Jewish World Review June 10, 2002 / 1 Tamuz, 5762
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Exam questions shouldn't make students uncomfortable, says a New York state education official. So should test takers have to read that Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary general, admires "fine California wine and seafood"? Of course not. Some student somewhere might be uncomfortable reading about wine admiration. On an English exam that all state high school students must take to graduate, the passage was altered. Annan was quoted as admiring only seafood, not wine. (Possible student discomfort with seafood and California went totally unaddressed.)
"Sensitivity" censorship is a huge industry in the world of education. Textbook publishers and test makers hire people to draw up sensitivity guidelines. In school systems, more people apply guidelines, and still more review and argue about the censorship process. Reviewers debated whether to cut a reference to Mount Rushmore. Many Lakota Indians are offended by the monument since it stands on ground they consider sacred. "Adopt-a-highway" litter control programs are controversial, too. They may offend adopted children.
Coping with this nonsense is usually the lonely work of conservatives. But this time even the ACLU and the New York Times were outraged, so the state had to back down. (The Times headline, referring to Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, was "The Elderly Man and the Sea?")
Jeanne Heifetz, a Brooklyn woman who opposes all high-stakes testing, broke the story by showing that the state's Regents tests in English have been cleansed of nearly all references to race, religion, gender, nudity, alcohol, age, and even the mildest profanity. On New York tests, when fictional characters get really angry, they shout "heck!"
Almost all references to Judaism were removed from a passage by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Elsewhere, a "skinny" boy was converted into a "thin" one, and a "fat" boy into a "heavy" one. A Hispanic author's reference to a "Gringo lady" became "an American lady." Racial references were removed from a moving passage by Annie Dillard on what she learned as a rare white visitor to a library in a black neighborhood.
References to the Creator and religion tend to disappear on exams and in texts. In one 1985 case, famous in educational circles, a story about Russian Jewish immigrants making a connection between Thanksgiving and the Jewish harvest holiday of Sukkos was ruthlessly mangled by the textbook publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. All references to the Creator, the Bible, Jews, and Sukkos were removed from Molly's Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen. In negotiations, Cohen got Sukkos as well as the word worship in, but Creator and the Bible were still banned.
A lot of sensitivity censorship comes from attempts to rid famous texts of anything that looks like male dominance, not to mention offensive words like manslaughter, mankind, and animal kingdom, which is classist as well as sexist. Not long ago, Bandanna Books put out an edition of Walt Whitman's poetry with "he" and "him" changed to the sensitive new unisex terms "hu" and "hum."
In textbooks, the sensitivity industry tends to reverse stereotypes rather than to erase them. The wife is always jumping under the Buick to check the suspension while the husband minds the baby. Stereotype reversal makes it almost impossible to portray elderly people in texts and illustrations, says Diane Ravitch, an assistant secretary of education under the first President Bush. Since it is ageist to depict anyone as limited in any way by the aging process, the elderly tend to come out seeming like vigorous 20-year-olds.
Ravitch, who is writing a book on educational censorship, says tests and texts are combed for regional bias. A question about mountains would be biased in favor of mountain dwellers, she notes, or a reference to the seashore would hamper test takers in Kansas. As a result, she says, the Times headline "The Elderly Man and the Sea?" is woefully regionalist as well as ageist and sexist. In Ravitch's opinion, it should be: "A person who is older and lives somewhere."
Though hilarious, sensitivity censorship is sobering, too. Tedious
bureaucrats are working hard to remove challenging material from the
schools. The New York sensitivity review guidelines ban "language,
content, or context that is not accessible to one or more racial or
ethnic groups." Translation: Keep everything bland and down the
middle. Censorship mandates are buried in all sorts of rules and laws.
The "No Child Left Behind" Act says instruction and content must be
"secular, neutral, and nonideological." That sounds fair, but it surely
can be used to justify removal of all religious references or mention of
almost any controversial body of thought. It's a classic case of the
road to heck being paved with good intentions.
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