Suppose most of our nation’s schools, through some unknown mechanism, decided to stop teaching history and literature. Suppose our educators went along with this practice because it was so widely accepted, and so far advanced, that no one person could stop it. Individual teachers might still be allowed to make their idiosyncratic decisions about what to teach. Social studies teachers with a keen interest in history could still teach it, and language arts teachers would be left undisturbed if they decided to teach The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, Gilgamesh, or whatever literary remnants of a bygone culture they personally valued. Such teachers could be safely ignored, because everyone else would understand that such people were renegades who in time would retire and disappear.
We are not at that point of cultural amnesia yet. But our schools are moving perceptibly in that direction – and no one seems to know how to reverse the trend.
Certainly there is broad public support for educational reform, or so the pollsters tell us. The public knows vaguely that something is amiss and is concerned about the quality of the schools. In the spring of 2001, Congress endorsed a plan drafted by President George W. Bush that calls for annual national tests of reading and mathematics in grades three through eight. Four years earlier, President Bill Clinton had proposed federal funding for similar national tests of reading in the fourth grade and mathematics in the eighth grade.
Yet there is reason to wonder whether the proposed reforms will be able to remedy the underlying problems within education that not only drag down student achievement, but also undermine the teaching of history and literature.
A few years ago, I had a rare opportunity to see firsthand the strange political dynamic that has robbed our educational system of much of its coherence. In 1997, I was appointed by the Secretary of Education to serve on the board of a small federal agency called the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), which has administered federal tests known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress to samples of American students for the past thirty years. That same year, shortly after President Clinton recommended national testing, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a $50 million contract to a consortium of test publishers to develop such tests. A few months later, when the responsibility for the new tests was handed over to the NAGB, I was able to observe the extraordinary self-censorship practiced by the educational publishing industry in this country and to ponder its likely consequences for our society.
As a historian of education, I have been an interested onlooker and occasional participant in the culture wars, the highly publicized battles of the past generation over whose history and whose literature should be taught in our schools. My own research has persuaded me that some of this skirmishing was just another episode in the long history of anti-intellectualism in American education.
In order to reveal and (perhaps) counteract the tendency to downgrade intellectual content, I had helped in the late 1980s to develop a national test of history and literature; administered only once, it demonstrated how woefully little high-school seniors knew about what was supposedly our common cultural heritage. In the early 1990s, as an assistant secretary of education in the first Bush administration, I actively promoted federal support for national academic standards.
It was, I believe, because of this background as a longtime supporter of standards that the Clinton administration invited me to join the NAGB as it assumed responsibility for the president’s testing initiative. Although I am a registered independent, I had served in a Republican administration, and so my appointment by the Clinton administration was, it seemed, a signal of bipartisan support for higher standards in American education – just as President Clinton’s initiative implied that one chapter in the culture wars was drawing to a close.
In my work as a member of the NAGB, I was primarily involved in the effort to establish clear standards for the curriculum in America’s grade schools. But what I learned in this setting suggests that the problems within American education run deep, and that these problems have grave implications, not just for America’s primary schools, but also for its colleges and universities – and, indeed, for the future of our common culture.
For how, in a society as varied and rapidly changing as our own, can a common culture survive without a clear commitment to broadly shared standards for the teaching of literature and history? And absent any such shared culture, how can we communicate across lines of race, religion, ethnicity, and social class in order to forge common purposes?
As a member of the NAGB, I reviewed one- and two-page passages that had been prepared by the testing consortium for President Clinton’s “voluntary national test” of reading in the fourth grade. Most of these passages had been previously published in children’s magazines or in recent anthologies.
After I had read about a dozen such passages, a combination of fiction and nonfiction, I realized that the readings themselves had a cumulative subtext: the hero was never a white boy. Instead, the leading character – the one who was most competent, successful, and sympathetic – was invariably either a girl (of any race) or a nonwhite boy. Almost without exception, white boys were portrayed as weak and dependent. In one story, a white boy in a difficult situation weeps and says plaintively, “If only my big sister were here, I would know what to do.”
The passages, I discovered, had been edited to eliminate anything that might be perceived by anyone as a source of bias. In an essay on a giant sequoia tree, for example, the editors deleted a phrase that compared the sequoia’s shape to that of a Christmas tree because the analogy was considered religious and might be offensive to non-Christians. Another phrase in the same essay was dropped as sexist because it described a branch of the sequoia tree as so wide that a seven-foot man could stretch across it without being able to extend either his fingers or his toes over the edge.
A passage from a well-known fable was also edited to remove the moral of the story. The original had ended with the conclusion that “God helps those who help themselves.” To avoid any reference to a deity, the editors had replaced this phrase with the advice that “People should try to work things out for themselves whenever possible.”
I did not know whether these editorial revisions were the work of an unusually sensitive group of editors, or whether there was some predetermined policy at work. My puzzlement ended in mid-1998 when our committee met with representatives of Riverside Publishing, the company that was selecting the passages for the voluntary national test, editing them, and writing test questions.
