Who Killed Pippi Longstocking?

Sandra Stotsky mourns a new "multicultural illiteracy."

In an era when Pippi Longstocking has been removed from primary-school reading lists because it includes terms deemed racially insensitive — and when Peter Pan, Robinson Crusoe, Mary Poppins, and Babar the Elephant all have been called oppressive — Sandra Stotsky believes multiculturalism is dumbing down kids.

Political correctness has led to students’ “abysmal ignorance” and has robbed them of the abilities to read and reason, laments Stotsky, a research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In Losing Our Language ($16.95), new from San Francisco’s Encounter Books, she examines contemporary language arts textbooks and decries what she calls a paucity of challenging vocabulary words, adventure stories, literary classics, and tales of little white boys.

“Some selections are there to portray particular groups and build their self-esteem, despite the poor literary or intellectual quality of this material,” Stotsky remarks. “Yet others are there to direct children’s attention to the flaws of the country they live in and to make them feel hostile to or ashamed of white Americans or Western civilization.”

In Stotsky’s view, esteem-building is more perilous than it sounds. Subdividing classrooms into separate study groups based on students’ achievement levels, for instance, “is considered damaging to the self-esteem of low achievers” — but not creating such subdivisions, she says, holds high achievers back.

“If girls are the focus for esteem-building,” then stories and pictures in textbooks “must show girls doing everything boys normally do and nothing girls usually do — especially if it is very feminine — and winning over boys, being stronger than boys. If minorities are the focus, then the reading materials are supposed to reflect their ancestral background … showing them fighting for liberation from ‘oppression’ or doing something grand and impressive.” She says this is a kind of overcompensation that produces anger and resentment and what she calls “multicultural illiteracy” rather than improved reading skills.

Although Stotsky studied mainly language arts books, she also concluded that history books have been rendered “almost incoherent and trivial” by the requirement that they show the history, culture, and achievements of various groups deemed to need esteem-building. “At a cultural level, esteem-building means not showing Western civilization in a favorable light and always portraying other cultures as somehow superior,” she said. “Criticism is acceptable only of our culture, but not of other cultures if they are Third World. The price is steep. Students will not be reading demanding academic or literary works, doing advanced work … or learning constitutional and political history — the events, people, and forces that really changed history.”

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