The Battle Over Banned Words

By Liana Loewus — April 03, 2012 1 min read
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Last week, the New York Post broke the story that the NYC Department of Education had “banned references to ‘dinosaurs,’ ‘birthdays,’ ‘Halloween’ and dozens of other topics on city-issued tests.” The Post called it a “bizarre case of political correctness run wild.”

The DOE offered the justification that such topics “could evoke unpleasant emotions in the students.” The Post reports:

Dinosaurs, for example, call to mind evolution, which might upset fundamentalists; birthdays aren't celebrated by Jehovah's Witnesses; and Halloween suggests paganism. ... Even "dancing'' is taboo, because some sects object. But the city did make an exception for ballet.

The newspaper listed the full list of topics that the DOE said would “probably cause a selection to be deemed unacceptable” here. (Rock-
and-roll music? Geological history? Movies?)

Prominent education historian and commentator Diane Ravitch, author of the 2003 book The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, wrote a scathing response, calling New York’s education leaders “cowardly censors” who, she argued, were caving to the influence of political lobbies. “For a school system that never worries about the ‘unpleasant emotions’ caused by its harmful focus on relentless testing, it’s an outrageous and ironic response,” she wrote.

Well, it seems the Department was paying attention. According to the New York Times’ SchoolBook site, the DOE decided to pull the clause in its contracts with testing companies that asked them to avoid the 50 words and topics. The chief academic officer wrote in an email to the Times:

After reconsidering our message to test publishers and the reaction from parents, we will revise our guidance and eliminate the list of words to avoid on tests. We will continue to advise companies to be sensitive to student backgrounds and avoid unnecessary distractions that could invalidate test scores and give an inaccurate assessment of how students are doing.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.