June 2, 2002
From this morning’s New York Times:
In a feat of literary sleuth work, Ms. Heifetz, the mother of a high school senior and a weaver from Brooklyn, inspected 10 high school English exams from the past three years and discovered that the vast majority of the passages drawn from the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Anton Chekhov and William Maxwell, among others had been sanitized of virtually any reference to race, religion, ethnicity, sex, nudity, alcohol, even the mildest profanity and just about anything that might offend someone for some reason. Students had to write essays and answer questions based on these doctored versions versions that were clearly marked as the work of the widely known authors.Many of the affected authors are alive—and, when Heifetz informed them, were outraged. Several have written to the office of the state education commissioner.
In an excerpt from the work of Mr. Singer, for instance, all mention of Judaism is eliminated, even though it is so much the essence of his writing. His reference to “Most Jewish women” becomes “Most women” on the Regents, and “even the Polish schools were closed” becomes “even the schools were closed.” Out entirely goes the line “Jews are Jews and Gentiles are Gentiles.” In a passage from Annie Dillard’s memoir, “An American Childhood,” racial references are edited out of a description of her childhood trips to a library in the black section of town where she is almost the only white visitor, even though the point of the passage is to emphasize race and the insights she learned about blacks.
[Frank] Conroy wrote in part: “Who are these people who think they have a right to ‘tidy up’ my prose? The New York State Political Police? The Correct Theme Authority?”The state Education Department acknowledged and defended the practice, saying it was in compliance with “sensitivity review guidelines”, so no student will be “uncomfortable in a testing situation.”
Cathy Popkin, Lionel Trilling professor in the humanities at Columbia, wrote: “I implore you to put a stop to the scandalous practice of censoring literary texts, ostensibly in the interest of our students. It is dishonest. It is dangerous. It is an embarrassment. It is the practice of fools.”
In the Chekhov story “The Upheaval,” the exam takes out the portion in which a wealthy woman looking for a missing brooch strip-searches all of the house’s staff members. Students are then asked to use the story to write an essay on the meaning of human dignity.The department’s assistant commissioner for curriculum, instruction and assessment told the Times that they “did not believe that it was necessary to ask authors’ permission to change their work.”
A paragraph in John Holt’s “Learning All the Time” is truncated to eliminate some of the reasons Suzuki violin instruction differs in Japan and the United States, apparently not to offend anyone who might find the particulars somehow insulting. Students are nonetheless then asked to answer questions about those differences.
In other words: The educators of New York State lie to children. Then they require that children pass a test on the content of the lies.
This is beyond outrageous. This is no subtle matter of teaching from old-fashioned biases, or of presenting a worldview with which some adults might disagree. This is, rather, a large department of the state government deliberately contriving and presenting lies about serious literary work. It is in its own way a kind of child abuse, not as spectacular as battering or molestation but every bit as flagrant a violation of trust. The people who do it and who defend it should be removed immediately from any position of power over children, and never allowed to work in such positions again. [09:12 AM]