The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Books won't stay banned.  They won't burn.  Ideas won't go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost."....  ...A. Whitney Griswold.

Commentary of the Day - June 6, 2002:  Political Correctness Run Amok!

Lee Gilbert, Professor of Foreign Languages and Literature here at Krispy Kreme U., sent me a copy of N.R. Kleinfield's recent New York Times article "The Elderly Man and the Sea?  Test Sanitizes Literary Texts", which chronicles the efforts of the New York State Board of Regents to remove all traces of "political incorrectness" from the recent Regents exams that high school students in the state of New York must pass to receive their diplomas.  Thanks to the diligence of Jeanne Heifetz, parent of a New York City high school student and opponent of high stakes testing, we learn that excerpts in the exams from the works of writers such as Annie Dillard, Carol Saline, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Anton Chekhov, William Maxwell, John Holt, Frank Conroy, Ernesto Galarza and others have been stripped clean of nearly all references to "race, religion, ethnicity, sex, nudity, alcohol, .... profanity" and just about anything that might be "offensive" in the slightest degree to someone somewhere.

Among the examples cited by Klienfield, all mention of Judaism was removed from the passages taken from Singer's writing, all mention of blacks was removed from the excerpts from Annie Dillard's work, and the words "gringo lady" in the passage from Galarza's Barrio Boy were changed to "American lady".  Similarly, an excerpt from a speech by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan praising "fine California wine and seafood" was altered to read "fine California seafood".

According to the New York Times article, Roseanne DeFabio, the New York State Education Department's assistant commissioner for curriculum, instruction, and assessment (and presumably for censorship as well) said that the passages were shortened "to make them suitable for testing situations" under the "sensitivity guidelines" in use by the department.  These "sensitivity guidelines", according to DeFabio, are in place so that no student will feel "uncomfortable in a testing situation."  She further was quoted as saying that "Even the most wonderful writers don't write literature for children to take on a test."

Needless to say, when the authors and publishers of the passages in question were contacted by Ms. Heifetz and her spouse Juris Jurjevics, who happens to be the publisher of Soho Press, they were not amused by the editorial changes that had been made by the test writers in the name of political correctness.  In fact, some of them got down right testy about the matter.  Frank Conroy, commenting on changes made to a passage from his memoir Stop Time in a letter to the New York State education commissioner, asked "Who are these people who think they have a right to 'tidy up' my prose?  The New York State Political Police?"  And, Annie Dillard, whose passage from An American Childhood was altered to remove all racial references even though race was at the heart of the piece wrote "What could be the purpose of an exercise testing students on such a lacerated passage -- one which, finally, is neither mine nor true to my lived experience?"

What indeed!  Are the airhead educrats in Albany so out out touch with reality that they actually think that high school seniors have to treated like third-graders?  Don't they know the difference between writing that is gratuitously offensive and writing that conveys vivid images?  To remove the Jewishness from a Singer passage is to strip it of its meaning.  Surely these Albany bureaucrats don't think that high school seniors are so innocent that they never have grappled with issues of race, religion, or sexuality.  The Irascible Professor would guess that most New York City high school seniors could teach Ms. DeFabio a thing or two about sex!  And, most have uttered profanity far more colorful than anything that might be found in the passages that were butchered to ensure that there wasn't the remotest possibility that some high school senior might have his or her feelings hurt.

This wholesale censorship in the name of political correctness is bad enough.  But even worse is the attitude expressed by the censors.  DeFabio did allow that it might be appropriate for her department to consider marking passages that they alter, but she apparently does not think it necessary to ask authors for permission to change their work.  As far as the IP is concerned, this is not just ignorance.  It is arrogant ignorance.  If Governor Pataki has an ounce of common sense, he will make sure that these censor-morons are transferred to assignments where they will have no further opportunities to insult the intelligence of the average high school senior.
Update: We have learned from one of our New York readers that the New York Board of Regents, in the face of mounting public criticism, has reversed its position. Literary passages will no longer be subjected to the mindless vetting described in our article.


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© 2002 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.