When I asked why so few reading passages were drawn from classic children’s literature, the publisher explained that it was a well-accepted principle in educational publishing that everything written before 1970 was rife with racism and sexism. Only stories written after that date, he said, were likely to have acceptable language and appropriate multicultural sensitivity.
To clarify what was acceptable and what was unacceptable, the publisher gave our committee a copy of the company’s guidelines, called Bias and Sensitivity Concerns in Testing. These guidelines describe what sort of content and what sort of language can (and cannot) be included in educational tests.
Riverside’s guidelines are in no way unusual. Almost every major education publisher in the United States has issued similar guidelines. They express the explicit consensus that now governs the educational publishing industry and that shapes the language and content not only of tests, but also of mass-market textbooks.
The passages we were reading, I discovered, had been screened to assure that they did not include any “language, symbols, gestures, words, phrases, or examples that are generally regarded as sexist, racist, otherwise offensive, inappropriate, or negative toward any group.”
That seemed reasonable. But the guidelines also require that tests must be “free of subject matter that many would consider controversial or emotionally charged,” for fear that upsetting material might distract test takers and prevent them from showing their true ability. Anything that could conceivably cause a student discomfort is considered a form of bias, requiring heavy editing or the omission of the objectionable passage.
According to the Riverside guidelines, the tests had to be carefully screened for:
- representational fairness;
- language usage;
- controversial subject matter.
Applying the principle of “representational fairness” requires a test reviewer to determine whether a particular subgroup is overrepresented or underrepresented; whether the subjects portrayed are sufficiently diverse in terms of “ethnicity, age, socioeconomic background, community setting, and physical disabilities”; and whether test materials are “relevant to the life experiences of the test taker.” According to the criterion of relevance, it would be unfair, for example, to ask students who live in Florida to answer questions about “snow and freezing winters,” just as it would be unfair to ask students in Wyoming about oceans, or students in Indiana about mountains.
The language used in the tests was also carefully scrutinized for signs of bias. Almost any use of the word “man,” whether by itself, in a suffix (as in “salesman” or “workman”), or in a colloquial phrase (“the man in the street” or “mankind”), is treated as an unacceptable form of gender bias.
Not only tests but textbooks are to be purged of certain ways of referring to people with disabilities or social disadvantages. The writers are directed not to speak of “the blind,” but only of “a person who is blind.” Similarly, it is unacceptable to write “Terrence was a victim of polio”; this has to be replaced by “Terrence had polio as a child.” Or consider this sample sentence: “Even though she was a poor, Hispanic woman, Maria was able to start a successful company.” Such a sentence is outlawed by the guidelines as elitist and patronizing, and it would have to be revised: “Through hard work and determination, Maria Sanchez started a successful company.”
Even more striking is the long list of forbidden stereotypes in the Riverside guidelines: men shown as “strong, brave, and silent,” women shown as “weepy, fearful, and emotional”; boys playing sports, or girls playing with dolls; Irish policemen; Asian Americans working in a laundry or a produce market; African Americans working as maids; men working as lawyers, doctors, or plumbers; women working as nurses or secretaries; older people or people with disabilities shown as dependent on others; elderly people suffering from physical deterioration; men playing sports or working with tools; women cooking and caring for children; older people fishing and baking cookies; Asian Americans portrayed as academics; African Americans portrayed as athletes; Caucasians portrayed as businesspeople; men portrayed as breadwinners; women portrayed as homemakers; and children portrayed as “bundles of energy.”
The claim that a story reflects the world as it really exists – or, alternatively, that a story is a work of imagination – cannot counter the charge of stereotyping. Indeed, Riverside invites its writers to fight stereotypes by reversing the role of key characters. For example, an older person might be depicted as a participant in an athletic event. A mother might be shown fixing a roof, while a father tends to a sick child.
The guidelines dictate that emotionally charged topics be avoided on tests, for fear that mention of them might upset sensitive children. The forbidden topics (in alphabetical order) include:
- creatures that are considered scary or dirty (e.g., scorpions, rats, and roaches);
- death, disease, violence, weapons, and natural catastrophes, such as fires and earthquakes;
- disrespectful or criminal behavior;
- evolution (there can be no discussion of the origins of the universe, nor any mention of fossils and dinosaurs since they imply evolution);
- high-priced consumer goods or vacations, because the families of some children can afford neither expensive items nor vacations;
- magic, witchcraft, and the supernatural;
- personal appearance (e.g., any specific description of height and weight);
- religion (even casual references to religious holidays are prohibited);
- social problems (e.g., poverty, alcoholism, child abuse, animal abuse, divorce, or addiction);
- unsafe situations, unhealthy habits, junk food, and references to even common drugs such as aspirin.
In addition, the guidelines ban references to so-called negative or sensitive material. As the authors of the Riverside guidelines explain with characteristic thoroughness, negative material includes, but is not limited to, parents quarreling and children mistreating each other, disobeying their parents, or generally showing disrespect for authority. Sensitive material includes references to Satanism, paganism, parapsychology, magic, extraterrestrials, Halloween, ghosts, witches, and the like, even in a fantasy context. Pumpkins and masks have become tainted by their association with Halloween and should be avoided. References to gambling are not acceptable. Avoid topics dealing with nudity or implied nudity, pregnancy, and birth, whether to animals or people. Avoid topics related to controversial styles of music such as rap or rock and roll.
