Sensitivity or Censorship?
June 2, 2002 10:18 AM   Subscribe

Sensitivity or Censorship? A fascinating article in the NY Times reveals that the the New York Board of Education is editing literary passages used on its high school exit exam to remove passages that might "make a student feel ill at ease" while taking the test. Deletions include all references, no matter how innocuous, to drugs, alcohol, homosexuality, God, race, Congress, unpaid U.N. dues, nudity, sex, violence, and much more. Some of the quoted authors, including Annie Dillard and Frank Conroy, are pretty upset with the state, especially since the passages don't indicate that they have been "revised." On the other hand, standardized tests are often criticized as being culturally biased so maybe this is a justifiable attempt to make students from different backgrounds feel equally at ease in taking the test. What do you think?
posted by boltman (30 comments total)
Also stricken are poems that start with 'roses are red, violets are blue' as they may offend the colorblind.

Take all that stuff out and you'd be hard-pressed to find anything left, no?
posted by clevershark at 10:46 AM on June 2, 2002

it's not like they are editing books, i can't remember those tests even attributing the source material at all. i for one would be happy, when taking a test, not to have to think about politics etc.
posted by rhyax at 10:48 AM on June 2, 2002

If the article is accurate, Roseanne DeFabio should be fired. Removal of sections about unpaid U.N. dues or alcohol have nothing to do with addressing cultural bias. I don't know what pisses me off more, the puritan attitudes that must have inspired the butchering of the passages, or the laziness in that they couldn't even be bothered to look harder for passages that were unoffensive.

Considering what kids are exposed to nowadays, they wouldn't even get phased by de Sade.
posted by bobo123 at 11:00 AM on June 2, 2002

If on the one hand you object to censoring (or call it editing) and on the other, cultural bias, then why not simply call the whole thing off. Too many people with "needs" screws up all the things we do or think of doing and no matter how we cater to this or that constituency we offend some seemingly left out of consideration.
posted by Postroad at 11:01 AM on June 2, 2002

I read the article in the Times. They're not just editing out stuff that's objectionable; they are changing the meaning of these texts. Think Martin Luther King with all references to race removed.
posted by xammerboy at 11:59 AM on June 2, 2002

Editing an author's work is like performing surgery on her kids - you had better damn well get permission before you even think of picking up that knife. What the Dept. of Education did is intellectually unconscionable, especially for an agency that is supposed to be teaching our children the value of the life of the intellect.

Given the constraints of their "sensitivity policy", what could the Department have done? First, find literary passages that could be used unaltered without violating the guidelines. Failing that, contact the authors of passages under consideration and obtain their permission to make any changes., then clearly mark these passages as having been edited for inclusion in the exam. Failing this, simply hire authors to write guideline-compliant passages especially for the test. If all else fails, maybe the department should consider dropping the guidelines. After all, what the test preparers are presumably seeking by using real live literary work culled from the field - literary merit - may be inextricably connected to the sorts of themes that these sanitizing guidelines shy away from.

rhyax, I am left speechless. Fortunately, I can still type. Maybe on a math test, you can properly ask not to have to think about "politics, etc." But literature is a field that deals with the profound and the everyday, the personal and the political. It is simply sbsurd to attempt to excise all socially or politically meaningful content out of an exam on such a subject.
posted by skoosh at 12:10 PM on June 2, 2002

I guess it depends what you think of the relationship between the content of literature and its value - to read and to criticise. I'd always thought that people who write usually have something to say, and they wouldn't write otherwise. To basically limit the extent to which exam texts engage with the real world is completely contrary to the point of literature. Part of the experience of reading is that you sometimes confront views that are at odds with your own, and concerns that are alien or shocking to you. If this never happened then there's little point in reading. The idea that criticism is possible in these circumstances is absurd.

And these are high-school graduation exams, right? So the students are 17 or 18? Don't they aspire to teach them more than basic literacy? Suppose a student is shocked by some phrase or theme in a text. Can't they use that reaction in their answer, rather than collapsing in a heap of outrage and confusion? So infuriating...
posted by Gaz at 12:15 PM on June 2, 2002

I can understand, to some degree, the desire to present source material on a standardized test that isn't going to offend. The place to shock, surprise, or offend your students with literature is a good class, not a test that's likely to be graded by a pencil-pusher who has lost the will to live.

