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Censors Can't (and Shouldn't) Save Us From Shock

By J.R. Labbe

Originally Posted

In a ridiculous case of political correctness run amok, New York's Board of Education has been sanitizing literary passages by well-known authors on English tests that high school students have to pass in order to graduate. Why? According to a report in The New York Times, the texts were modified to satisfy elaborate "sensitivity review guidelines." They said they didn't want any student to feel ill at ease while taking the test. None of this would have come to light if not for the efforts of one Brooklyn weaver by the name of Jeanne Heifetz, a self-proclaimed critic of standardized tests. Heifetz so dislikes such exams that she enrolled her daughter in a high school that, until last June, had a state waiver from the Regents exam. Political Correctness Run Amok; Thinking Optional Since her daughter was now going to have to take a test that Heifetz has little confidence in, Mom did her homework -- and found out that the state has been removing words and phrases from literary works and speeches so as not to offend anyone. How bad could the editing be? Pretty awful. It deleted nearly all references to race, religion, ethnicity, sex, nudity, alcohol, and even modest profanity. And not just what might be considered a gratuitous damn or hell. Keep in mind that this is the high school English exam. According to Heifetz and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), which Heifetz enlisted in her quest to change the state's policy, here are some of the expunged passages. With a 'Snip, Snip' Here, and a 'Snip, Snip' There ... The boldface words are the ones missing in the exams:

  • Elie Wiesel's essay, "What Really Makes Us Free": "Man, who was created in God's image, wants to be free as God is free: free to choose between good and evil, love and vengeance, life and death."

  • B.B. King's autobiography, Blues All Around Me: "As a child, I stuttered. What was inside couldn't get out. I'm still not real fluent. I don't know a lot of good words. If I were wrongfully accused of a crime, I'd have a tough time explaining my innocence. I'd stammer and stumble and choke up until the judge would throw me in jail. Words aren't my friends. Music is. Sounds, notes, rhythms. I talk through music."

  • Frank Conroy's memoir, Stop-Time: "If we saw a king snake, all six feet wrapped black and shiny in the shade of a palmetto, we'd break off a pine branch and kill it, smashing the small head till the blood ran." (Yup, the entire sentence is taken out, without any use of ellipses to indicate that something is missing.)

When informed about the changes, Conroy unleashed his justifiable ire on state officials. "Who are these people who think they have the right to 'tidy up' my prose?" he wrote. "The New York State Political Police? The Correct Theme Authority?" NCAC officials fired off a letter to Dr. Richard P. Mills, the state's education commissioner, condemning "this clumsy effort to purge the examinations of 'politically incorrect' content," saying it "sends the message that certain words and subjects are taboo." We're Educators, So We Don't Have to Worry About Copyright "... To any student even moderately familiar with the original passages and the rules of editing and attribution, the exam provides an object lesson in shoddy scholarship and intellectual dishonesty," the NCAC letter said. Among other requirements, the exam asks students to read two literary texts, answer 10 multiple-choice questions about them, then write an essay discussing a controlling idea and the authors' use of literary elements and techniques. But how can the students accurately assess an author's use of "literary elements and techniques" when the copy has been stripped of just those things? To his credit, Mills can take a hint when it hits him over the cranium. He has announced that, henceforth, literary passages in state-administered tests would not be altered. It's Literature, Not a Newspaper Column! "It is important that we use literature on the tests without changes in the passages," the commissioner told The Times. "I have looked carefully at the Education Department's current practices and the concerns of the writers and have directed that these changes be made." Of course, none of this gets to the real problem: Educators think they have to save students from reading something that might make them uncomfortable. I expect future exam samples will be about as exciting as reading the back of a cereal box.

© 2002, Fort Worth Star-Telegram. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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