Monday, August 08, 2005

Expunging utopians

In its review of Diane Ravitch’s The Language Police, the yale review of books describes how many words have taken on a different meaning after what it perceives as an “educational revolution.”

So it is with the word “bias”:

Now “bias” is used to mean the appearance of any idea or term that references a specific aspect of a non-utopian society in any educational material. Under this bloated definition, anything that could potentially offend anyone must be excised from textbooks and standardized tests.
Anything that is particular and distinctive could thus be regarded as offensive. Only blandness will do. Have the expungers considered that some people might find blandness offensive?

This zeal to expunge “bias” from textbooks and tests sometimes has hilarious, if bizarre, results.

In these excerpts in American Educator, Diane Ravitch relates how the most unlikely topics were considered offensive by a bias and sensitivity review panel and excised from a reading test. For example, in what amounts to a falsification of history, the panel “rejected a passage about patchwork quilting by women on the western frontier in the mid-19th century.” Social classes could not be shown to exist in ancient Egypt, owls had to vanish (offensive and frightening to some). A black girl could not be portrayed as weak in math even though another black girl aced it.

In another passage, a blind man could not be portrayed as having overcome incredible odds. It turns out that blindness cannot be regarded as a disability:

The Blind Mountain Climber

One of the stranger recommendations of the bias and sensitivity panel involved a true story about a heroic young blind man who hiked to the top of Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America. The story described the dangers of hiking up an icy mountain trail, especially for a blind person. The panel voted 12-11 to eliminate this inspiring story. First, the majority maintained that the story contained "regional bias" because it was about hiking and mountain climbing, which favors students who live in regions where those activities are common. Second, they rejected the passage because it suggested that people who are blind are somehow at a disadvantage compared to people who have normal sight--that they are "worse off" and have a more difficult time facing dangers than those who are not blind.

"Regional bias," in this instance, means that children should not be expected to read or comprehend stories set in unfamiliar terrain. A story that happened in a desert would be "biased" against children who have never lived in a desert, and a story set in a tropical climate would be biased against those who have never lived in a tropical climate. Consider the impoverishment of imagination that flows from such assumptions: No reading passage on a test may have a specific geographical setting; every event must occur in a generic locale. Under these assumptions, no child should be expected to understand a story set in a locale other than the one that he or she currently lives in or in a locale that has no distinguishing characteristics.

Even more peculiar is the assumption by the panel’s majority that it is demeaning to applaud a blind person for overcoming daunting obstacles, like climbing a steep, icy mountain trail. It is not unreasonable, I believe, to consider blindness to be a handicap for a person facing physical danger. By definition, people who are blind cannot see as much or as well as people who have sight. Is it not more difficult to cope with dangerous situations when one cannot see? Yet, perversely, the bias and sensitivity panel concluded that this story celebrating a blind athlete’s achievements and his heroism was biased against people who are blind. Blindness, apparently, should be treated as just another personal attribute, like the color of one’s hair or one’s height. In the new meaning of bias, it is considered biased to acknowledge that lack of sight is a disability.

1 comment:

Catherine Johnson said...

What really disturbs me are the passages someone quoted at ktm, showing that positive stereotypes of boys have been formally banned in some cases (and I'm sure informally banned everywhere else).

For a long time Christopher has been complaining that in school books and on children's television, the boys always lose or are always dumb, etc.

I've always had the sense he was right about that, but when I saw formal, stated rules banning the 'stereotype' of boys as 'curious' or 'intelligent' I was horrified.