Until about a week ago, if you were a child in my city -- New York -- which sentence would you not see on a test? (Please use a No. 2 pencil and fill in your bubble completely):
O -- The witch petted her rat before ordering Eminem to boil the newts.
O -- The children ate the birthday cake before dancing with the purple dinosaur.
Correct answer: Neither. And the reason? The words. Any mention of witchcraft, vermin, rap music or slavery was verboten on tests. But also banned was any mention of dinosaurs, birthdays, junk food or dancing.
Think sensitivity. Now overthink oversensitively and you'll start worrying that almost any word suggesting anything sad, strange, sexy, illegal, unhealthy or even unfair could crush a child. So educators were trying to make sure no students encountered words that "could evoke unpleasant emotions."
Apparently, words are only supposed to bore students.
After enduring the ridicule they richly deserved, the bureaucrats rescinded the ban, with a caveat the size of a cauldron. Excuse me, the size of a stegosaurus. Er, as giant as Jay-Z's Jacuzzi? Let's just say a large caveat. The city announced it would revise its "guidance and eliminate the list of words to avoid on tests." But -- but! -- "We will continue to advise companies to be sensitive to student backgrounds."
Which brings us right back where we started. The reason the word "dinosaur" was banned to begin with was that kids with a fundamentalist background might be upset by thoughts of evolution. Apparently, the fact that dinosaurs actually did exist, no matter how one accounts for them, didn't matter educationwise -- or at least it was trumped by the possibility of hurt feelings. That potential still exists, so who will dare drop a dinosaur into a test?
Birthdays were on the do-not-use list because some sects, including the Jehovah's Witnesses, don't celebrate them. On the other hand, Halloween was on that same list because some sects do celebrate it, as a pagan holiday. That's too upsetting to some people, so out it went. The list included poverty, alcohol and -- here's a weird one -- war.
Use those same guidelines in everyday life and your kids can't read the Bible, "The Odyssey" or the newspaper. And the folks who educate our kids never noticed this till the press made a stink?
Historian and former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, in her 2003 book, "The Language Police," uncovered 1,000 words, depictions and topics that had been banned from tests and textbooks across the country. Included on her banned list -- a list that kowtowed to everyone from lefty activists to proto-tea partyers so as to sell to the most markets -- were items as diverse as men depicted as doctors, old people portrayed as cute, kids shown disobeying their elders and owls. Go figure. (OK, I'll tell you: The birds are ostensibly taboo for Navajos.)
All those topics upset one faction or another, who vehemently didn't want children encountering them. But, as Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University and a columnist for the Chronicle of Higher Education, notes, "if we start teaching kids that it's more important to be comfortable than it is to be informed, then we're paving the way to our own collective ignorance."
Kids ignorant of dinosaurs, dancing, witches and Twinkies? It makes me want to pick up my No. 2 pencil and stab it through my heart.
Or the list-makers'.