Dianne Ravitch’s book “The Language Police” has been getting a lot of justified attention. It documents the banning of words and ideas from textbooks, describing the ideological battleground of public schools. But every single article and review of this book that I’ve seen tends to follow the same structure: an outrageous list of banned words, sneers and howls that classic works of literature cannot even be mentioned by name, curses at the manipulative shackles placed on young minds…

And only towards the end — if at all — does somebody mention who the language police are, the ones actually doing this banning of words. This is the very last paragraph of a Reuters review at CNN:

Ravitch said that textbook publishing is controlled by four main publishers and they aim to sell texts state by state, thus forcing them to dumb down the books and make the language as inoffensive as possible. “They don’t want controversy and they don’t want people screaming,” she said.

So the “they” responsible for the actuall banning of words is much worse than pressure groups. The power of three large states (Florida, Texas and California) is one major factor. But the ones actually doing this are a small group of media corporations who have managed to corner the textbook market and who are choosing to squirt pabulum at children in order to maintain that control. The deeper problem is a near total oligopoly, a massive concentration in media ownership.

The CNN article doesn’t name the four publishers Ravitch mentions. In fact, no review of her book seems to name them. Here’s a partial breakdown of the Big Four companies who own 70% of the textbook market:

Also owns: Standard & Poor’s financial services (including the S&P 500), BusinessWeek, McGraw-Hill Construction, Platts energy information, four ABC affiliates.

Acquired by Reed Elsevier in 2001
Includes the textbook imprint Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Also owns: Lexis-Nexis, Variety, Publisher’s Weekly.
Harcourt Educational Measurement owns the Stanford Achievement Test: “the most widely used norm reference test in the US taken by over 15 million students annually.”

Acquired from Vivendi by an investment group in 2002.
Includes textbook imprint McDougal Littell.
Riverside Publishing owns several assessment tests including the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales (aka: “IQ” test)

Includes textbook imprints Scott Foresman and Prentice-Hall
Also owns: Penguin Group (including Viking, Dutton, Berkeley, etc etc), Financial Times (including, 22% share of RTL Group – largest radio and TV broadcaster in Europe. Person Government Solutions performs an array of information related functions for local, state and federal government.

Together, these four companies not only control the textbook industry, they also control most academic assessment, which textbooks are increasingly geared towards. They also happen to control a great deal of the information about the publishing business itself. Smart diverse companies specializing in the manipulation and packaging of information. When they censor a textbook, they know exactly what they’re doing.

Things look pretty grim for anyone wanting to return sanity to this “free” market. Probably the only thing that could make it even worse is another massive wave of media consolidation. (For example, News Corp and AOLTimeWarner already have large academic book divisions…)

Wall Street Journal article from Feb 2002 also discusses the textbook oligopoly. They say there’s only three big companies… Dag.

Who Owns What by the Columbia Journalism Review