However, picking a challenging story and bowdlerizing it is a hilariously stupid way to achieve that end, especially when some of the questions are based on the original text. If a passage from a story upsets the delicately honed sensitivities of a big city education bureaucrat, why didn't someone come up with the idea of picking another passage or another work?

Great story.
posted by rcade at 12:25 PM on June 2, 2002

This is probably the most ridiculous, intellectually dishonest and lazy activity that I have heard of in a very long time. If the board of education is so 'sensitized', they should have done the grunt work necessary in finding texts that they find inoffensive to anyone including 'thin' and 'heavy' people (!!) rather than try to change existent works. I didn't know that you can do stuff like this without the permission of authors.
posted by justlooking at 12:26 PM on June 2, 2002

wow, i thought i was past getting angry over things i read on the internet! this made my blood boil. nobody in this thread goes far enough in my opinion in condemning the morons who thought up this ridiculous, execrable notion. it makes me want to puke!!! why don't they just f*cking lobotomise all the f*cking students while they're at it? why don't they just use f*cking vcr instruction manuals as texts?
well, to give them the benefit of the doubt i would guess whoever is responsible had good intentions, but i fear they are also complete imbeciles who don't deserve to pass their own test, and have a complete, fundamental lack of understanding of what their test should be, the f*cking idiots!
posted by mokey at 2:04 PM on June 2, 2002

In reading over the article and some of the posts, I would not be surprised if the estate of one or more authors so edited did not sue! Did the Board of Ed get permission to use the materials? I have done some work in editing etc and when I paid for using materials in an anthology I was sometimes warned that I was not allowed to make any cuts or changes that would change w2hat the author had copyrighted, and that permission to use whatever I planned to use was limited to the exactly pages (or story, or poem, that I had been given to permission to use.
posted by Postroad at 2:21 PM on June 2, 2002

Don't they aspire to teach them more than basic literacy?

Not often.
posted by rushmc at 2:23 PM on June 2, 2002

I'm just waiting for someone to stand up with outrage and declare that literacy is itself an affront against the illiterate.
posted by clevershark at 2:42 PM on June 2, 2002

what the hell has happened to us?
posted by Satapher at 2:45 PM on June 2, 2002

In other news, the New York State Board of Education has mandated that mathematics instructors refer to numbers whose value is less than zero as "counterpositive" instead of the potentially loaded term "negative". Students were initially puzzled, but were assured that everything would be OK if they would just stop THINKING so much.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 2:46 PM on June 2, 2002

The following passage has been edited:

posted by fuq at 3:33 PM on June 2, 2002

Doesn't this punish the kids who know the unedited works?
posted by kirkaracha at 3:52 PM on June 2, 2002

Doesn't this punish the kids who know the unedited works?

No way. It gives them an incredible advantage. The other kids will be saying "That book was stupid" and they will be right. The kids who read the full books will still say "That book was stupid" but they will be wrong and one day realize it.
posted by srboisvert at 4:38 PM on June 2, 2002

So are we to believe that the same kids who brought Eminem's new album onto the charts at #1 would be offended by the word "hell"? That the teenagers who flock to movies like Blade 2 will be somehow made "uncomfortable" by reading about "the declared intent of two boys to kill a snake"?

Hello, Roseanne DeFabio? This is Earth calling.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 5:14 PM on June 2, 2002

Unreal. Just unreal. Were I one of the authors, or the executor of the estate of one of the authors, I can guarantee I would sue. Ripping apart an author's words is a travesty. It goes beyond censorship. It's morally reprehensible and Ms. DeFabio should be ridden out of town on a rail. She certainly should never be allowed to be in charge of anything educational or literary again. Sheesh.
posted by dejah420 at 6:38 PM on June 2, 2002

sheeeit. what clevershark be done said. muhfuhs be read some and think dey all dat.
posted by quonsar at 8:32 PM on June 2, 2002

