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June 2, 2002

Lying to children Jeanne Heifetz, a mother in Brooklyn, has discovered that New York State’s Regents exams, which high school students must take in order to graduate, systematically bowdlerize famous works of contemporary literature, without indicating that the passages have been altered.

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.

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.

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.
[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?”

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.”

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.”
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.

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.

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.”

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]

Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Lying to children:

Laurie Mann ::: (view all by) ::: June 02, 2002, 11:51 AM:

The situation you describe about the New
York Regents exams is one of those horrible
points where the far left meets the far right -
censoring is the right way to "educate" children.

The folks who would edit classics to not "offend"
anyone are the same folks who think we shouldn't
read Huck Finn. These are the censors from the left.

In other parts of the country, the censors from the
far right rule. Look at Texas, where a state
board (comprised mostly of fundamentalist Christians) have expunged evolution from science
text books and replaced with "intelligenct creation."

Thanks for pointing out this eggregious example of

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 02, 2002, 01:36 PM:

I'm not sure this kind of censorship is so much driven by ideology as by institutional ass-covering and pettiness. Certainly the urge to control others lurks in people of every political stripe, and just as certainly the liberal desire to not do injury has resulted in some spectacularly foolish unintended consequences, like (as you point out) the constant attempts to "protect" children from Huckleberry Finn, that great anti-racist novel, because its main black character is called Nigger Jim.

However. The censorship in question is being committed by the New York State Department of Education--which has reported to a Republican administration since 1994. It is being protested by a coalition of individuals and groups including the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Civil Liberties Union. Tell me again how this censorship is coming "from the left"? Perhaps I missed the point at which the New York State Department of Education was taken over by grim-jawed, dialectical Leninists.

Personally, I don't think this is "one of those horrible points where the far left meets the far right" so much as it is one of those illuminating points at which thoughtful people of the left and right find themselves ranged together against the morally cowardly, the intellectually vacuous, and the absent-mindedly cruel. If it tells us anything, it's that the categories "left" and "right," artifacts of European politics from the late 19th century, are increasingly inadequate to political discourse in the America of 2002.

Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: June 02, 2002, 02:46 PM:

Copyright law to the rescue? Reprinting bowdlerized versions of the texts and representing them as the authors original works seems to go far beyond any reasonable "fair use" privilege the Regents might claim.

Given the traumatic nature of the experience of being asked questions about facts excised from the text and likely diminished reputation and readerhood, the authors involved ought to be able to sue for compensatory and punitive damages.

Well, in the world where I'm the Chief Magistrate, anyway. Your worldline may vary.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 02, 2002, 02:53 PM:

That's only a solution if we think that the gravest offense here is against the authors of the works under discussion.

And I don't think we think that.

What's happening here is fraud. The authors are taking collateral damage. The central victims are the children.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 02, 2002, 03:00 PM:

The part where the Education Department's Assistant Commissioner for Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment said she "did not believe that it was necessary to ask authors' permission to change their work" was pretty stunning.

I was going to post some other comments here, but I'm over a thousand words and still not finished, so I think it'll have to go into my own weblog.

Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: June 02, 2002, 03:09 PM:

Legally, it's a solution that might be implemented under current laws.

I think you'd have a hell of a time finding a law under which you could prosecute lying to children, especially when their parents have tacitly bought into and even actively promoted the program of fraud by their educational authorities.

I agree with you about the central issue, I think. Teach the truth as best we know it or don't teach at all. Don't make up lies to simplify your job at children's expense.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 02, 2002, 03:21 PM:

I'm not primarily concerned with prosecuting these halfwits. I'm more interested in getting down to first principles. We all accept that what gets taught in the public schools isn't always going to be "true" in the sense that we feel our sophisticated adult political and philosophical views are "true." Primary and secondary schools simplify, and much tribute is paid to highly normative views.

But there's a level at which they're supposed to teach true facts. Paraguay is in South America, not in Wales. Two plus three is five, not nine. And the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer have Jews in them. Start trading away that kind of ground-level factuality, and you're not just being thoughtlessly normative. You're committing educational malpractice, and you need to be fired. Now.

