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Jewish World Review March 5, 2001 / 10 Adar, 5761

Linda Seebach

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Consumer Reports

Science-fair Barbie gets into trouble -- A THIRD-GRADE girl at Mesa Elementary School in Boulder, Colo., used black and white Barbie dolls in her science-fair project. She asked 30 adults and 30 fifth-graders which doll was prettier, switching the dolls' outfits for half of each group.

Pretty sophisticated for the third grade, I'd say.

All the adults picked the doll wearing the lavender dress, black or white.

Among the children, 24 picked the white doll.

"I discovered that ... kids mostly liked the white Barbie. Only six kids liked the black Barbie," the young researcher concluded.

An hour after the science fair opened, teachers removed her project, saying it violated the district's nondiscrimination policy, which prohibits saying anything that might have the effect of demeaning the race of an individual or group.

The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is prepared to sue if the district does not change its policies, said its chairman, Barry Satlow.

"The inevitable result of overbroad policies like this is overreaction by school officials," Satlow wrote in a letter to district officials.

It's a great letter, though I am not entirely persuaded that the policy is unconstitutional in an elementary school. But even if it's legally permissible, it is educationally unsound. A science fair is a public forum for the discussion and encouragement of scientific thinking. "Don't do anything controversial" is not a scientific principle.

Such a rule would be a bad idea at any time, but imposing it after the fact rates fines doubled for political correctness. If she'd found less evidence of race consciousness among the students, would the teachers have reacted the same way? Surely one of the lessons children should be learning about science is that sometimes you get results you weren't expecting and don't much like.

The Rocky Mountain Skeptics had a lively discussion about the Barbie controversy at its meeting last weekend, on whether the group should take an official position opposing the school's action. Members were divided on that, and if I were a member I would be inclined to say no, on the grounds that groups formed for another purpose should not get involved in political activities. But there was very broad agreement that the school shouldn't have let politics trump science.

One person suggested that the adults were simply more aware of social expectations. But individuals couldn't have known what variables were being tested. Also, that explanation requires that none of the adults who saw the white doll in the lavender dress reasoned that way, while the adults who saw the black doll either did or just liked the dress. Sometimes a dress is only a dress; it's more plausible to assume that they really did think the other outfit was ugly.

That the 15 children who saw the white doll in the lavender dress picked it means nothing; so did the adults. In the other group of 15, nine picked the white doll in the ugly clothes and six the black doll in the lavender dress.

The result hardly implies rampant racism, but it does suggest that the children are race-conscious in some way that the adults are not. It could just be familiarity; Mesa is 93 percent white, not unlike Boulder as a whole.

Adults, wherever they may live now, are unlikely to have been so isolated all their lives.

But another possibility is that children - maybe Boulder children especially - have had multiculturalism drummed into them since preschool, if not since infancy. The message is supposed to be that they should be tolerant and sensitive when dealing with people of other cultures, and who would want to argue with that? But the subtext of the message is markedly less benign; it's that race determines culture and defines individuals. If the children were influenced by the doll's race, perhaps they were just demonstrating how carefully they have been taught.

The reaction of the adults in this situation certainly reinforces the lesson that how people think is governed by how they look. In a letter to parents, Mesa principal Greg Thompson wrote that the project was removed because "teachers felt the project was racially insensitive and could cause offense to their students, ... particularly students of color."

If every topic that might give offense to someone is excluded from debate, there's not much left to talk about. Schools should protect diversity of opinion are zealously as they protect other kinds.

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02/26/01: Dropping SATs in California has nothing to do with being 'fair'
02/21/01: Why no outrage at discrimination against non-athletes?

© 2001, SHNS