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Word Games

As any good teacher should do on weekends, I have been preparing for my New York State Regents-based course in United States History. In light of last week’s revelations that the New York City Department of Education (the largest such public bastion of knowledge in the country) has sent out a list of proposed words to be avoided in the creation of tests, the scope of my new curriculum might end up looking something like this:

After the Revolutionary Skirmish of 1776, there were great debates about the founding principles of the new nation. As the thirteen colonies became thirteen states, questions of representation became especially heated when Southern state leaders asserted the need for the continuation of freedom-less-ness for people of African descent. Eventually, a Civil Hostility took place, which saw an end to vassalage. This helped pave the way for the US to become an even more respected power, but it did not truly become an international force until involvement in World Big Fight One. US leadership in World Big Fight Two was central to our becoming a super-power. Though many ceased breathing, it seemed that democracy could be a force for good throughout the globe. The rights enshrined in the Constitution — such as the First Amendment freedoms of “certain things” — seemed safe in a world where many cherished these now-unspeakable ideals. Of course, the Cold Feud between the US and the Soviet Union worried citizens of both countries, as the threatened of use of mushroom-cloud-producing-devices became more real. And the events of September 11, 2001 were an additional cause for great concern, but the Department of Homeland Security has taken care of most of those worries — tasked as it is to protect Americans from any and all threats of consternationist attack. That is why we lead the Global Sortie on All Bad Stuff-ism.

Yes, in case you haven’t read or guessed it, the words War, Slavery, Death, Religion, Politics, Nuclear weapons, and Terrorist have made the DOE’s hit list. If only we could remove the very concept of war itself from our future history — as easily as it seems to be to remove the word war from our current tests — we might have a good thing going! As incredulous as all this may seem, the following words and phrases have also made the cut: Children dealing with serious issues, Halloween, Homelessness, Homes with swimming pools, Junk food, Loss of employment, Poverty, and Violence. Rumor has it that “dinosaurs” have also made the list, because — with a constituency as diverse as in New York City — one wouldn’t want to upset any creationists. Except, I think, “creationism” might also be on the list…

Another guideline for test-makers is to refrain from discussing “traumatic material.” Yet one colleague noted that the Eighth Grade Common Core standards themselves outline the English Language Arts requirements for an above-average essay grade of “4” where an example of what a student should be writing (in response to a passage on forensics) includes the following: “In the case of Mwivano, whose face had been cut off after being raped and murdered by her cousin, a forensic anthropologist and artist used her skull to reconstruct a model of her face (i.e., facial reconstruction).”

Something is very wrong with our standards.

It hardly matters that, after several days of being slammed by the international press, the DOE rescinded its ridiculous list. The idea that somehow censorship could equal sensitivity in itself shows how far away from true sensitivity and sensible, critical thinking the DOE has gone.

A less-reported but significantly more important set of words has just been rendered on the future of education, in New York and throughout the country: the Independent Commission on Public Education recently issued their major report, Getting out from Under: A Human Rights Alternative to the Corporate Model of Public Education in NYC. The report’s authors — veteran educator/activists Sam Anderson, Barbara Barnes, and Cecilia Blewer — take apart (in nine clear and specific aspects of educational policy) the fallacies of the business model and provide in its place their vision of how things should be done.

They assert that “education is not a business…. Its goal must not be reduced to enhancing our nations ‘competitiveness in a global economy.’ Education is an exercise of the human spirit and takes place in the context of human relationships. Its workers — the teachers — must establish positive relationships with the students, whose full development is the central focus of their work.” Public education is both a requirement for a robust democracy and also requires a social commitment to democratic principles in order for it to “function optimally on behalf of all its students.”

At a time when economic distress, armed conflict, limitations on human rights, and attacks on working people are at an all-time high, it is interesting to note how popular union-bashing, teacher-bashing, and neglect of “inner-city” students still seem to be. This latest travesty might well help point out the root cause of our anger at the “evil” educator: it has become undesirable for a new generation of young people to be assisted in the ability to think, and thus, to act.

Matt Meyer is an educator-activist, based in New York City, and serves as convener of the War Resisters International Africa Working Group. His recent books include Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation (Africa World Press, 2000), the two-volume collection Seeds of New Hope: Pan African Peace Studies for the 21st Century (Africa World Press, 2008, 2010), and Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U. S. Political Prisoners (PM Press, 2008). Meyer is a contributing member of the Editorial Advisory Board for New Clear Vision.

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