31 March 2012
Chief school administrator in the New York City Department of Education, Chancellor Dennis Walcott, has published a list of fifty “banned words”—that is, banned in standardized tests used in New York City schools. CBS New York (March 26, 2012) tells us it includes “Dinosaur,” “Birthday,” “Halloween,” “Poverty,” and “Divorce.”
Most of the banned words are part of the general stock of words that we need to express ourselves clearly. But the problem is, they supposedly “give offence.” Is this the nadir (and, I hope, the grave) of political correctness? Let’s see the first five bans:
1. Abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological). Just think. After all the energy spent on criminalizing various forms of abuse, or at least making them unpopular, the words have become “unmentionable” again? Why are students better off if they don’t know words for discussing the accusations of abuse?
Birthday celebrations (and birthdays). Some religious groups do not celebrate birthdays, and are thus supposed to be “offended” by those who do. But why should children from those groups not be expected to know the language around events that most North Americans do celebrate?
2. Alcohol (beer and liquor), tobacco, or drugs. That means, of course, that one could not write a question for a standardized test that asks the student to read a doctor’s explanation of why smoking a pack a day is bad for the lungs, and answer questions about it. It is easier to see how this benefits the tobacco industry than how it benefits the student.
3. Birthday celebrations (and birthdays). Some religious groups do not celebrate birthdays, and are thus supposed to be “offended” by those who do. But why should children from those groups not be expected to know the language around events that most North Americans do celebrate?
Should they also not know about the origin of Presidents’ Day (the Monday nearest George Washington’s Birthday) or Martin Luther King Day (the Monday nearest his birthday)? How will that contribute to civics education?
This exclusion also presumes that groups that do not celebrate birthdays oppose those who do, a finding for which there is little evidence.
Actually, only a few people in society attempt to drive from the public square any custom they do not follow—in the words of NPR’s Scott Simon, “the kind of grumps who file lawsuits against shopping mall Santa Clauses.” How is education better off by catering to their arcane and antisocial needs?
4. Bodily functions. Ah yes. At certain ages, children and teens can be paralyzed with laughter at even an apparent (perhaps misunderstood) mention of them. They are not used to their bodies. But in an age when medical care jobs are one of the best employment bets around, how do students benefit from not being expected to even know, from early in their education, clear and tactful ways of discussing bodily functions?
5. Cancer (and other diseases). As with bodily functions, not knowing the words and the concepts means not knowing the facts. And the facts of disease are so often the neglected facts of health. Again, how does this help health education in general?
The Department of Education’s list of banned words exemplifies a desire to avoid conflict rather than implement principles.
Most conflicts in education are not with heavily armed thugs. They are conflicts with people who want different things taught or the same things taught differently.
Avoiding conflict isn’t always a bad thing. Most of us would turn down another street to avoid conflict with a heavily armed thug.
But most conflicts in education are not with heavily armed thugs. They are conflicts with people who want different things taught or the same things taught differently. And those people are often in conflict with each other as well as with current school board authorities. Thus, because they spend so much time battling their organized opposition, they are not usually the menace that a timid administrator believes them to be.
Implementing principles for education that have broad support, and sticking to them, requires more courage than merely avoiding conflict—real or imagined—by banning words or discussions. But education simply cannot be done without principles, so the responsible choice is quite clear.
See also: “I’m with the banned,”Part II