Educational censorship: bland leading the bland

John Leo

6/8/2002 12:00:00 AM - John Leo
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. So on an English exam that all New York high school students must take to graduate, the passage was altered. Annan was quoted as admiring only the seafood, not the 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 testmakers hire people to draw up sensitivity guidelines. In school systems there are more people who apply guidelines, and still more who review and argue about the censorship process. Reviewers debated whether to censor a reference to Mount Rushmore, since Lakota Indians believe the monument intrudes on their sacred ground. "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 and lose control, they shout "Heck!"

Almost all references to Judaism were removed from a passage by Isaac Bashevis Singer. A Hispanic author's reference to a "Gringo lady" became "an American lady." Elsewhere a "skinny" boy was converted into a "thin" one, and a "fat" boy into a "heavy" one. 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 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.