Mary ::: (view all by) ::: June 02, 2002, 04:03 PM:

I don't have anything useful to add about the NY Regents exam, but one side issue has caught my interest.

Patrick, you mentioned that the main black character in Huck Finn is called "Nigger Jim". He isn't: Twain calls him Jim throughout. I just searched the full text via Gutenberg at ftp://ftp.ibiblio.org/pub/docs/books/gutenberg/etext93/hfinn10.txt and found the phrase "nigger Jim" at only one point: the note Huck writes to Miss Watson but never sends. It's clear in the note that the first word of the phrase is a description, not part of his name.

I don't think you're the only well-read person making that mistake as I've seen this appelation used in a lot of different articles and essays. And I know that until I re-read the book recently, that false name was also fixed in my memory.

So while the Board of Regents is attempting to rid their excerpts of all "offensive" words, a lot of educated people somehow remember a much more offensive name for Twain's character than was actually used. Anyone have any idea how this came about?

Lois Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2002, 01:18 AM:

Did anyone else immediately think of the Connie Willis short story, "Ado"?

Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2002, 01:39 AM:

I'd guess that to the makers of the test, the important thing is testing ability at reading comprehension and analysis, so the actual text involved doesn't matter much, as long as it's something vaguely literary. They probably wouldn't acknowledge the source at all if they didn't have to.

But it's a bizarre perversion of the presumed intent of the education that's being evaluated in the first place if all the kids have to analyze is this devitaminized gruel.

I remember distinctly the first time I realized that the material reprinted in school books was bowdlerized. We were reading _Macbeth_ aloud in class, we from an English textbook and the teacher from another edition. She got to the one significant bit of comic relief in _Macbeth_, the porter's speech about the effects of alcohol on sexual performance and the bladder-- and it was missing from our textbooks, just cut out without a single indication that it had ever been there. I had read _Fahrenheit 451_; I knew what was up, and we were all angry about it.

Laurie Mann ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2002, 07:20 AM:

Patrick, thanks for the correction. What you
described sounded like censorship from the left,
and I apologize for interpreting it that way.

Whatever the cause, the behavior is foolish.

Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2002, 08:24 AM:

Purely as a data point here, and as a side note to the main discussion: I believe that the state whose heavily-fundamentalist school board voted to expunge evolution from the state's biology textbooks in favor of intelligent creation was
Kansas, not Texas. (See http://www.infidels.org/activist/state/evolution.shtml for more details.)

Granted, they're both large, flat states somewhere out there west of the Mississippi, full of conservatives and tornados, so I guess a bit of confusion is understandable.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2002, 09:06 AM:

Mary: good point.

Matt says "I'd guess that to the makers of the test, the important thing is testing ability at reading comprehension and analysis, so the actual text involved doesn't matter much, as long as it's something vaguely literary." I'm sure people in the New York State Department of Education are refining on this defense even as we speak, but it doesn't wash. If this were truly the case, there are thousands of nicely complex literary passages they could have used without needing to bowdlerize. We could probably find a dozen from the essays of Charles Lamb without even breathing hard.

Teresa thinks the people compiling the tests and the people making the cuts must be different groups within the bureaucracy, which would certainly account for the presence of questions that address aspects of the texts that have been, in fact, cut.

Laurie, I certainly agree that the moral panic over a perceived need for all-encompassing "sensitivity" has its roots in certain degraded forms of liberalism. What we're really seeing is an unwitting alliance between different kinds of authoritarianism -- the prissy power-trip of overprotective liberalism, hooked up to the old-fashioned naked power of the Regents system. I mostly quibble with the commonplace idea that all political viewpoints can be plotted on a line, and that the line is a circle where the extremes ultimately meet. I think plotting the range of political viewpoints requires at least a plane, if not three or more dimensions of space.

Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2002, 09:26 AM:

Teresa's point has the sound of truth. Probably one committee selects authors whose work reflects realities and social issues of New York State, another committee works on passages and questions, and then the Committee for Pretending We Can All Be Color Blind Now comes through and cleanses the ethnicity out of the selected passages.

Not wanting to press a sore point, but firing these bureaucrats, and the politicians who set up the conflicting policy that generated their committees, probably requires a lawsuit and punitive damages (i.e. a fine because they should have known better). I don't know of anything else that will force re-evaluation of how much discretion the bureaucrats should have.

A successful court action would provide that, and possibly supply political ammunition: how badly did elected representatives have to mismanage the government for our children to be hurt this way? Worse yet, how much taxpayer money was wasted making up tests which were literally worse than useless?

Phil ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2002, 10:53 AM:

These kids are being tested not on on their comprehension of Chehkov, but on their comprehension of a passage that happens to be Chekhov. I agree it's silly to alter Macbeth in an English class, but in the context of a Regents exam, why is it necessary that Frank Conroy have his potentially offensive language presented to high school students? One can place stuff in context when evaluating an entire work, but how are people supposed to be doing that with two paragraphs?

And Annie Dillard seems to be in the clouds when she wonders what the possible purpose could be in an exercise testing people on a passage that isn't true to her lived experience. Few people, least of all a high school student taking a Regents exam, care about her lived experience. The purpose of the exercise is to test a student's ability to read English, not Annie Dillard. Get over it.

Fraud? Injuries to the children? What are you people? On dope?

Mary ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2002, 12:09 PM:

1) There's plenty of relatively innocuous material that could be used in these exams. Why offer excerpts from more difficult and controversial authors if you're going to substantially alter these passages? There is no need to do this at all.

Fraud: yep. The authors' original works are being edited without any public admission that this s being done.

2) They aren't even doing this carefully and correctly: as people have already said, it looks as if the questions for these passages are set before the cuts occur. In at least a few cases, the questions depend on the cut material to be answered correctly. So the students who never had a chance to read and remember the originals will find it much more difficult to get full marks for these questions.

Injuries to children: yep. Dumb tests don't serve anyone's interests.

Dope: nope, just a pot of nice Assam. (Only in Canada, pity).

Phil ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2002, 12:34 PM:

as to 1) I agree with you to some extent. There is plenty of innocuous material available. Why bother with difficult material if you have to edit it? Can't really say, other than perhaps they wanted stuff written for adults, since it would have a greater complexity in sentence structure and concept than inoffensive books written for children. They are testing reading ability, right? Yet at the same time, they don't want to take the chance of kids being distracted by "offensive" material. Or to hear a bunch of complaints from parents about it. So instead they hear it from people who seem to have forgotten that the Regents English exam is not about teaching literature, but about testing reading ability.

But fraud? Seriously? Exactly who is harmed and who benefited from this awful crime?

Perhaps the original author. I, for one, had never heard of Frank Conroy or Annie Dillard. Maybe I'll read one of them.

as to 2) There IS a misleading paragraph in the article that suggests that children are asked to answer questions that depend on the cut material. I doubt it. Yet what it actually says is that children are asked to answer questions about the differences between violin instruction in Japan and the United States, and that some material regarding differences had been removed. It does NOT say that correct answers depend on the excised material. If that were the case, that WOULD be a good story, and serious problem in the exam. I suspect it did not happen, or the article would have spent more than on paragraph stuck in the middle on it.

F. Brett Cox ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2002, 12:37 PM:

With friends like these, who needs William Bennett?

Bill Quick ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2002, 02:08 PM:

I think Patrick has the right of it when he says this is mostly institutional ass-covering. Does anybody have any idea how many lawsuits NY has fended off over "offensive content" in edu materials?

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2002, 06:08 PM:

"Phil", posting from the likely-sounding email address "blah@blah.com," offers the following constructive remark: "What are you people? On dope?"

Well, whatever dope we're on, it doesn't seem to keep most of us from posting under our real names, which is more than I can say for "Phil".

