John Leo
Which of the following stories would be too biased for schools to allow on tests? (1) Overcoming daunting obstacles, a blind man climbs Mount McKinley; (2) dinosaurs roam the Earth in prehistoric times; (3) an Asian-American girl, whose mother is a professor, plays checkers with her grandfather and brings him pizza.

As you probably guessed, all three stories are deeply biased. (1) Emphasis on a "daunting" climb implies that blindness is some sort of disability, when it should be viewed as just another personal attribute, like hair color. Besides, mountain-climbing stories are examples of "regional bias," unfair to readers who live in deserts, cities and rural areas. (2) Dinosaurs are a no-no -- they imply acceptance of evolutionary theory. (3) Making the girl's mother a professor perpetuates the "model minority" myth that stereotypes Asian-Americans. Older people must not be shown playing checkers. They should be up on the roof fixing shingles or doing something vigorous. And pizza is a junk food. Kids may eat it -- but not in a school story.

That's what's going on in schools these days. Diane Ravitch's new book, "The Language Police," documents "an intricate set of rules" applied to test questions as well as textbooks. A historian of education who served as an assistant secretary of education for the first President Bush, Ravitch offers many eye-catching cases of subjects vetoed: peanuts as a good snack (some children are allergic), owls (taboo in Navajo culture), and the palaces of ancient Egypt (elitist).

Back in the 1980s and '90s, lots of us chuckled at the spread of the "sensitivity" industry in schools. Words were removed from tests and books lest they hurt someone's feelings, harm the classroom effort or impair morals. Most of us assumed that this was a fad that would soon disappear as grown-ups in education exerted the rule of reason.

But ridicule had little effect, and grown-ups either converted to the sensitivity ethic or looked the other way. Textbook publishers, with millions of dollars at stake, learned to insulate themselves from criticism by caving in to all objections and writing craven "guidelines" to make sure authors would cave, too.

John Leo

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

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