Issue 86, Summer 2002

Letter from Cathy Popkin, Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, to NYS Education Commissioner Richard Mills on 5/16/02

I am writing at the height of exam period at Columbia, with barely a second to spare, because I feel so strongly about the examination shortly to be given by the New York Board of Regents.

The practice of altering literary texts—often drastically—without indicating that the resultant texts are abridgements or adaptations or (to be truly honest) expurgated versions of what the author originally intended (and ultimately achieved through his or her careful craft) represents a kind of academic dishonesty for which Columbia students are subject to dismissal. And yet the Regents do this routinely on the English Language Arts Examination, removing anything they don’t like (or approve of? or feel comfortable with?) in works of literature and then presenting these distortions as if they were actually composed by Anton Chekhov, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Annie Dillard, or B.B. King. I would never have believed the extent or the nature of the violence done to these works had I not carefully reviewed exams from previous years myself, along with the originals of the literary works from which they were taken. What I see here is unthinkable. And this falsification is performed in the name of education? As part of the ultimate test of what our students have learned?

I can certainly understand that the length of passages presented during an examination might be an issue. Indeed, excerpts from very long works can be—and are—marked as such. If the desire to present a work in its “entirety” leads the Regents to reach for smaller units, such as short stories or chapters in memoirs, then these should be allowed to stand as written. If the length is still excessive for the amount of time allotted, then any omissions should be indicated, and the passages must be marked as “abridgments.” Yet I am not convinced that considerations of length are paramount in the sort of tampering I see in these passages. The deletions in Anton Chekhov’s story “An Upheaval” are chiefly concerned with eliminating any descriptions that feminize the male head of household or, conversely, characterize his wife as masculine. The “editor” of the chapter from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s In My Father’s Court has scrupulously removed all references to Poles and Jews—this in a work that is about the problem of identity for a Jew in Poland. The resultant text is not only offensive: IT MAKES NO SENSE. Ditto for the ludicrous decision to suppress the distinction between religious and secular music in B.B. King’s discussion of gospel and jazz. And the same for the effacement of all traces of race in Annie Dillard’s sensitive treatment of what she discovered as a white child in a black library. How is it that the examination can ask students to write about what Dillard learned when what she learned has been eliminated from the text? Believe me, I am no apologist for multi-cultural fanaticism. But this is sheer stupidity. And the thought that someone (or some body of “educators”) so evidently lacking in intelligence should be entrusted with testing our children makes me shudder.

Moreover, this representation of Chekhov, Dillard, King, and Singer is a falsification. It is grossly unfair, both to the authors whose work has been distorted beyond recognition, and to the students who believe you when you tell them this is what these authors have written. The censorship of these works of literature—for that is finally what the Regents Examination is engaged in—is a violation. It is a violation of the artistic integrity of these texts, and it is a moral outrage. And you want the students to write essays on human dignity? Shame on you.

Indeed, the very “task” as formulated in the instructions to students is intellectually compromised. Here I can speak with the greatest authority about the case of the Chekhov story, since Chekhovian narrative is the subject of my own scholarship. On the basis of the text as provided by the Regents Exam, no student composing an essay about dignity is in a position to “show how the author uses specific literary elements or techniques to convey that idea,” for the Regents have removed Chekhov’s “specific literary elements” and rendered unrecognizable both his “techniques” and his “idea.” In a short story—and particularly in a short story by Chekhov, for whom brevity is the “sister of talent” and for whom the most striking compositional principle is the essential interrelationship of every element in a highly wrought crystalline structure—there are no extraneous elements. The “story” as cut and pasted by the Regents is silly, its motivations inexplicable, and its composition distinctly un-Chekhovian.

As educators we must set and maintain standards of behavior and honesty for the students under our charge. Not only do they deserve it, but our society cannot endure unless these values are instilled and upheld. I implore you to put a stop to the scandalous practice of censoring literary texts, ostensibly in the interest of our students. It is dishonest. It is dangerous. It is an embarrassment. It is the practice of fools.