February 16, 2004

Newspeak Dictionaries

Diane Ravitch's Wall Street Journal commentary on text book bowdlerizing gave me the creeps. It is distinctly orwellian, 1984 writ small. I think I'll put her book, The Language Police on my reading list. The problem is one of texts. In a classic dead tree publishing situation you simply can't afford to have multiple versions so there is a choke point which creates this horrible tendency to create a lowest common denominator text. These texts detract from the richness and variation of our society and homogenize the next generation to a bland sameness consisting of cardboard caricatures of their own history and culture.

There are technical innovations coming down the pike that will help with this and they can't come soon enough. Electronic paper will sever the link between the physical production of books and the content of those books. You'll be able to create individualized texts for surprisingly small subsets of the country and load them on physical carriers that are the same nationwide. 8th graders will all have a 250 page history text but it won't all be the same history. Benedict Arnold's brilliant NY campaign against the British might be more prominent in the upstate New York communities where it took place whereas the Swamp Fox, Francis Marion would get more coverage in South Carolina with Arnold's treachery being covered more than his heroism.

The content that is chosen will more closely reflect local values. The damage from bowdlerization will be limited to those who choose to inflict it on their children, and things will likely just get better.

Unfortunately, technological innovation is unpredictable and even when electronic paper arrives, the dead tree versions will be with us for years afterward as schools retool their texts over long cycles. So The Language Police is likely to have relevance for quite some time.

Posted by TMLutas at February 16, 2004 12:09 PM