John Leo

References to God and religion tend to disappear on exams and in texts. In one 1985 case, famous in educational circles, a short story about Russian Jewish immigrants making a connection between American Thanksgiving and the Jewish harvest holiday of Sukkot was ruthlessly mangled by the publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. All references to God, the Bible, Jews and Sukkot were removed from the story, "Molly's Pilgrim," by Barbara Cohen. In negotiations, Cohen got references to Sukkot and worship in. The story was a religious one. But no mention of God or the Bible was allowed to remain.

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, a publisher (Bandanna Books) put out an edition of Walt Whitman's poetry with all reference to "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 wrinkled, infirm or 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. In test questions, any specific location is considered biased, since a question about mountain climbing would favor a mountain dweller, or a passage about the seashore might hamper a test-taker in Kansas. The perfect locale for a test passage is nowhere in particular. As a result, Ravitch says, the Times' headline "The Elderly Man and the Sea" is woefully regionalist as well as ageist and sexist. In bias-free language, she says, Hemingway's title should be: "A person who is older and who lives somewhere."

Though hilarious, sensitivity censorship is sobering too. Tedious bureaucrats are working hard to remove challenging material from 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 non-ideological." That sounds fair, but it 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.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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