Remember that gently satirical number from “The Music Man” where the matrons of River City, Iowa, wax indignant (“Bawl-zak!”) about the risque novels that children can read at the library?

It’s charming and supposedly nostalgic — yet it isn’t nostalgia when you consider that it captured current reality in the United States: parents, communities, and pedagogues engaged in pitched battles over the content of school curricula and tests.

What Meredith Willson, writing his musical in the 1950s, might not have foreseen was that the conservative censoriousness would be joined, and in many ways overtaken, by a censoriousness coming from the opposite end of the political spectrum. If you doubt that there is an obsession in the academic world with race, class, and gender — one that filters all the way down from grad school semiotics seminars to the nation’s elementary school classrooms — take a peek at the reading materials used to teach American children and test their scholastic achievements. Concerned writers and thinkers in the field of education have singled out textbooks and tests as a major transmission mechanism for the official ideology of multiculturalism and left-liberalism embraced by professional educators for over a generation now.

A kind of left-right pincer movement of political pressure on school books and tests squeezes the life out of them. Activists on both sides have, at various points in the “culture wars” of the last 30 years, assailed classics from Shakespeare to Dickens to William Golding either as bigoted and retrograde about sex and gender (left-wing critique) or as atheistic and far too sexually advanced (right-wing critique). In every region of the country, and sometimes without asking legal permission to do so, school districts have been known to stave off angry complaints by presenting high school students with a Canterbury Tales devoid of bawdiness or a version of “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benet that’s been shorn of all references to God. (The Dark Prince is probably safe from the editor’s red pen since he’s in the title of the work.)

Some of today’s curriculum is written to order for the major textbook publishers, in line with detailed multicultural guidelines they use for producing books for the classroom. Education researcher Sandra Stotsky, in her book Losing Our Language: How Multicultural Classroom Instruction Is Undermining Our Children’s Ability to Read, Write, and Reason (1999), calls this kind of material “pseudo-literature” that  “can use the mouths of babes to convey a politically correct idea.”

She offers a large number of examples, such as a Scott Foresman sixth-grade reader containing a story, “Tails of the Bronx” by Jill Pinkwater. While Pinkwater’s story is thin in the plot and character-development department, you sure can’t miss its message:

“Julio also speaks Spanish — mostly to his grandmother. He says that considering the neighborhood we live in, there is no excuse for all of us not to know at least one language besides English. He even thinks Suzie Q should learn Gaelic. The first time he told her that, Julio had to explain to Suzie Q that Gaelic is the ancient language of Ireland, the place Suzie Q’s ancestors came from.”

Suzie Q, who is no powder puff, gets mad at Julio and pushes him down. The boy picks himself up off the ground and, taking the scuffle philosophically, remarks that Suzie Q is “simply a monolingual lout.”

Publishers do include excerpts of classics like Mary Poppins — considered stereotypical and sexist under the textbook guidelines — in deference to the popularity of such works. But this material is used to grind a political axe, too. As Stotsky reports, the selection from Mary Poppins in Silver Burdett Ginn’s teacher editions of literature for fourth graders is followed by these suggestions for class discussion:

“In the United States, with more women entering the work force and a greater number of single parent households, there is an increasing need for child care centers. Have students discuss this issue and what can be done so that parents can earn a living and still know that their children are being well taken care of. Have students draw up a list of suggestions for dealing with this problem.”

What 10-year-old could ever fall in love with the written word by being asked to respond to lively storytelling as if it were all about public policy?

Diane Ravitch, the noted historian of education, drew attention to the stultifying effect of the publishers’ guidelines in her 2003 book The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. Ravitch reviewed the guidelines for textbooks and for educational testing materials at Riverside, Macmillan-McGraw Hill, Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley, and Holt, Rinehart and Winston. She found “extraordinary self-censorship practiced by the educational publishing industry,” a censoring of anything that might offend any member of any group in any way.

By these rules, texts are purged of allegedly racist phrases like “the deputy’s face darkened” or “the afternoon turned black.” Words like “statesman,” “minority group,” and “heroine” are banned. One publisher told Ravitch that “it was a well-accepted principle in educational publishing that everything written before 1970 was rife with racism and sexism.” Under that principle, a lot of predigested pap -a lot more Jill Pinkwater than Edgar Allan Poe, in other words  — is going to make the cut, most of the time.

Under the Riverside guidelines, “Bias and Sensitivity Concerns in Testing,” tests have to be composed of materials screened for “representational fairness; language usage; stereotyping; and controversial subject matter.”

Controversy must be avoided because certain topics might upset children. The guidelines forbid, among other subjects, “creatures that are considered scary or dirty,” violence and natural catastrophes, high-priced consumer goods or vacations (because the families of some children can’t afford them), politics, religion, unemployment, “unsafe situations,” and junk food.

The Multicultural Guidelines published by Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley proclaim that the company’s textbooks are designed to produce “a Multicultural Person.” It is unclear what this person would be like, however, given that the guidelines also emphasize that people are members of groups, and each group has its own “historically-honed worldview” and its own “values, norms, expectations, and beliefs.”

As for stereotypes, writers and illustrators not only have to avoid them, they are under orders to actively combat them. Under the Macmillan-McGraw Hill guidelines, Respecting Diversity (1993), it may not be suggested that females care more about their appearance than males. Illustrators must portray members of both sexes “preening in front of a mirror.” Ravitch quotes an artist who got fed up with all the PC directives, including that, when a senior citizen was to be in a picture, “I had to show her jogging.”

