Tuesday, April 3, 2012

newspaper submission

I spent the early (writing) hours sounding off on a topic I subsequently shipped off to the newspaper for consideration as a column. Since I doubt that the column will make the cut and since I like to write something each day, I'll cop out and save it here:

A recent email from my friend Frank, a former New York City high school teacher, was positively exploding with exasperated disbelief: New York wasn't Alabama, for heaven's sake!

And yet here was the largest school system in the United States of America proposing to take political correctness (under cover of 'caring about kids') to new, idiotic and gob-stopping heights. The proposal was Orwellian: Keep the kids dumber in order to make them smarter.

I gave Frank the most level-headed answer I could come up with: Any time you think New York is not Alabama -- any time you think your school system is above the nonsense of life -- it's time to look in the mirror and check your own most self-congratulatory principles.

With its 1,042,277 students as of 2006, what New York's school district is suggesting is that certain words should be excised from student tests. These are words that might upset either the students themselves or their sensitive parents -- some of whom might have political clout.

"Dinosaur" made the list because it suggests an evolution that creationists might find offensive. "Halloween" suggests paganism. And Jehovah's Witnesses don't celebrate "birthdays." "Poverty" carries an implication of wealth and might make kids jealous. "Divorce" and "disease" could unduly upset those whose kin have either parted ways or been ill.

There are about 50 words in all that New York has asked test-makers to avoid or excise, according to a March 26 CBS report. They include "abuse," "bodily functions," "cancer," "computers" (in the home), "alcohol," "crime," "death and disease," "homelessness," "junk food," "children dealing with serious issues," "natural disasters," "hunting," "loss of employment," "nuclear weapons," "parapsychology," "poverty," "religion, "rap music," "evolution," "sex," "slavery," "terrorism," "weapons," "war," and "running away."

After an initial explosion of outrage and incredulity that a system dedicated to education might even make such a ludicrous suggestion, I think all of this provides a good opportunity to recognize that outrage, while delicious, is not really enough.

Educators, when they're any good, are in the business of upsetting mental apple carts. It is they who provide the information that will expand the minds of those who may currently believe that video games and sexual adventure represent the far reaches of the universe.

School may be boooorrrrring, but maybe a history of yaks or the make-up of an atom or a manual on car-repair or a discussion of why bad things happen to good people will expand the known universe. Educators create the universe and then, when they're any good, provide the tools for knowing that the edge of the universe is still miles away. Educators don't skirt reality, they offer optional versions of it, versions that are constantly revised and rethought according to the willingness and ability of the thinker.

If this framework is true, then the proposals in New York fly in the face of anything that might be called education. But the trouble with frameworks is that they can never adequately capture the varieties of what it is to be human. Human beings are more interesting than their philosophies. And it is within that framework that educators extend kindness to their charges -- withholding what might be too complex (and hence unkind under current circumstances). And sometimes their kindness is stretched to the breaking point when they are asked to fill a role that parents cannot or will not or do not.

But kindness and political correctness are subtle and sometimes cruel masters. At what point does kindness ("good jobbbbb!") and political correctness (don't use the N word or drop the F bomb) fly in the face of a reality that is all too obvious in an after-school environment? Educators are forced to thread such needles all the time, just like the rest of us. For those who walk the walk, the line between what is kind and what is unkind, what is smart and what is dumb is truly a razor's edge.

It is possible to carry kindness to unkind extremes just as it is possible to carry the political correctness of social agreements to ludicrous lengths. The person who can use the word "stupid" is axiomatically asserting a capacity to be "smart."

My own view is that being smart is better than being dumb.

But it is also my view that being smart entails recognizing precisely how dumb "smart" can be.

And the same goes for "kindness."

To use Frank's geographical distinctions, we may all live in "New York," but it behooves us to remember our capacity to live in "Alabama."

P.S. On April 2, the New York Department of Education dropped its request that certain words be excised from student tests. Parental reaction was cited. The fact that the department might even consider such a proposal is still instructive. 


  1. The 1 st 9 paragraph's and the last paragraph were fine but inbetween that , Those paragraphs could have been expressed in one consice paragraph the editorial "fill" you sometimes use tends to make your reader lose interest and stop reading . Just saying ... Anita

  2. Much to my surprise, someone on the peace picket line on Saturday told me the article was in the paper the day after I submitted it. That'll teach me to read the paper: http://www.gazettenet.com/2012/04/04/a-case-of-kindness-run-amok?CSAuthResp=%3Asession%3ACSUserId|CSGroupId%3Asuccess%3AxxqVoGx6GhOh%2Fmj4dXWV8A%3D%3D&CSUserId=18702&CSGroupId=5