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Jewish World Review June 10, 2002/ 1 Tamuz, 5762

Suzanne Fields

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The dead white males, they are a changin' | Most of our teachers and students don't know much about history. We knew that. Now we learn that they don't know much about literature, either. This time the educationists wrap their ignorance in principle: They don't want creative writers, those weavers of words, to pass on their pride and prejudice, sense and sensibility to the young and vulnerable.

We all know how insidious writers can be, with their robust verbs and colorful adjectives. To paraphrase Lord Acton (the educationists could look him up), fidelity to language can corrupt absolutely.

To avoid letting the kids in on real learning, the creators of the Regents English exam in New York measured textbooks against "sensitivity guidelines" and "comfort levels" to protect the tender feelings of students. This naturally led to some wacky deletions.

In expanding categories of "isms," it wasn't hard for the censors to find examples of sexism, ageism, godism, racism. wine-ism, nationism, even fat-ism and skinny-ism. The result was dumb-ism. "Fat" and "skinny," adjectives describing two different boys, were changed to "heavy," and "thin." (Wouldn't "stocky" and "lean" have been more to their purpose?) In an excerpt from Isaac Bashevis Singer, who writes on Jewish themes, the term "most Jewish women" became "most women."

So as not to encourage Polish jokes (one presumes), a "Polish school" became merely "a school". Knowing how certain four-letter words could bring a blush to the cheeks of our Eminem-educated teen-agers, "hell" was changed to "heck." (Parents of an earlier generation called this "corn-silk cussin," as in smoking dried corn silks instead of forbidden tobacco.)

Since the New York State Department of Education, which is responsible for this monkey business, called a halt as soon as it became public, we could say this was "much ado about nothing" or a "tempest in a teapot," but who would understand that kind of criticism? Not to mention offending tea drinkers. Unfortunately, the censorship is much more widespread and dangerous than even these silly examples suggest.

The anti-intellectual culprits who encourage sanitizing school textbooks and tests, says Diane Ravitch, an education historian who sits on the board of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which reviews test questions, come from both sides of the political spectrum. In her book, "Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms," she identifies a host of political agendas. The expurgators have undermined education with demands to make everyone relevant, multicultural, progressive and reactionary.

Scrutinizers of texts for blasphemy - to ban any mention of witches and devils - not only banish Halloween from childhood but make it difficult to understand the subtext of the weird sisters in "MacBeth." Children who are not permitted to see old people in their textbooks depicted with canes or even sitting in rocking chairs must find the rants, rages, stumbling and memory losses exhibited by King Lear a bit of a shock. The title character of "Taming of the Shrew," a perennial target for feminists, is no less a strong woman for her shrewishness, but students must have sharpened literary sensibilities to interpret her roar. We'll soon be reading about "Donna Quixote" and "Monsieur Bovary."

California, where goofiness springs eternal, decrees that textbooks avoid mentioning drugs, drink or foods deemed bad for your health. Words like "mankind" and "brotherhood" were long ago been expunged. "Native American" has replaced "Indian," which must confuse readers of "The Last of the Mohicans."

Political and prudish editing sensibilities are not new, or course. Only the taboos and temptations change. My first job out of college was editing textbooks for a New York publishing house. One assignment was a literature textbook for Texas - the state was the biggest market at the time - and I specifically recall that all the stories were tall Texas tales. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, not even Mark Twain, need apply.

Dead White Males today have had a hard time surviving in the curriculum of great books, but that may change now. Jerry Garcia of the "Grateful Dead," two of the Beatles and Allen Ginsberg are Dead White Males, too. Every generation draws up its list of enemies and friends and this is particularly true when it comes to writers. What's so depressing about the current censorship is its lack of imagination, its dull-witted displacements and deletions, its demagogic vacuity. Such a neutered and banal approach to language is the triumph of mediocrity and of little minds.

Diane Ravitch argues for the return of the "academic curriculum," which conveys not only important "knowledge and skills," but cultivates the aesthetic imagination, and teaches students to think critically and reflectively about the world in which they live. She suggests that tests and texts be reviewed with the criterion that they pass the test of common sense. Would that they could. That sounds like a "Midsummer Night's Dream." Say what?

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS