T is for Taboo

27 06 2010

What have the following got in common?

  • mother bringing sandwiches to father as he fixes the roof
  • father expressionless or relaxed in trying circumstances
  • mother comforting young children
  • modern Native Americans working on ranches, in menial jobs, or doing construction work
  • people in Africa wearing native dress or wearing westernised version of African costumes
  • Hispanic young people always working on second-hand cars
  • old ladies with twenty cats
  • modern Asian Americans wearing dark business suits and glasses

They are all images that a leading US publishing group advises its educational authors and illustrators to avoid, since they are likely to reinforce gender, racial and ageist stereotypes and thereby incur the wrath of government watchdogs.  Likewise, the following topics (among many others) are taboo in US textbooks: conflict with authority, controversial people (such as Malcolm X), creation myths, divorce, euthanasia, illegitimacy, and lying. This time, the prohibitions are motivated – not by a liberal multicultural agenda – but by right-wing attempts to promote and protect traditional American values. Either way, educational publishing is subject to massive self-censorship, due to a combination of “left-wing political correctness and right-wing religious fundamentalism”, according to Diane Ravitch in her (2003) book The Language Police: How pressure groups restrict what students learn. Ravitch documents the way that

…by the end of the 1980s, every publisher had complied with the demands of the critics, both from left and right.  Publishers had imposed self-censorship to head off the outside censors, as well as to satisfy state adoption reviews. Achieving demographic balance and excluding sensitive topics had become more important to their success than teaching children to read or to appreciate good literature.  (p. 96)

In ELT publishing the ‘verbal hygiene’ that publishers impose on themselves is motivated less by a wish to assert multicultural values than by the need to avoid offending potential markets. ELT publishers do have strict guidelines aimed at promoting ‘inclusiveness’, especially with regard to their treatment of women, and of different ethnicities and cultures. Nevertheless, the marketing imperative “means that the progressive and ethical dimension is all too often undermined by the perceived need to sanitize content” , as John Gray (2002) points out. The sanitizing process is enshrined in the lists of taboo topics that publishers provide their writers, such as the so-called PARSNIP topics: politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms (such as communism or atheism), and pork. It’s this ‘parsnip policy’ that, arguably, imbues ELT books with a certain blandness – what Mario Rinvolucri once characterised as “the soft, fudgey, sub-journalistic, woman’s magaziney world of EFLese course materials” (1999, p. 14).

Of course, there are other reasons that publishers (and teachers) might wish to avoid controversial subject matter: for example, that it might disturb, annoy or distract the learners. This argument is typically advanced by those who argue that the language teacher’s job is to teach language, not content. There are others who, like Ravitch, might counter that any censorship of educational materials “should be abhorrent to those who care about freedom of thought, to those who believe that minds grow sharper by contending with challenging ideas” (p. 159).

Given the competing goals of values education, language teaching, and marketing – is the content of ELT coursebooks as good as it will ever be?


Gray, J.  2002. ‘The global coursebook in English language teaching’. In Block, D., and Cameron, D. (Eds.) Globalization and Language Teaching. London: Routledge.

Ravitch, D. 2003.  The Language Police: How pressure groups restrict what students learn. New York: Vintage Books.

Rinvolucri, M. 1999. ‘ The UK, EFLese sub-culture and dialect’. Folio, 5, 2, 12-14