Commentary: Shielding New York's kids from dinosaurs and dancing

The Miami HeraldApril 5, 2012 

PITTS LEONARD 1

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.

CHUCK KENNEDY — KRT

Warning: This column contains language some readers may find unsuitable for children. Parental guidance is suggested.

No, seriously, you have been warned. This is your last chance. Turn back now.

Still here? OK, fine. Don’t say you weren’t told. Here’s one of the offensive words:

“Dinosaur.”

And another:

“Birthday.”

And another:

“Pepperoni.”

And yes, yet another:

“Dancing.”

Let’s stop there before you have to fan away the vapors and break out the smelling salts. Or maybe you don’t find those words offensive. Maybe you use such language around kids all the time. Well, that tells us something about you.

It tells us you are not a member of the New York City Department of Education. It seems the department has sent to companies bidding to revamp the city’s standardized tests a list of words and topics they do not want those tests to contain. The reason: Those words and topics might make children uncomfortable. Or as a spokeswoman for the education department told the New York Post, which broke the story last week, banning those words “allows our students to complete practice exams without distraction.”

So how are those words a “distraction?” Well, let’s look at the list.

“Dinosaur?” Not everyone accepts the theory of evolution.

“Birthday?” Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate them.

“Pepperoni?” Junk food. That stuff’ll kill ya.

“Dancing?” Didn’t you see Footloose?

The full list is said to contain 50 objectionable words and topics, which also includes: “Halloween” (too pagan), “divorce” (upsetting to the child whose parents have split), “disease” (upsetting to the child whose Nana has taken ill), “home computers” (not everyone can afford such luxuries), “terrorism” (scary), “slavery” (bad) and space aliens (Sorry, Superman). In its defense, New York issued a statement saying that other school systems also have banned words lists. It says Florida bans the word “hurricane” and California bans the word “weed” (insert stoner joke here).

This comes as news to Florida and California. Spokespersons for education departments in both states told me that, while they do seek cultural sensitivity in their testing, they maintain no lists of specifically-banned words

Surely, no one objects to reasonable attempts to be sensitive to and inclusive of those marginalized by culture, class, religion, race, or what have you. But this list suggests just the sort of liberal overreach and politically correct contortions that give sensitivity a bad name.

Is it really the educators’ belief that children can — or should — be shielded from every unpleasant, unhealthy or controversial reality of life? Or that they will fall to pieces if exposed to same?

Rather than shield the fundamentalist kid from the fact that not everybody believes God created the world in a week, rather than shield the poor kid from the fact that some people have computers at home, rather than shield the vegan kid from the fact that some people eat pepperoni pizzas, is it not more important to teach them to navigate a world of tumult where not everybody believes or behaves as you do? Isn’t that part of what education is for?

But then, America long ago forgot what education is for — a fact you can illustrate for yourself by scanning test scores, reading an online message board or stopping five people on the street to ask them when was the War of 1812. It is telling that, as we slide toward intellectual mediocrity, our greatest city busies itself trying to keep kids from being exposed to such troubling concepts as birthdays and dinosaurs.

Thank goodness New York didn’t ban the word “duh.” I’m thinking our kids are going to use that one quite a bit.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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