If the Riverside guidelines seem incredible, bear in mind that these rules typify the guidelines used today by most major American publishers of educational materials. Some, like the Macmillan-McGraw Hill multicultural guidelines, Respecting Diversity (1993), are even more restrictive in specifying what constitutes bias and stereotyping.
And it is not just writers who must toe the line. Illustrators must not use pink for baby girls or blue for baby boys. Out is the old-fashioned idea that females care more about their appearance than males do: today’s illustrator must portray both sexes “preening in front of a mirror,” with Dad using a blow-dryer.
A strong tone of cultural resentment pervades the Macmillan-McGraw Hill bias guidelines; they suggest that white European American males have received too much credit in the past and that the textbook writers must compensate by highlighting the accomplishments of women and members of minority groups in every subject field, including science and mathematics. Although the guidelines insist on the extensive diversity among Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, and African Americans, “European Americans” are treated as if they were members of a single undifferentiated group, rather than people who originated in a continent of many different nationalities, languages, ethnicities, and religions (just like “Asian Americans,” “Hispanic Americans,” “Native Americans,” and “African Americans”). In reality, all of these groups are purely social constructions, made in the USA; no such group identities exist outside the United States.
The Multicultural Guidelines published by Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley (1996) further complicate the already near-impossible task of the textbook writer. According to these guidelines, the aim of a textbook is not simply to help students master a specific field of knowledge; the goal is rather to create nothing less than “a Multicultural Person.”
According to these Multicultural Guidelines, every group has its own “historically- honed worldview” and its own “values, norms, expectations, and beliefs.” The guidelines emphasize the overriding importance of “groupness,” ignoring the evidence of group intermingling caused by economic mobility, increased education, and rising rates of intermarriage in the United States in recent years. Students are expected to learn how membership in a group shapes the way a person “thinks, acts, and believes,” as well as the way a person is perceived by others. At the same time, students will be reminded of the danger of deploying stereotypes. The properly trained Multicultural Person will never allow “useful, flexible group generalizations to harden into inflexible distortions of group stereotyping.”
A reader is left to wonder: when is a generalization about a particular set of people a good application of “groupness” – and when is it just an old-fashioned stereotype?
The worst aspect of all of these guidelines is that strict application of them entails the exclusion of classic literature from reading textbooks. Neither the Riverside nor the Macmillan-McGraw Hill nor the Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley guidelines require that a certain proportion of textbooks be set aside for classic literature. None requires that stories and poems by significant nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers be included, even if they do not meet the letter of the bias rules.
After all, few, if any, classic children’s authors can meet the requirements of the textbook guidelines. Most of them were unaware of the need for balanced demographic representation. Most of them also assumed that children could imagine worlds that were very different from those they had personally experienced.
That helps to explain why so many American children now arrive in college without ever having read anything by writers such as Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ralph Ellison, Joseph Conrad, Willa Cather, W. E. B. Du Bois, Jack London, Edith Wharton, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, George Orwell, or Charles Dickens. Insofar as such writers flunk the tests laid out by textbook publishers, they risk slipping quietly out of circulation.
Given the concentration of ownership in the textbook industry, in which a small number of publishers dominate sales across the nation, the new censors wield enormous power. A few publishing officials determine what words and subjects are suitable for consumption in a great many of the nation’s classrooms. If they hope to work for the educational publishing industry, writers and illustrators must follow the guidelines with care.
Following the guidelines with care can lead to horrible results. In June of 2000, a vigilant parent compared literary passages used on the New York State Regents examinations in English to their original versions. She found that most of them had been expurgated to remove anything that was remotely controversial, in some cases making the author’s intention unrecognizable. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s memoir was bowdlerized to remove any references to religion, which destroyed the sense of it. References to race, ethnicity, religion, sex, mild profanity, and alcohol were deleted. In one passage, the adjective “skinny” was changed to “thin,” and “fat” was changed to “heavy,” presumably to protect the feelings of children who were skinny or fat. Although New York’s “sensitivity” guidelines are minimal compared to those used by many publishers, its sensitivity reviewers removed whatever they thought might give offense to anyone, without the knowledge or permission of living authors. The public revelation of the damage wrought by the absurdity of the sensitivity review was so embarrassing to the State Education Department that the State Commissioner of Education promptly agreed to stop cutting literary classics used on the exams.
Although the fracas in New York brought attention to the common practice of bowdlerization, there is a danger that it will encourage test publishers to avoid literary passages in the future. Many already believe that all literature written before 1970 is hopelessly riddled with racism and sexism. It is so much easier for them to use only reading passages that they commission, written by anonymous freelance authors who keep the bias guidelines in front of them and who do not own their words. The contract writers know in advance which words, which images, which stereo-types, and which insensitive language to avoid.
