Offensive Speech in Educational Materials: Changing Words Without Censorship.



Diane Ravitch has focused on the extensive censorship occurring within the publication of school textbook and testing materials in her book, The Language Police (2003). This book, indicative of conservative frustrations with minority special interest groups, raises several key issues echoed throughout the larger educational movement in which she is located and serves as an excellent example to be more closely scrutinized. In attempts to assuage racism, sexism, and other types of discrimination, bias panels selected by publishers of educational materials often remove offensive speech and insert words and examples that run counter to many stereotypes.

Purpose/Objective/Research Questions/Focus of Study:

This article examines Ravitch’s approach to curtailing censorship in educational materials, with the purpose of offering a more nuanced account of harmful language in educational texts and an alternative approach to dealing with these texts in the classroom.

Research Design:

This is an interpretive study that philosophically analyzes the account of language offered by Ravitch and other theorists of biased speech. I use Judith Butler’s discursive account of language to address Ravitch’s shortcomings and to theorize for the injurious nature of biased speech.


Although agreeing with Ravitch that censorship is alarming and should be curtailed, I argue that she undertheorizes language and fails to fully account for its harmful capacities. She operates with a representational view of language that leads her to conclude that educational materials should work to maintain a common culture that supposedly reflects the conditions of the real world, even if they do include harmful language. Building on Butler’s work, I contend that schools can become potential centers for challenging harmful speech through the historical analysis of its ability to injure, and I suggest fruitful ways in which publishers can challenge biased speech, without censoring it, through their own reworkings of problematic words.



Publication Date


Journal Title

Teachers College Record


Teachers College Press

Document Type