The guidelines at Holt, Rinehart and Winston were studied by Stephen Bates, author of Battleground: One Mother’s Crusade, the Religious Right, and the Struggle for Control of Our Classrooms (1993). That company began in 1977 to require that the choice of authors, stories, photos, and illustrations track statistically with the latest census data to determine how often groups should be portrayed. Bates’s examination of in-house memos showed editors straining to meet the quotas, at the expense of the quality of the material. Sheepishly editors acknowledged to one another that what got through the filtering process was (in one representative example) “not great literature” but “we gain two points — a female leading character and characters with Spanish American names.” Holt goes the extra mile to see that members of groups don’t feel stereotyped. Jews, for example, cannot be shown as lawyers, doctors, diamond cutters, tailors, or (my favorite prohibition) classical musicians.

Controversy, and more importantly the fear of it, is what drives the publishing companies to strain everything through the heavy filter of the guidelines. Left-wing pressure groups began assailing them in the late 1960s and 1970s, followed by a smaller and less influential, but still significant, contingent of the Christian right in the 1980s.

Bates examined what may be the most famous battle of the books launched by fundamentalist Christians: the 1983 case of Mozert v. Hawkins County Board of Education in Tennessee. On trial was the 1983 edition of Holt Basic Readers, which devout Christian parents found full of secular humanism and disrespect for the government, the military, free market capitalism, and their faith. The initial parental demand that the Holt Basic Readers be removed from the school system altogether was scaled down; the parents’ fallback position was to at least win an “opt out” arrangement that would have enabled their children to read alternate books of which they approved. But in 1988, the Hawkins County parents’ fallback position lost, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to review a lower court’s rejection of the argument that use of this school book interfered with the free expression of their Christian faith. Holt reveled in its legal win — but as Bates reports, its Basic Readers were commercially ruined by the controversy surrounding the case.

The mau-mauing of the educational flak-catchers has taken its toll: It has given us a “contentless curriculum” that reflects the idea “that America lacks any common, shared culture worth speaking of, much less preserving,” Ravitch writes.

Nor is capitalism blameless, it turns out, for this state of affairs. The textbook companies have to make a profit while pleasing all of their various constituencies. Ravitch points out that they’ve received precious little help in resisting political pressure from either the professional educational associations (which have become thoroughly “multicultural” themselves) or the high-profile textbook consultants hired from the graduate schools of education (ditto) or the state education departments. The latter are as allergic to negative public responses as the publishers are.

And the state education departments are crucial, particularly in the so-called “textbook-adoption states” — those, like California, Oregon, and Texas, that have taken textbook approval away from schools and school boards, instead making these decisions on a statewide basis. As Sandra Stotsky observes in Losing Our Language, the “adoption states” form a single, large market for the publishers, so they exert an influence on instructional reading textbooks that is far out of proportion to their actual population.

The goal of feminists and multiculturalists — achieving social equality — is laudable. And in theory, promoting respect for minorities and women, and bringing up minority test scores, sound like good ways to reach that laudable goal. In practice, however, the enterprise has been a failure, not least because a radical version of multiculturalism came into vogue in the mid-1980s.

Ravitch, an articulate defender of the traditional curriculum, says it “could have been expanded to make it more inclusive of women and minority groups, but instead critics attacked its very nature” — as too “pro-Western,” too white, and more fundamentally, too focused on having students master a body of knowledge. In fact, contemporary pedagogy deems the very notion of “mastery” to be suspect. It is redolent of, as one Massachusetts school principal put it, “a rigid bias about learning and culture.”

The new dispensation is not to have students master a body of knowledge or a literary canon but to “develop critical thinking.” The inner voice of common sense might whisper at this point that students, like other human beings, can only “think critically” about actual subjects — but this runs contrary to multicultural doctrine. The only American school children still likely to be required to do the old-fashioned work of mastering a subject, reading a defined set of great literary works or learning a defined set of important historical facts, are the ones in private schools or in the Advanced Placement programs that some public schools offer. Usually only an elite, in other words, has the opportunity to be exposed to something better than the multicultural morass.

The effort to raise standards in the public schools — an effort for which bipartisan political support emerged nationally in the mid-1990s — has largely run aground, according to Ravitch. During the last half a decade, the path of least resistance for the states and school districts has been to “raise standards” by finding standards that — in typical multicultural fashion — offend no one: “Controversy is far more likely to erupt in response to sins of commission than to sins of omission. So omission is the order of the day — a goal achieved by concentrating on skills while ignoring content.”

Thus does it come to pass that school books and tests created to reflect a multicultural outlook 1) perpetuate cultural fragmentation instead of preparing students to live side by side with others in a pluralist democracy, 2) fail to teach basic skills, and 3) disproportionately affect students in America’s public schools — where most minority children happen to be enrolled.

In terms of achievement scores in reading and writing, Stotsky cites the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) findings of stagnation or decline for American students as a whole, from the mid-1980s to the present. Significantly, she points out that the NAEP tests do not show any evidence that a curriculum steeped in identity politics has benefited black or Latino students. And she asks why there has been virtually no discussion in the education field — and literally no research — on “a possible connection between…the rise of an illiberal version of multiculturalism in the 1980s and the decline in minority students” reading scores in the 1990s.

Good question. Lord what hypocrites these multiculturalists be.