As the sensitivity rules have become more onerous, some writers and illustrators have simply given up. Some years ago, the New York Times described the case of an artist who had stopped accepting assignments to illustrate children’s textbooks after receiving a ten-page, single-spaced document specifying the guidelines for a single story. “The hero was a Hispanic boy,” the artist explained to the Times; “there were black twins, one boy, one girl; an overweight Oriental boy, and an American Indian girl. That leaves the Caucasian. Since we mustn’t forget the physically handicapped, she was born with a congenital malformation and only had three fingers on one hand. . . . They also had a senior citizen, and I had to show her jogging.”
Current textbook guidelines have an insidious effect not just on writers and artists, but on the integrity of the texts themselves. Today’s textbooks in science and mathematics abound in references to the race, ethnicity, and gender of scientists and mathematicians and to events that occurred in other cultures, even when the references and events bear no relation to the lessons. Dr. William Bennetta, who edits The Textbook Letter,1 has identified numerous instances in which textbooks have sacrificed accuracy of content for multicultural consciousness-raising.
In a popular high-school biology text, for example, there is a two-page feature titled “A Day in the Life of a Physically Challenged Person,” accompanied by an assignment to write about whether one’s own classroom is accessible to a person in a wheelchair; neither the story nor the assignment has any relation to biology. A textbook on driver education includes a sidebar about a movie-stunt woman who is completely deaf. A mathematics textbook contains blurbs about tennis star Venus Williams, author Alex Haley, and other multicultural items that have no connection to the subject of the text. Similar irrelevant features are scattered throughout textbooks in every subject.
Standardized tests of all kinds have also been affected by multicultural concerns. Tests are routinely screened for content or topics or language that might unfairly affect the performance of specific racial, ethnic, and gender groups – psychometricians call this “differential item function” (DIF). What began as a sensible effort to weed out subtle as well as overt forms of racial and gender bias has evolved into a strenuous program to banish any test questions that may be associated with group differences in performance, even though the questions themselves are not in any way biased, as that word is commonly understood.
The Educational Testing Service currently recommends avoiding certain topics that allegedly lower the test scores of female, African American, and Hispanic American students. Topics to be avoided include the military and sports. Also to be avoided are questions that use a specialized vocabulary to test a student’s knowledge of farming, finance, law, politics, science, technology, tools, and transportation. Ironically, researchers have consistently failed to demonstrate that students who are female, African American, and Hispanic will get higher scores if these topics are eliminated.2
Debates over the content of America’s textbooks and educational tests have, of course, been raging for many years now. But what is not at all well understood, even by the educated public, is the extent of the censorship imposed by the bias and sensitivity standards that currently prevail. Even worse, the range of forbidden knowledge seems to just keep growing – as I discovered during my tenure on the NAGB.
After our board approved various reading passages, based on their quality and suitability, for use on the “voluntary national tests” proposed by President Clinton, they were forwarded to a bias and sensitivity review panel. This panel recommended the deletion of several passages we had approved. (The Clinton administration’s voluntary national tests, by the way, were developed but never deployed due to bipartisan opposition in Congress.)
Two of the passages selected for deletion were about peanuts. One focused on the history of the peanut (with particular attention to the scientific contributions of George Washington Carver) and the other on the peanut’s nutritional value. The bias panel objected to the first passage because it included a statement that peanuts were exported from Brazil after Portuguese explorers defeated many tribes. (The bias reviewers believed that this wording would offend someone, but I wasn’t sure whom: maybe people who don’t like the word “tribe”? People who object to the historical role of Portuguese explorers?) The second passage on peanuts bothered the bias panel because it neglected to mention that some people are allergic to peanuts.
The bias panel also proposed to drop a passage about a heroic blind mountain climber because it implied that people who are blind are worse off than sighted people and have a more difficult time facing dangers like mountain climbing.
The bias panel wanted to kill an informative story about the life of African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune because it did not approve of the name of the school she founded in Daytona, Florida, in 1904: the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls. The reviewers thought African American children might be offended by the school’s name. A fable by Aesop in which the clever Fox persuaded the vain Crow to drop her cheese was rejected as gender biased.
The panel also proposed deletion of a charming story in which a rotting stump in the forest, which served as home to successive groups of insects, birds, snakes, and small animals, was compared to an apartment house. The bias panel found the analogy demeaning and claimed that it might reinforce stereotypes about apartment dwellers, or even trigger a negative emotional response among children living in housing projects.
This sort of censorship has no end.
Only the blandest, least controversial, and ultimately least interesting passages can pass through such a fine filter. The only authors likely to pass muster consistently are those who have been commissioned to write, to order, for the tests and textbooks.
This is an awfully weak foundation upon which to build a curriculum. How can we transmit our culture to the younger generation if we teach only what was written in the past dozen or so years? Is the culture created prior to 1970 so corrupt that it should be locked away and forgotten? Should we allow our cultural heritage to be hijacked by a handful of self-righteous pedagogical censors?
