Issue 90, Summer 2003

The past year has uncovered unsavory practices in New York State and City public schools, including an elite city high school. New York, however, is not the only place that needs fixing before the chill of censorship drives away some of the best teachers and dumbs down education.

The controversy in NYC began when a parent complained that Russell Banks’ novel, Continental Drift, which was assigned in an eleventh-grade English class as supplemental reading, was “pornographic.” The veteran English teacher who assigned it was summoned to the principal’s office and disciplined?a warning letter was placed in his file and he was told not to assign the book in the future.

Continental Drift, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is a significant contemporary novel about the immigrant experience in America. Commenting on its relevance to high school students, Banks said that the novel’s “two interlocking stories deal directly with the social, racial, and cultural realities that contemporary teenagers must deal with every single day… [including] issues of class and cultural collision….”

NCAC and other groups concerned about academic freedom wrote to Chancellor Joel Klein in January to express their view that the principal’s action was both constitutionally suspect and educationally unsound. (To read the full letter, click here)

After a series of hearings involving the teacher, school officials, and the United Federation of Teachers, the disciplinary letter was removed from the teacher’s file. This is a Pyrrhic victory, since the principal has now instituted a school-wide policy barring teachers from using “literature to promote political, religious or other personal beliefs” and “sexually explicit material.” Because the policy is so ambiguous, NCAC has written to inquire if, for example, teachers may now assign Continental Drift. Another vague provision of the new school policy calls for the creation of a committee to review any materials not on pre-approved textbook purchasing lists before they may be assigned as supplemental reading.

A reporter for the New York Times who investigated the situation at this school reported in January 2003 on the widespread harassment of teachers and multiple grievances at the school, in addition to the dismantling of many valuable educational programs and activities, including the student newspaper; debate, chess and robotics competitions; and a popular Shakespeare program. Many experienced and talented teachers have left or are leaving.

How does one principal get away with undermining the quality of education in a premier city school? Is he being protected from accountability or is there no accountability? Instead of independently investigating the situation in the school and trying to resolve the complaints in a way that promotes students’ educational needs, it appears that the Department of Education and the Chancellor’s office “circled the wagons.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg championed accountability in the City’s schools, and won control, including more freedom to fire and transfer principals. Even with expanded power, the City hasn’t been able to solve the problems of this selective high school. It’s not a good omen.

If accountability is questionable at the city level, it’s virtually nonexistent at the state level. That is apparent from the recent revelation of State-Education-Department-imposed censorship of literary selections on the high school English Regents exams. In spite of widespread lampooning of the Regents for senseless bowdlerization of literature without permission or acknowledgment—and despite Commissioner Richard P. Mills’ public pledge to end the practice—censorship on the exams continues. The “solution” the Department adopted is revealed in the most recent exam, June 2003, which altogether avoids literary excerpts from the likes of Chekhov, I.B. Singer, or Annie Dillard, and instead quotes passages from sources like Executive Speeches, Readers’ Digest, and the New York Times.

The Commissioner’s staff now claims that the Department edits only for length, not for content. Analysis of the exams, however, reveals that the same concepts, words and descriptions that had previously been censored under the Sensitivity Review Guidelines are still being removed, either under the pretext of editing for length or by selecting only the blandest and least objectionable material.

Requests from NCAC and the coalition of concerned groups for meetings with the Regents have been rebuffed. Apparently the Regents meet only with groups or individuals they invite—they have no obligation to address public concerns. Since Regents are appointed by the State Assembly, and appoint their own Commissioner, it is no wonder that they feel they aren’t accountable to voters. Nor is it clear if they are accountable to the Governor or the Legislature.

With pro bono help from the New York law firm of Cahill Gordon & Reindel, NCAC has filed a request under the New York Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) to obtain records describing the Sensitivity Review Guidelines and other standards and procedures used to preclude “offensive” words or ideas from appearing on Regents exams. We hope to learn more about the selection, composition and activities of sensitivity review panels, and any techniques the Department may be using instead of the discredited guidelines.

Sensitivity review committees are not only a problem in New York State but affect education nationwide, according to Diane Ravitch’s new book, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. She writes about complaints in California because The Little Engine That Could was portrayed as male, and an anthology in Tennessee in which “By God” was changed to “By Gum!” and “My God!” was changed to “You don’t mean it.” A passage describing peanuts as nutritious was criticized because some people are allergic to nuts. Among the “topics to avoid in textbooks” are “bodily functions” and “fighting”; phrases and words to be avoided include “woman doctor,” “swarthy,” and “niggardly”; —topics to avoid on tests— include blizzards, divorce, and pumpkins.

The Language Police and the NYS Regents exams reveal the serious deficiencies in a superficial response to sensitive issues relating to race, sex, and religion. Altering novels or history texts cannot change reality, nor does proscribing the use of certain words mean that the ideas they represent disappear. NCAC encourages educators to promote an intellectually honest and open consideration of sensitive issues, not avoid the words that remind us they exist.