In the mid-nineteenth century, new employees in London’s Savile Row would receive a pamphlet with instructions on how to serve the upper classes. Salesmen, advised the text, were to “become proficient in the bow and cringe.” When they read about this instruction, Americans sneered. Here in the U.S., no one kowtowed to anyone because of an accident of birth.
That was then. This is 2002, and the New York State Board of Regents has demonstrated a truly Victorian ability to grovel. The occasion: the Regents’ English Language Arts exams. These tests presented a series of excerpts from established authors, bowdlerized for tests of reading and comprehension. The Regents scrubbed an excerpt from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s memoir, In My Father’s Court, of all references to Jews and Gentiles—comparable to removing the whales from Moby Dick. They used a passage from Annie Dillard’s autobiography, An American Childhood, describing her poignant trips to a library in the black section of town, but stripped it of all references to race, thus depriving it of emotional power or aesthetic sense. The Regents similarly mistreated other passages: “hell” became “heck,” “skinny” became “thin,” and references to ethnicity, race, and religion—indeed to anything that might cause discomfort to anyone, anywhere, anytime—disappeared without permission of the authors or their publishers.
The changes came to light thanks to a Brooklyn mother who vigorously opposes all testing. Given these exams, she might have a point. The New York Times picked up on her revelations and mocked the Regents with a sarcastic headline: THE ELDERLY MAN AND THE SEA? Dillard weighed in: “What could be the purpose of an exercise testing students on such a lacerated passage—one which, finally, is neither mine nor true to my lived experience.”
The Regents briefly went on the defense. Roseanne DeFabio, assistant commissioner at the state department of education, acknowledged, “We do shorten the passages and alter the passages to make them suitable for testing situations.” The changes conform to the department’s “sensitivity guidelines” and desire to “respect the concerns of people.” After all, in New York, she went on, “there’s a wide range of cultural communities” and these folks must not be offended. But faced with mounting criticism from everyone from the ACLU to the Wall Street Journal, DeFabio’s boss backtracked. “It is important that we use literature on the tests without changes in the passages,” harrumphed Richard Mills, the state’s education commissioner.
What Mills didn’t say is that the Regents have pushed political correctness for years. Fearful of offending any special-interest group claiming victim status, they’ve long bowed just as low, and cringed just as apprehensively, as any Dickensian lackey, so that the differences PC is supposed to celebrate simply evaporate. It’s not evident that this recent flap has led the Regents to rethink their offend-no-one approach in any fundamental way—there were no dismissals in Albany, no apologies, no explicit condemnations of PC “sensitivity” concerns.
It wouldn’t be surprising, then, if the Regents soon were at it again, mocking New York’s great tradition of local authors who came here to express themselves more freely. Now that they can’t “clean up” their excerpts, the Regents will probably choose books so tepid that they make Dick-and-Jane readers look daring, lamely disguising censorship as sensitivity, the halt leading the bland.