It would not be too big a stretch to assert that the McGuffey readers of the nineteenth century contained not only better literature than our own bowdlerized texts, but also more honest writing about the realities of contemporary society – poverty, crime, unemployment, class differences, and social injustice.
By ensuring that students never read anything that might possibly offend them, current textbook guidelines reinforce a sugarcoated and narcissistic view of culture, as if books and poems and historical narratives were ephemeral commodities – meant mainly to make us all feel better about ourselves.
Perhaps my indictment seems too strong. After all, periodic surveys by the Center for the Learning and Teaching of Literature at the State University of New York at Albany have reported that the “most popular titles” in high school are Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Huckleberry Finn, Julius Caesar, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter, and The Great Gatsby. However, this list of titles has been compiled by asking English department chairs in a sample of high schools to list “for each grade in your school the book-length works of literature which all students in any English class study.” The department chairs, notice, are not asked to list the works of literature that all students in each grade will study, or even the works that students in every English class will study. As a result, department chairs are free to regard a work of literature as among “the most popular” even if only the students enrolled in an advanced placement course actually read the work.
Even when great works of literature are taught, they are often taught carelessly in an effort to purge the reading experience of potentially disturbing difficulties. Writing in a recent issue of The American Educator, a college professor acidly described a class of incoming freshmen. Most of them assume that “all theories and opinions are of equal value, as are all readings of works of fiction – regardless of the facts of the case.” Students often told him, “‘My high-school teacher told me that a poem can mean anything I want it to mean.’” Unable to imagine the concerns of other people living in other times, these students have been taught instead to express invariably their own concerns when confronted with any given cultural artifact: “whether the text is the Bible, Shakespeare, or Toni Morrison, students read only themselves over and over, with the predictable results that the greater their ignorance the higher their self-esteem.”
With exceptions, mainly accounted for by idiosyncratic teachers and elite schools, a disturbing pattern has emerged from the reforms of recent decades: a curriculum without content – and a new consensus that only this kind of curriculum can properly meet the needs of modern American society.
The emergent consensus over the contentless curriculum is the result of a variety of social and political factors, some of them of long standing. Certain strains of educational progressivism, as I showed in my book Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform, regarded the traditional curriculum as elitist and sought to replace academic subjects with utilitarian activities connected to everyday life. Since the early years of the last century, the academic curriculum has been forced to compete with demands for vocational education, industrial education, and life-adjustment education. The child-centered strain of progressivism, as represented by William Heard Kilpatrick in the 1920s and 1930s and later in the 1960s by A. S. Neill, asserted that children learn best in the absence of any set curriculum: it is the students, not the teachers, who should be directing the course of study.
Educational psychologists launched a different sort of attack against the content of the curriculum by changing the way students were tested. In the early decades of the twentieth century, psychologists brashly claimed that they could measure not only what children had learned, but what they were capable of learning. Cloaked with the authority of science, they belittled teacher-made tests and essays as too subjective and unscientific. One of their casualties was the College Board examinations, which relied heavily on elaborate and detailed student answers; these exams were replaced in 1941 by the multiple-choice Scholastic Aptitude Test. Psychometricians liked the SAT because it was objective, reliable, and could be scored by a machine. The old College Boards had tested mastery of a prescribed curriculum and included an annual list of what literary classics students were expected to know; the sat claimed to be content-free. The changeover from the old College Boards to the sat removed one of the vital supports of the traditional academic curriculum.
For much of the past century, the leaders of the nation’s education schools – an eclectic mix of progressive pedagogical experts and psychometric experts – have seen themselves (sometimes heroically) as the vanquishers of the academic tradition. In every subject field, progressive educators have assailed the established order, whether it be the teaching of literary classics in English, the study of events in chronological order in history, or the mastery of computational skills in mathematics.
Thus, when the culture wars began in the late 1960s, the antagonists of a traditional curriculum were pushing against an open door. When critics on the Left complained that English classes paid too much attention to the writings of dead white men and that the characters and stories represented women and minority group members in demeaning ways, the status quo had few defenders. When the critics said that these omissions and representations damaged the self-esteem of students from these groups, many education leaders agreed: the system was guilty as charged. When critics said that too much attention was being paid in social studies classes to the actions of white males, educational publishers rushed to revise their textbooks, even hiring some of the critics to serve as in-house consultants on the issues that troubled them.
But the pressure for change did not come only from the Left. By the 1970s, members of the religious Right had joined the crusade against the traditional curriculum, lobbying publishers to purge anything that might give offense to the faithful. In his book Battleground: One Mother’s Crusade, the Religious Right, and the Struggle for Control of Our Classrooms, Stephen Bates recounts a legal challenge to the popular Holt reading series by fundamentalist Christian parents in rural Tennessee. The parents accused the Holt series of teaching secular humanism and violating their religious beliefs. As part of the litigation, Holt, Rinehart & Winston released over two thousand pages of internal files, which detailed the inner workings of the textbook publishing process and revealed (in Bates’s words) the company’s “almost pathological fear of controversy.”
