Jewish World Review May 5, 2003 / 3 Iyar, 5763

Joanne Jacobs

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Consumer Reports

Gender Bias, Banned Words, Helen of Troy | California rejected a reading series for gender bias until The Little Engine That Could was given a sex-change operation.

Such absurdities fill Diane Ravitch's new book, "The Language Police ", which is about the removal from school books and test questions of anything that might be offensive to anyone on the planet.

Historical accuracy often conflicts with political correctness, writes Merle Rubin in the Los Angeles Times (requires registration). A "bias and sensitivity" panel removed a test essay about patchwork quilts made by 19th-century frontier women: "The reviewers objected to the portrayal of women as people who stitch and sew, and who were concerned about preparing for marriage."

Another story about two young African-American girls, one an athlete, the other a math whiz, who help each other learn new skills, was red-flagged for stereotyping blacks as athletic (even though one of the girls was not an athlete but a "mathlete").

A passage on the uses and nutritional values of peanuts was rejected because some students are allergic to peanuts. Stranger still, a story about a heroic blind youth who climbed to the top of Mt. McKinley was rejected, not only because of its implicit suggestion that blind people might have a harder time than people with sight, but also because it was alleged to contain "regional bias": According to the panel's bizarre way of thinking, students who lived in non-mountainous areas would theoretically be at a "disadvantage" in comprehending a story about mountain climbing. Stories set in deserts, cold climates, tropical climates or by the seaside, Ravitch learned, are similarly verboten as test topics, since not all students have had personal experience of these regions.

Owls are out. Navajos don't like them. So is Mt. Rushmore, in case a Lakota student might be offended. Dinosaurs suggest evolution, which offends creationists. Dolphins are regionalist: Not every student lives near the sea.

The New York Times (registration required) points out other banned words, including "brotherhood," "fraternity," "snowman" and "polo."

Mentions of cakes, candy, doughnuts, French fries and coffee should be dropped in favor of references to more healthful foods like cooked beans, yogurt and enriched whole-grain breads.

No wonder students struggle to understand what they read: Elie Wiesel scrubbed of references to Jews and God doesn't make sense. No wonder they lack historical and geographical perspective.

In Britain, trainee teachers were told "brainstorm" is offensive to epileptics. Epileptics, responding to a survey, said they were offended by the notion that they'd be offended.

Meanwhile, all-female Smith College is removing "she" and "her" from its constitution to avoid offending the transgendered.

Lindsay Watson, who recently ended her term as Student Government Association president, said she introduced the initiative as a way to attract a wider range of students to student government.

Watson said she was thinking particularly of students who identify themselves as transgendered, and therefore may be uncomfortable using female pronouns to describe themselves.

"One of the things I spent some time looking into is what is discouraging people from getting involved (in student government)," said Watson. "This was something that screamed really loudly."

So to speak.

Lesson plans to accompany a fourth-rate TV-movie entitled Helen of Troy refer to Britney Spears, but not to Homer . Not even Homer Simpson, much less the guy who wrote The Iliad .

At Education Intelligence Agency, Mike Antonucci is irked. He notes that USA Network's Helen was panned by critics, who wrote of a telenovela "sanitized with spray cans of Cheez-Wiz" (Los Angeles Daily News), and "Malibu Barbie of Troy" (Albuquerque Tribune).

Yet the ostensibly educational Cable in the Classroom created six Helen-related lesson plans for high school students, all chock-full of "critical thinking skills." One lesson plan praised the TV movie for adding "dimension" to Helen's character. Three whole dimensions, and none of them "femme fatale."

Antonucci writes:

In other words, Homer, whose work has survived three thousand years, was deficient in character development - a deficiency corrected by Helen of Troy screenwriter Ronni Kern, whose body of work includes an episode of Baywatch and the film A Change of Seasons, which won the 1980 Razzie award for Worst Screenplay. ...

People who have actually seen the film may find this [dimension] claim puzzling, since USA's Helen "will drop toga quicker than you can yell, 'Yo, wench!'", in the words of one critic.

None of the lesson plans requires any reading. None of them even mentions Homer or The Iliad. Instead, laced throughout the lesson plans are references to Aretha Franklin, Britney Spears, King of the Hill (a cartoon series) and the rock band Rush. A writing prompt asks: "Of the fictional characters that you have read about or seen in a movie, which one most reminds you of you?"

'Cause it's always all about you.

High school students who read at the second- and third-grade level are being taught basic reading skills - finally - thanks to state graduation exams, reports the Contra Costa (California) Times. But even successful students don't read well enough to do high school work, and yet there seems to be a tacit assumption that they should all go on to college.

High school English teachers may have students with reading levels ranging from first grade to collegiate in the same class, making it close to impossible to teach each student at his or her own level.

In Lisa Storer's senior college prep English class at Richmond High, students went through as many as seven drafts to write a passable essay on Hamlet. ...

Even a student with a fourth-grade reading level eventually managed to write a simple five-paragraph essay with a thesis sentence, supporting paragraphs and a conclusion. But colleges expect far more sophisticated work. Parents should ask what their children's reading levels are, because grades can mask a deeper problem, Storer said.

There are a lot of deeper problems here, starting with the false equality of heterogeneous classes.

Spellbound, a documentary about the 1999 National Spelling Bee, gets a rave review from Slate's David Edelstein. The film focuses on eight children, including the daughter of illegal aliens who speak little English, two children of Indian immigrants, a black girl from Washington, D.C., a lonely nerd from rural Missouri and a go-it-alone girl whose mother says she can't pronounce the words her daughter is learning.

In Tampa, the regional win by the daughter of Indian immigrants is celebrated on a Hooters sign: "Congradu tions Nupur."

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JWR contributor Joanne Jacobs, a former Knight-Ridder columnist and San Jose Mercury News editorial writer, blogs daily at She is currently finishing a book, Start-Up High, about a San Jose charter school. Comment by clicking here.

04/28/03: Tests, home-schooling, self-esteem
04/25/03: Lessons, American Pride, Iraqi Schools
04/14/03: Iraqi Textbooks and the English language
03/31/03:Teachers, hugging, text messaging
04/07/03: War talk at school
03/24/03: Watching the war
03/10/03: Classroom chaos
03/03/03: Teaching tales
02/24/03: Segregation stories
02/18/03: Writing Essays, America, Beyond Bert and Ernie
02/13/03: Size matters
02/10/03: Parental homework, cheaters and memoirs
02/03/03: Diplomas, academics, preschools and Ritalin
01/27/03: Head Start, Social Studies, Marx, Africa and Math
01/22/03: Teachers as targets
01/13/03: Big Bully's Feelings
01/06/03: School of 60's Whining and Communal Destruction
12/23/02: Teaching in
12/16/02: Chocolate city?
12/10/02: Mandatory Victimhood --- and when cleaning up a school is 'racist'
11/25/02: Multi-colored math, sensitive science
11/20/02: How to leave no child behind
11/18/02: The tummy track
11/11/02: Dysfunctional documents?
11/04/02: Why go to college? Why test schools?
10/28/02: Pride goeth before an F
10/21/02: Diversity adversity
10/14/02: Bad hat day
10/07/02: Inflated sense of worth
09/30/02: The Royal road to knowledge
09/24/02: Sierra's Club
09/20/02: Stupidity Watch
09/03/02: First, win the war
08/26/02: Out of their field, out of their minds?
08/20/02: Fun with failure

© 2002, Joanne Jacobs