Vera Vowel, and Dick Dictionary.

The financial and “person-power” costs associated with this editorial purge were tremendous. Nevertheless, our marketing managers were convinced that anything less than perfect gender, ethnic, and racial balance in Random House’s new reading program would ruin its chances for district-wide adoptions in the nation’s public schools. From Kalamazoo, Michigan, had come the voice of doom in the form of a report about threatened lawsuits against Houghton Mifflin for its ‘sexist’ 1973 basal reading program.

Thus, my colleagues and I spent the next three months counting and excising gendered nouns and pronouns and making sure that most of the imaginary characters in this program were female, black, Hispanic, and/or Native American. Most importantly, we were told, we should ensure that such stereotypes as policemen, firemen, and postmen were thoroughly expunged. All of this, of course, was in conformance with the AAP’s hypothesis that “Bias-free educational materials more accurately represent reality, encourage tolerance for individual differences, and allow more freedom for children to discover and express their needs, interests, and abilities.”

Whoever fabricated that rubric had obviously experienced a much different pedagogical reality from my own. A few months of teaching in the inner city schools of Manhattan had been enough to convince me that racial and ethnic bias is precisely the instrument every minority group uses to preserve its own unique identity. Unfortunately, no amount of linguistic desexifying or race/ethnic leveling in print is likely to change that atavistic practice.

Besides, an objective examination of almost any living language (including English) will reveal that the gendering of words is commonplace and, etymologically speaking, completely arbitrary. In French, for example, the word for cake is le gateau (a masculine noun) while the word for chair is la chaise (a feminine noun). There is no logical explanation for such gendering. Its origins lie in the murky and undocumented past of folklore and spoken language usage that obtained long before recorded history.

Nonetheless, it was clearly the bias of the AAP’s “Bias-free Materials Statement” to improve the status of women and minorities through linguistic revisionism at the basal reader level. Bias-free language, the AAP document averred, should even refer “to abstractions, such as justice, as it unless Justice is personified in female form.” Why make an exception in this case?  If we’re going to desexify abstractions, let’s do them all. In this game of Tag, everybody should be It.

The AAP’s 1976 manifesto was no joke, however. And, judging by the long-term effects it has had on el-hi textbooks published today, it has achieved its goals beyond even the wildest dreams of its pioneering proponents. Parents who doubt this need only take the time to peruse the contents of their children’s schoolbooks at any grade level and in any school subject.

Those interested in a more scholarly approach should read Diane Ravitch’s milestone study The Language Police (New York, 2003). Ms. Ravitch’s study, subtitled How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, recounts with ruthless accuracy just how pervasive and illogical the influence of political correctness has become in the textbook and test-development industries since 1970.

By 2000, the entire textbook industry had been affected by such mindless revisionism. Writing in Forbes magazine, David McClintick explained:

“It isn’t just Prentice Hall, owned by Pearson Plc., that churns out rubbish for our children to learn by. Scott Foresman, another Pearson company, Holt Rinehart and a range of other publishers are guilty of producing textbooks condemned by experts for their errors and omissions. The whole $4 billion elementary and secondary textbook industry has the problem. In the intensely lobbied textbook selection process in states like California, intellectual content takes a back seat to salesmanship, political correctness, self-esteem for the students and the need to dumb-down lessons so that one product can capture a large market.”

By 2011, things had only gotten worse. The noted historian David McCulloch would say, “textbooks have become so politically correct as to be comic. Very minor characters that are currently fashionable are given considerable space, whereas people of major consequence farther back are given very little space or none at all.” McCulloch also noted that “History is often taught in categories -- women's history, African American history, environmental history -- so that many of the students have no sense of chronology. They have no idea what followed what.”

For young American citizens, the “loss of a sense of chronology” may well be the most dangerous result of all this PC mischief. In his 1991 article titled “Christopher Columbus: Dead White Male,” Charles Krauthammer may have said it best:

“…if one judges civilizations by what they have taken from and what they have given the world, a non-jaundiced observer -- say, one of the millions in Central Europe and Asia whose eyes are turned with hope toward America -- would surely bless the day Columbus set sail.” (Time, May 27, 1991.)

Now in 2014, we are seeing how political correctness has become a threat to our national security as the Obama administration prohibits any reference to “Islamic terrorists” and U.N. ambassador Samantha Power declares, “We have got to overcome the fear and the stigma that are associated with Ebola.”

Will there ever be an end to this madness?