The memoranda circulated among writers and editors showed their desperate efforts to placate any protests about gender, race, and ethnicity by revising their guidelines and content. By 1977, at least half of all characters in stories and illustrations had to be female, and representations of minority groups were closely scrutinized to avoid stereotyped behavior. As the publisher’s guidelines evolved, the rules for representation grew more elaborate (Jews must not be shown as “diamond cutters, doctors, dentists, lawyers, classical musicians, tailors, shopkeepers, etc.,” and the elderly must not be depicted “in rocking chairs, knitting, napping, and watching television”); authors, stories, and photos were chosen not for their literary quality or their contribution to teaching reading, but on the basis of “the latest U.S. population figures.”
Even though the fundamentalists’ critique of the Holt reading series ultimately failed in the courts, educational publishers took their complaints to heart and added evolution, religion, divorce, disobedient children, Satanism, magic, and fantasy to the list of forbidden topics in children’s textbooks and standardized tests of reading comprehension.
Consequently, the content of today’s textbooks and tests reflects a remarkable convergence of the interests of feminists and multiculturalists on one side and the religious Right on the other. No words or illustrations may be used that might offend the former groups, and no topics can be introduced that might offend those on the other side of the ideological divide. The Left gets censorship of language usage and pictures, and the Right gets censorship of topics.
The new consensus that undergirds the contentless curriculum is built on certain assumptions: that America lacks any common, shared culture worth speaking of, much less preserving; that there are no particular literary works that should be read by all students; that historical studies are problematic insofar as they require students to memorize and recall certain facts (this is derided as “rote learning”). The traditional curriculum could have been expanded to make it more inclusive of women and minority groups, but instead critics attacked its very nature. They derided it for emphasizing a “canon” and for expecting students to master a “body of knowledge” (the notion of “mastery” was itself suspect). Once the very idea of mastering a specific set of facts and texts was discredited, there was nothing left to teach but various methods, such as “basic skills,” “discovery learning,” “critical thinking,” and “problem solving.”
The failure of the publishers to defend the integrity of their textbooks was not entirely their fault. When critics assailed them, the publishers could expect no support from state education departments, which were equally averse to controversy, nor could they turn to the schools of education, which hastened to express their solidarity with the critics, nor could they seek aid from professional associations. The American Historical Association had long before accepted the submergence of school history into the amorphous field of social studies; primary- and secondary-school history teachers didn’t even have a professional organization to represent them. Nor was the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) concerned about the steady whittling away of recognized literature in the school readers. That organization became politicized in the 1970s and was more concerned about social issues than about teaching classic literature or standard English. The “national standards” produced by the NCTE and the International Reading Association in 1994 failed to mention even a single piece of literature that all American students should read. Besides, the leaders of the major academic organizations in both history and English were themselves too devoted to issues of race and gender to challenge those who pushed beneficent self-censorship onto the educational publishing industry.
Because the new consensus permeates the educational establishment, it has affected the course of the current struggle to raise educational standards – and not just at the federal level.
Over the past decade, every state but Iowa has written new academic standards, which describe what students are expected to learn at different grade levels in every subject area. These standards are supposed to be a guide for students, teachers, parents, textbook publishers, and test developers. The standards are particularly important as a guide to assessment: a state cannot ask questions on standardized tests about topics that were not specifically included in the state standards; if it did, some students would be at an unfair disadvantage, since they would be tested on material they had not necessarily been taught.
The most common failings of state standards in social studies is that they either omit history altogether, or they set expectations for learning it that are absurdly grandiose.
For example, an early draft of the Illinois social studies standards asked high-school seniors to “assess the long-term consequences of major decisions by leaders in various nations of the world, drawing information from a variety of traditional, electronic and on-line sources.” The same document directed seniors to “compare and contrast varying interpretations of major events in selected periods of time.” After loud complaints, the standards were slightly revised. One of the new standards for seniors became: “Analyze how the United States’s political history has been influenced by the nation’s economic, social and environmental history.”
In Ohio, seniors are expected to “explain how past events in the world and the United States have impacted events/ issues today,” and “explain how different choices in the past could have led to different results today.”
In New Jersey, seniors are supposed to “synthesize historical facts and interpretations to reach personal conclusions about significant historical events” and to “compare and contrast divergent interpretations of historical turning points, using available evidence.”
It is noteworthy that these standards do not refer to any particular events or issues or time periods. They sound impressively comprehensive. But they are so vague that they cannot be tested and should not be considered a “standard.”
The English standards in most states are similarly blank about what students should read. At present, no state identifies any specific work of literature that students should have read at any grade level. Only a few states append a list of recommended readings.
Such lists are invariably controversial. When Massachusetts issued as an appendix to its state standards “A Suggested List of Authors, Illustrators, or Works Reflecting Our Common Literary and Cultural Heritage,” one principal complained about “a return to pell-mell coverage – opening up kids’ heads and pouring stuff in. I thought we were getting away from that.” Another principal declared that distributing a list of literary “greats” was a step backward: “All it does is codify a rigid bias about learning and culture.” Others condemned the list as too white, too male, and too Eurocentric, even though it did include writers who were neither male nor white.