Having to think is such a bother when one is taking a test.
posted by Poagao at 8:33 PM on June 2, 2002

rhyax, I am left speechless. Fortunately, I can still type. Maybe on a math test, you can properly ask not to have to think about "politics, etc." But literature is a field that deals with the profound and the everyday, the personal and the political. It is simply sbsurd to attempt to excise all socially or politically meaningful content out of an exam on such a subject.

ok, i should clarify. i didn't not read the article (gasp!) and assumed it was something like tests done by the ETS. the texts in these tests are usually not attributed, and serve only as reading comprehension filler. by all means the text of actual attributed authors not affiliated with the testing company/school board should not be edited without their permission. if this is a literature test then this is dumb, if on the other hand it is a comprehension test (which i suspect) i think the test makers should not be obligated to use text that is already written if that doesn't suit their test design needs. that is not to say that they should steal others work, but editing things they have permission to in order to to conform to a predetermined testing design seems acceptable.

having said that, it almost seems like these people went out of their way to find things that would be innappropriate or inflamatory without editing; could they not have chosen things that did not require editing in the first place?
posted by rhyax at 10:40 PM on June 2, 2002

Big Brother Loves Me.
posted by mrhappy at 11:01 PM on June 2, 2002

This smells like more legal self-protection by schools wary of parents who will protest and sue and run to the papers at the slightest provocation. The last thing schools want to do is to give any ammunition to parents who are always ready to claim that their children are put at some sort of disadvantage by tests that are biased or offensive. So they remove all bones to prevent idiots from choking.
posted by pracowity at 11:52 PM on June 2, 2002

Delete all references to New York City (all boroughs, and the Hudson and East Rivers.) Just say "Scarsdale."
posted by jfuller at 6:42 AM on June 3, 2002

Doesn't this punish the kids who know the unedited works?

No way. It gives them an incredible advantage.

As someone who has been in this situation (moving from one province to another, from public to catholic), and having read the "real" edition, but was eventually tested with the "edited" version, I can verify this is NOT the case.

Why? You are basing your answers on complete knowledge. The test is based on an incomplete work. You have a greater chance of failing, because if you understood the work, and remember it, you will answer to the best of your ability, based on the complete work.

And obviously, those aren't the answers the "board of education" is looking for, because the questions are "too difficult" in their opinion for students to be asking themselves, let alone examined on.

Wow, more and more I'm thinking long-term, home-schooling is not such a bad idea. In the last couple of monthes, we've seen on MetaFilter alone library closures, censorship, wanton abuse of power. Of course is that just the new-found conservative in me peeking out? (Definately not one of the "thumbers" who would choose that route for religious purposes.)
posted by jkaczor at 7:00 AM on June 3, 2002

The action is foolish (the truth, however bad, being far more valuable than convenient lies), but I can understand the impetus. When an educator is beset on all sides by myriad niche grievants, all complaining that this particular bit offends, or this particular bit is culturally biased, or this particular bit is obscene... I can understand the desire to bum rush the show, eliminate everything, and finally get some quiet. It's not a question of censorship - the unedited materials are widely available - it's a matter of convenience.

In the future, the best way to avoid this from happening might be to refrain from complaining and nitpicking about current content and let educators decide for themselves what to teach and test. That means in both Kansas and Berkeley.
posted by UncleFes at 7:32 AM on June 3, 2002

The largest section of the Records Department, far larger than the one on which Winston worked, consisted simply of persons whose duty it was to track down and collect all copies of books, newspapers, and other documents which had been superseded and were due for
destruction. A number of The Times which might, because of changes in political alignment, or mistaken prophecies uttered by Big Brother, have been rewritten a dozen times still stood on the files bearing its original date, and no other copy existed to contradict it. Books, also, were recalled and rewritten again and again, and were invariably reissued without any admission that any
alteration had been made.

posted by matteo at 9:37 AM on June 3, 2002

the actual sensitivity guidelines, in case anyone is interested.

it's kind of interesting. i think the guidelines would actually be pretty helpful for writing a public service announcement or some other type of non-literary writing. it's just totally absurd to apply it to great (or even not-so-great) literature.

and i still don't get why they censored the passage about U.N. dues.
posted by boltman at 5:11 PM on June 3, 2002

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