I'm forebearing to post the IP address that "Phil" is posting from, or the name (and web page) of the law firm that owns that IP block. But here's the thing: I'm not wild about people posting from disguised identities, but I'm moderately tolerant of it. (Whoever "Mary" is, for instance, I have no beef with her.) I'm downright intolerant, however, of people who don't identify themselves, use a fake email address, and post personal insults. It's beginning to occur to me that if they want to post anonymous insults, they're entitled to do so, but I'm not obliged to provide them with the server space and bandwidth.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2002, 06:09 PM:

First, I question the idea that these passages could reasonably be found objectionable or disturbing. A high school student who's seriously upset by them has problems beyond anything the test-makers and the school system can address.

Second, arbitrarily taking certain words, images, and situations out of a piece of writing is not like taking all the green M&M's out of the bowl. Words aren't discrete units. What they mean is contingent upon the other words around them. Deleting or altering language without reference to its role in the overall structure of information makes it much harder for readers to arrive at an overall sense of what's going on in the piece -- which, in turn, interferes with their ability to compile and recompile temporary contingent understandings as they read. That constant automatic collation of meaning is a basic component of the reading process. They're doing damage to it when they munge the text. That is, they're making the test texts more difficult and frustrating to read. This falls hardest on the usual list of vulnerabilities: dyslexia, other learning disabilities, English as a secondary language, nonstandard English as a first language, a disrupted educational history...

Third, reading is not a skill you can test separately from a student's comprehension of what he or she is reading.

In sum, what they're doing to the students is harmful not helpful, and what they're saying is palpable nonsense.

Ray ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2002, 06:26 PM:

I hate tests.

The only test I remember with fondness is the test from my freshman French course in college (which was very difficult since my high school had no foreign language course and since I'm extremely lazy and reliant on verbal dexterity to get by) which included the first paragraph from "Madame Bovary."

Abridged. (Without comment, except from my professor, M. Dufaut, when I asked him what that wonderful paragraph was.)

And "Madame Bovary" turned out to be my least favorite among Flaubert's novels.

Obviously this isn't a coherent argument. I merely offer it because: (1) A test measures other things than pleasure in complexly beautiful literature. Whether tests should exist, and whether complexly beautiful literature should exist, are different questions. (2) Whatever the diddly-dang a test measures can be skewed in weird directions even (and especially) without abridgment, because tests are meant to skew in one direction and great literature is meant to skew in another. (3) Almost no one ever remembers what the diddly-dang what was on a test unless they're a freak who decides they want to look up the unabridged version. (4) Yes, one can find innocuous material to put on tests without abridgment. But then the freaks don't get anything to keep them awake and give them something to talk about with M. Dufaut.

Philippe Richards ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2002, 06:44 PM:

I think you can question whether the passages in question are indeed objectionable to you. I wouldn't find them objectionable, either. But if a high school student is offended, or is at least distracted by the language then it seems to me that might be a good argument for keeping it out of an exam where the integrity of the text is not important. Again, what is important is that the student be able to understand enought to answer the questions posed about the passage. The passage, as far as the Regents are concerned, is not "about" Judaism or race relations, or about Frank Conroy's life. It's just an exercise to figure out whether the student can read, and how well.

Which brings me to the second point. So what if it may make the passage more difficult to read? The point is to test a student's ability to all these things you talk about. Yes, it hits those with educational disabilities, those for whom English is a second language, or nonstandard English, or those with disrupted educational abilities the hardest. Isn't it supposed to? Isn't it supposed to figure out the difference between those who can read English well and those who don't? It's a test-it's supposed to be difficult.

If Johnny can't read, shouldn't the test make that clear? Or should NYS pass him anyway?

And funny that Mr. Hayden, who is so critical of the Regents protecting the tender sensibilities of high school kids, should make veiled threats against me because I offended his.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2002, 06:49 PM:

1a. But it seems to me that that's a good description of what a lit test tests. 1b. Once upon a time, tests were meant to be diagnostic. 2. Some literature. Some tests. Some not. Some not. Some truth there, all the same. 3a. Bet me. 3b. One looks up the unabridged version as confirmation. 4. Yes; but how is it that the text-mungers have so much power and so little oversight that the test-makers weren't given the opportunity to substitute different texts and readjust the questions?