The moral of this story about state standards is all too clear. Any effort to prescribe content will provoke controversy. And remaining silent about “content” has one obvious advantage: no one can complain about “what” is taught if there is no “what” to argue about.
Politically, the path of least resistance has been to issue “standards” that offend no one. Controversy is far more likely to erupt in response to sins of commission than to sins of omission. So omission is the order of the day – a goal achieved by concentrating on skills while ignoring content.
Since most state standards do not include any specific content, the state tests of English cannot ask questions that assume any specific prior knowledge. When taking a test, students are given a poem or short story and asked to answer questions about it, either in multiple- choice, short-answer, or extended-essay form. They are tested on their ability to analyze an unfamiliar passage, not to reflect on a text they have previously studied.
Most state history exams similarly assume no prior knowledge. Tests typically include “document-based” questions, in which students are asked to analyze a document (for example, a cartoon, a short passage, or an excerpt from an article) that pertains to some historical issue; the correct answer can be found by reading the “documents” carefully, without knowing anything about the historical context. Also common is a type of question in which the student is given a quotation from some historical figure and then asked to pick a multiple-choice answer that captures the meaning of the quotation. The 1999 New York Regents exam in global history included a map question about “the Mongol Empires, 1200–1350,” which could be answered correctly without knowing anything about the Mongol Empires. Then there is the “historical” graph, which contains information about an issue like wages or unemployment or gross domestic product in certain decades; students are asked to read the chart to answer questions, which they can do without any knowledge of the historical period.
This approach to testing – similar to that found on the SAT – is different from the one used for the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate examinations. Both of these elite programs publish a syllabus, which describes the material that will be examined; teachers and pupils prepare for the examination by studying the syllabus. The exams are based on specific, clear content standards. Students are expected to study specific events in history and specific works of literature in order to prepare for the exams.
To prepare for the new state tests, by contrast, a student need only be able to read and express an opinion. In effect, testing agencies and state education officials have figured out a way to administer “standards” that do not require any specific knowledge of literature or history.
And so it has come to pass. Despite the admirable efforts of well-intentioned reformers over the past decade, our nation’s schools need not teach a common set of facts about history – and they no longer feel it necessary to teach a common set of literary texts.
There are exceptions, of course, especially in private schools and elite suburban public schools. There are most certainly talented and dedicated teachers of English in every state who still teach classic literature, just as there are dedicated history teachers who still equip young people with a clear, chronological scaffolding of events, issues, and people.
Their efforts, however, receive scant support from the new state standards. These teachers teach what they teach out of personal conviction. And whether a student has such a teacher is – in most schools – almost entirely a matter of luck and demography.
Getting the chance to study great literature and learn about the historical events that shaped our world should not be a matter of luck. It should be the consequence of well-considered educational policies that govern curriculum, classroom materials, teacher preparation, professional development, and testing.
Can we sustain a healthy civic culture when so few students (or adults) understand the evolution of our political democracy? Can we preserve a common culture when many high-school and even college graduates know little or nothing about our nation’s history and its literary heritage? Can we, even as we recognize increasing numbers of women and people of color among the ranks of great authors, simply abandon those earlier writers whose works inspired them?
Some would surely answer all of these questions in the affirmative. Some will disagree with me on every point.
But they will have to consider that the vacuum created by our failure is being filled not by cutting-edge critical theorists, but by the commercial entertainment industry. If we do not teach our children history, Walt Disney and Oliver Stone will do it for us. If we do not teach literature, the rising generation will be denied access to one of the smartest and most effective methods of forming critical and independent minds.
In a recent essay in The New Republic, Mario Vargas Llosa argues that new technologies cannot replace the book. Science and technology promote specialization, he remarks, but literature provides a common denominator for understanding human experience: it allows human beings to recognize each other across time and space. Through reading great literature, argues Vargas Llosa, we learn
what remains common in all of us under the broad range of differences that separate us. Nothing better protects a human being against the stupidity of prejudice, racism, religious or political sectarianism, and exclusivist nationalism than this truth that invariably appears in great literature: that men and women of all nations and places are essentially equal, and that only injustice sows among them discrimination, fear, and exploitation.
Those hardest hit by the conditions I have described are the sons and daughters of parents who lack the means to send their children to outstanding suburban schools or to private schools. For these children, what is taught in school is all too often dreary stuff that cannot compete for their attention with the powerful stimuli they find on television, in the movies, in video games, and on the Internet.
For them, school is the Empire of Boredom. Little do they know or care that an entire industry of bias reviewers has insulated them from any contact in their textbooks with anything that might disturb them, like violence, death, divorce, or bad language.
No matter. When the school day is done, they will turn to the videos and music that feed them eroticized violence and surround them with language that knows no constraints. This is as wacky a combination as anyone might imagine: schools in which life has been homogenized, with all conflicts flattened out, within the context of an adolescent culture in which anything goes.
Schools cannot beat the entertainment industry at its own game. What they have to offer students is the chance for intellectual freedom, the power to think for themselves rather than the incentive to gorge themselves on the media’s steady diet of junk food.
