An Inclusive Litany

6/2/02

Following strong denunciations from writers, publishers, and civil libertarians, the New York state Education Department announced it would no longer allow alteration of text excerpts included in its Regents exams. For years, passages had been doctored as part of the department's "sensitivity review guidelines"—removing any reference to race, religion, ethnicity, sex, nudity, alcohol, and even the mildest profanities—to protect the sensitivities of high school students, who must take the test to graduate.

The New York Times reports that one excerpt from the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer was cleansed of any mention of his Judaism, even though it is essential to his writing. In another passage from Annie Dillard's memoir, racial references were removed from a description of her childhood trips to a library in the black section of town when she was one of the only white visitors, where the entire point of the passage was to emphasize race and what she learned about blacks.

Some of the edits rendered subsequent questions about the excerpts absurd. In the Chekhov story "The Upheaval," a wealthy woman looking for a missing brooch strip-searches all of the house's staff members. While that passage was removed from the exam, students were still asked to use the story to write an essay on the meaning of human dignity. Another paragraph from John Holt's Learning All The Time described some of the reasons the Suzuki violin instruction method differs in Japan and the United States. While all mentions of those differences were removed so as not to offend anyone, students were still asked questions about them.

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