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2002, 06:50 PM:

Oh, keep your pants on. I didn't "make veiled threats against you"; I observed that disinclined to let my resources (server, bandwidth, and most of all, personal attention) get used to enable you to post anonymous insults.

That's not a "veiled threat," except in your imagination.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2002, 07:00 PM:

Philippe Richards, I don't think I'm going to find it entertaining to argue about the mechanics of reading comprehension with someone who can't tell a dispassionate warning from a veiled threat.

I'm not dropping out of the discussion. I've just stopped feeling any sense of hope when I read your posts.

Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2002, 09:27 PM:

I have a hunch that the New York Regents, Princeton Educational Testing Service, and others like them have probably been tinkering with material that appears in their exams for fifty years.

When I was in high school, taking these things, I remember that I would automatically allow for contextual mindsets that didn't make sense as part of the test. I recall "sentences most like the previous paragraph" that weren't like it, antonyms that weren't antonyms, and so on. The tests projected a kind of subjective personality of a dysfunctional, but powerful authority that sought to be pleased.

A fair part of the time, the internal logic of the words on the paper, as I understood them, contrasted with "the best answer" that would permit progress to the next question.

My subjective feeling is that these tests were, and probably still are, skewed to reward children who can placate test makers with less-than rigorous thinking patterns. Children who waste time wondering why something seems to be wrong with the test wind up with lower scores.

The selection for ability to work with "customized" versions of the truth rather than the "ding an sich" may be one of the great failings of the American public school system that we're still paying for.

Ray ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2002, 12:11 AM:

Lenny yes! I sought the words, but didn't find them. Thank you.

Tests measure adaptability to measurable standards. Literature measures adaptability per se, which leaves one (by the standards of tests) adrift, and leaves one (by other measures) free or swimming hard for shore.

I was a good test-taker, but it always seemed like a horrible scam to me: I pretend I'm a certain kind of person and the answers come out right. Whereas I feel like a pretty honest reader.

But from what I've seen of this story, it seems that, wrong-headed and ten-thumbed though the test-revisers were, they were genuinely trying to reduce "distractions" that would tug at some test-takers more than others: trying to fit the 19th century ideal of "great literature" as a universal communicator together with the ideal of universally applicable test scores and with the reality of a multicultural canon and student body -- and ending up in a complete muddle.

Where they definitively went wrong, as Teresa writes, is in not collaborating actively with the test-creators.

I'm just not sure that they didn't go inevitably wrong with the initial attempt.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2002, 12:36 AM:

Ray, I can't help thinking that presenting yourself as an "educator" and then lying about specific cultural artifacts is, you know, inevitably wrong.

Even in the service of the grandly abstracted notion of "reading comprehension."

I also suspect that our prejudices and eccentricities and biases and past experiences are what we read with. That we can no more exercise "reading comprehension" independent of the grain of our oddity than we can fight jungle wars in Asia by means of scientific management techniques.

What I care about is the particularity of what writers actually said--and what readers actually read--rather than some rubberized official's sanitized notion of "reading comprehension."

I don't actually give a damn for "reading comprehension," as opposed to the irreducible phenomenon of the reader gripped, caught, pinned, breathing hard, reading. "Comprehension" is the ninny from the principal's office wanting to know if you can name the modal shifts in "Day Tripper." Art says: fuck that.

Phil ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2002, 10:57 AM:

So, "veiled threat" is exaggerating. But a dispassionate warning? That's a bit much. The statement about "forebearing" to post my IP address and employer comes well before musing about banning anonymous postings. If that's not a little Susan Schmidtish, I don't know what it is.