But under the present regime of censorship, the schools themselves are not intellectually free. Worse, they cannot awaken children’s minds with great literature if they are restricted to only what was created in the past twenty or thirty years, and then to only the predigested pap that passes the industry’s elaborate bias and sensitivity codes.
It is unrealistic, obviously, to expect the government to lead the way in establishing high standards for history and literature. As my own experience in the standards movement confirms, the government, like the educational publishing industry, abhors controversy – and establishing standards with real content is nothing if not controversial.
What, then, is to be done?
Parents must inform themselves. And even when they seem to be standing alone, they must insist upon something better than the current fare.
For their part, teachers must free themselves from the expectation that whatever they teach must boost children’s self-esteem, and that whatever students read should mean whatever they think it means in light of their own personal experience.
There are also lessons to be learned from the surreptitious bowdlerization of test questions on the New York State Regents exams. The work of bias and sensitivity reviewers must be reviewed by nonexperts, by regular members of the public (like school-board members); their decisions to delete passages must be defensible and sensible. I also believe that there should be public access to and review of test passages that have been eliminated for bias reasons; let’s all see what bias looks like and whether the experts’ views pass muster in the light of day. In New York, the State Commissioner promptly realized that he could not justify what had happened once the state’s actions were subject to public scrutiny. As a rule of thumb, the state should not do anything that makes it look ridiculous. If excerpts need to be cut for reasons of length, it is easy enough to insert ellipses; high-school seniors should know what ellipses are.
Great literature in any event does not comfort us. It does not make us feel better about ourselves. It is not written to enhance our self-esteem or to make us feel that we are “included” in the story. It takes us into its own world and creates its own reality. It shakes us up; it makes us think. Sometimes it makes us cry.
The same is true for the study of history. It is possible to spend one’s time learning only about one’s own family or ethnic group. But there are worlds of adventure, worlds of tragedy awaiting us if we are willing to let go of our solipsism, our narcissism, our need to study only ourselves.
One of my favorite American educators is William Torrey Harris, who was U.S. commissioner of education at the beginning of the twentieth century and a prominent Hegelian. Harris was a great proponent of liberal education, and he believed that what young people needed was “self-alienation.” They needed, he said, to enter into worlds remote from their own, immerse themselves in the life of another civilization, and then return to their own, with a critical perspective honed by their experience in a different world. Harris suggested that teachers should challenge students, upend their settled ideas, and expose them to worlds far beyond their own experiences. Properly taught, literature and history can cultivate the sympathetic imagination, the capacity to leave one’s own world and empathically experience lives in other times and cultures.
There is a price to be paid for the flight from content and from knowledge during the past generation. As they advance in school, children recognize that what they see on television is more realistic than the sanitized world of their textbooks. The numbing nihilism of the contentless curriculum produced by the puritans on the Left and Right merely feeds a popular appetite for the exciting nihilism of an uncensored and sensationalized popular culture, skillfully produced by amoral entrepreneurs who are expert at targeting the tastes of bored teenagers.
Even worse, the situation I have described leads to a growing gap between the educated haves and the poorly schooled have-nots – two nations, separate and unequal. In my view, the great goal of education is not to cultivate an elite – it is to abolish class distinctions. The path down which we now are heading will make education not the great leveler, but a great divider.
We do not know how these trends may yet affect the quality of our politics, our civic life, and our ability to communicate with each other. The consequences can’t be good. As the technologies of the entertainment industry become more sophisticated, so too will its appeals to emotion, to feelings, to our basest instincts.
When we as a nation set out to provide universal access to education, our hope was that intelligence and reason would one day prevail and make a better world, that issues would be resolved by thoughtful deliberation. Intelligence and reason, however, cannot be achieved merely by skill-building and immersion in new technologies. Intelligence and reason cannot be developed absent the judgment that is formed by prolonged and thoughtful study of history, literature, and culture, not only that of our own nation, but that of other civilizations.
That we have turned away from such studies, that we have limited them to advanced classes in secondary schools, and that they have become electives in higher education are not encouraging. As our common culture becomes constricted, so too does the possibility for informed citizens to debate the shape of their shared future. What we risk losing is part of the common fund of knowledge needed to sustain a truly democratic society.
I do not wish to sound like a Cassandra (a word that may appear biased because it suggests a fearful female), so I will not despair. Nor do I intend to be a Pollyanna (another word that may appear gender-biased).
But I do not believe that we should accept mediocrity as our fate. As scholars, as teachers, as parents, as citizens, we must reclaim our common culture – or risk seeing it disappear.
2 For a comprehensive review of research on how different topics affect children from different racial, ethnic, and gender groups, see Paul W. Holland and Howard Wainer, eds., Differential Item Functioning (Mahway, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1993). See especially chapter sixteen by Elizabeth and Nancy Burton, “The Effect of Item Screening on Test Scores and Test Characteristics,” 321–335; they conclude that “screening for DIF does not change mean scores of women or minorities.”