CHICAGO -- Let me apologize for the language I'm about to employ in this column. It's not every day that I feel so strongly about something that I have to use so many controversial words with the potential to offend.
Here goes: dinosaurs, pepperoni and, steel yourself -- birthday!
Confused? Well thank goodness, then. This means our de facto national religion -- political correctness -- hasn't yet made you as ultra-sensitive as New York City public school officials have become.
According to the New York Post, the Big Apple's schools included a list of off-limits topics in a request for proposals from companies bidding to update the English, math, science and social studies exams used to measure students' academic progress. The subjects "do not belong in a city- or state-wide assessment," the guidelines warned, noting that if these terms were included, it would "probably cause a selection to be deemed unacceptable" because of their potential to "evoke unpleasant emotions in the students."
The topics included the aforementioned dinosaurs, pepperoni and birthdays (because each of these concepts are not observed in certain religions) plus such others as computers in the home (though computers in a school or public library setting were OK, presumably because they do not evoke emotions over the "digital divide") and dancing (another reference to an item that could collide with a religious belief, though mention of ballet is acceptable).
Hunting, movies, junk food, homes with swimming pools, evolution, rock 'n' roll music and television also made the list. They sit alongside the kind of items that really make you shake your head because their inclusion in formal proposal guidelines implies a belief that assessment development professionals don't have the sense to avoid topics such as pornography, alcohol and drugs, cigarettes or the occult.
Lists like these exist because no one can take any chances that age-appropriate common sense will win the day in any setting, much less an educational one.
Who can blame education administrators for erring on the side of extreme caution when, in the last year alone, there have been a smattering of reports that students were subjected to insulting assignments? Among them: math problems using inappropriate references to slave beatings, and a question about how the U.S. deals with illegal immigrants that included the inappropriate choices "puts them to death" and "shoots them into outer space."
Frankly, I'm surprised that race and immigration didn't make it onto New York City's off-limits list, which includes other important but difficult to talk about topics such as cancer, crime, death, divorce, homelessness, unemployment, poverty, slavery, terrorism and violence.
Those are all tough issues to address even in their proper context, and their exclusion from a standardized test implies they are off-limits during regular teaching time as well. Given that a great many students deal intimately with at least a few of those topics, it seems particularly cruel to simply bypass them and hope no one will get their feelings hurt.
But don't think I'm blaming teachers, administrators or school systems -- they have every reason to be terrified of offending the fragile sensibilities of the adults in their students' lives. Though cases of students being exposed to truly offensive materials are rare, the headlines these incidents garner have outsized impact on people's perception of what can go wrong in classrooms. School staff can hardly be blamed for trying to head off any risky situations.
I imagine that school leaders are merely laboring under the understanding that our society now employs only two modes of communication: "in your face about my beliefs and taking no prisoners with those who might disagree," and "if you don't talk about something then we can all pretend it doesn't exist, but if it does come up, consider me deeply insulted and looking for redress." I'd wager that "helicopter parents" fit in either category.
Pity the children who live in a world where the grown-ups in their lives try to shield them from confronting the concepts of Halloween, rap music or nuclear weapons (also on the off-limits list) on a written exam but do little to prepare them for dealing with those everyday facts in their real lives. Don't be surprised when they turn out as ill-equipped to mature and behave like thoughtful adults as are their protectors.
Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda(at)washpost.com.Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group