Anyway, I can't help feeling that some people are thinking the NYS Regents English exam is some sort of literature exam. It is not, at least it wasn't when I took it(it was not, until fairly recently, even a requirement to graduate from high school in New York State). It simply measures a student's ability to read English, to understand what is being "said", or to write in English.

So, frankly, as offensive this may be for some people, a person who has difficulty with written English, for whatever reason, is supposed to do poorly. It has nothing to do with the ability to find the romantic themes in Moby Dick.

And if anyone would like to look at an actual NYS Regents English exam, hooray, you can! Even the ones specifically referred to in the Article. They are here: http://www.emsc.nysed.gov/ciai/testing/engre/regenteng.html

And guess what? Jeanne Hefeitz and the New York Times seemed to be as confused as everybody else about the point of the whole exercise. The NY Times figures the whole point of the passage by Annie Dillard(from the April 2001 exam, Session Two) is about race and what Dillard learned about blacks by visiting a library in a black neighborhood. Well, as far as the Regents are concerned, race has nothing to do with it. That's wrong as originally written, but for students, it's just raw material for an essay. And frankly, I can see why the emphasis on race was removed; can anybody see some students, particularly in New York City, being a little insulted by the idea that Dillard was surprised to learn that black people actually liked to read about fields and streams? Is this white lady crazy or what?

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2002, 11:28 AM:

"If that's not a little Susan Schmidtish, I don't know what it is."

Hmm, let's see.

Susan Schmidt: Washington Post reporter who responded to abusive email by complaining to the emailers' employers.

Electrolite: Obscure weblog that responded to abusive posts by not contacting, or even naming, the writer's employer.

Yes, very similar, to be sure.

As to the notion that what's under discussion is "the ability to find the romantic themes in Moby Dick" -- well, no, but better luck next time.

Andrea Harris ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2002, 12:11 PM:

You know, I was wondering how long it would take for someone to come out of the woodwork and say that this matter was not so bad as the NYT article made it out to be, what are we getting so upset about, and who cares anyway? Here comes Phil: "Nothing to see here folks, move along now!"

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2002, 01:48 PM:


And somehow, somehow, I'm getting the feeling that ol' Philippe Richards there is more interested in picking a quarrel with Patrick than he is in the ostensible subject. I can't imagine why; it's not as though he has a lot of history with Patrick. But then, Philippe Richards doesn't seem to have a lot of history with anyone.

Lydia Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2002, 10:50 PM:

Has anyone actually gone and looked at the tests? The URL was posted in this thread, so I did. Then I went and dug up the Chekhov piece in the original -- also available on the web. Lord, what a travesty the abridgement is! The types of details that give prose its depth and resonance had all been excised. Moreover, because of the abridgements, it's no longer clear that the master of the house is engaged in a different, but very real form of offense against human dignity. If this is what kids think reading is like, no wonder they prefer television. Bland, bland, offensively bland.

Good writing moves you along. Teresa explains it better than I do, but because the concepts and words build on each other, the prose has a forward momentum which aids comprehension. Reading something this lifeless and dull is hard work. It's so easy to miss a detail here or there because there are none of the signals of what is important.

If what you want to test is reading comprehension, the test should have instructions, or perhaps one of those dreadful descriptions of an historical event that I remember from the SAT.

I'm also gravely doubtful about having essays as part of standardized tests. Frankly, I don't think that the companies that administer the tests can actually grade them effectively. I'd far rather see grammar tests, as well as analogy, antonym/synonym tests, things that actually have right and wrong answers that are easily determined. Although, like Lenny, when I was taking standardized tests, I had to get into the mindframe of the test writers. I could "hear" the "voice" of the test writer. This allowed me to identify both the answers that were close to correct -- sometimes actually correct -- and those which were completely off base. Once I mastered the tone of the writer, the test was dead easy -- provided I didn't try to think too hard.

There are a lot of things that the educational system does poorly. But basing tests on what is a literary fraud is not a small one. It is a fundamental disregard for what learning is _for_. We want the people we teach to be able to understand works of literature -- the same literature that we are bowderlizing. How can this lead to anything but essential distrust by the students?