In my essay, No Controversy Allowed, I shared a story about having an assembly program cancelled at a middle school because in my first assembly presentation that morning I agreed with a student that war was a problem and because I mentioned a few apparently “unacceptable” words in my talk (such as healthcare and illegal immigrants). That the students left my presentation with an understanding that it was their responsibility to make connections between their everyday choices and the effects on others; that service to others leads to joy, and that modeling a message of compassion is a good thing, didn’t seem to matter. Those dreaded words, and the potential backlash from angry parents (there was none), sealed the deal. I was not permitted to offer my second scheduled middle school assembly program that day. I had hoped this experience was simply a one-off in my 25 year career as a humane educator and not prescient about the future of schooling.
So when I first read about the New York City’s department of education effort to ban 50 words from city-wide tests, I thought that I’d better corroborate the source. It sounded too much like a satirical piece in The Onion. I thought that this couldn’t possibly be true – my home town, New York City, banning words? Alas, it was not satire. Here is the list of words that NYC Department of Education chancellor, Dennis Walcott, believes should be banned:
Abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological)
Alcohol (beer and liquor), tobacco, or drugs
Birthday celebrations (and birthdays)
Cancer (and other diseases)
Catastrophes/disasters (tsunamis and hurricanes)
Children dealing with serious issues
Cigarettes (and other smoking paraphernalia)
Computers in the home (acceptable in a school or library setting)
Death and disease
Expensive gifts, vacations, and prizes
Gambling involving money
Homes with swimming pools
In-depth discussions of sports that require prior knowledge
Loss of employment
Occult topics (i.e. fortune-telling)
Religious holidays and festivals (including but not limited to Christmas, Yom Kippur, and Ramadan)
Television and video games (excessive use)
Traumatic material (including material that may be particularly upsetting such as animal shelters)
Vermin (rats and roaches)
War and bloodshed
Weapons (guns, knives, etc.)
Witchcraft, sorcery, etc.
I’m normally a pretty optimistic person. I believe that it’s not only possible, but even probable, that humanity will solve our grave challenges and looming crises. I believe that the destructive and unjust systems which pervade our world, within production, agriculture, energy, campaign finance, transportation, defense, and so on, can be transformed. I believe Stephen Pinker’s in-depth anaylsis that reveals that we live in a less violent, less discriminatory, and less cruel world than ever before, and I believe that the unprecedented capacity we now have to collaborate and innovate across every border bodes well for a humane and sustainable future. But the reason I believe all of this is because I also believe that we can transform one primary, underlying system: schooling. I believe that we can embrace a bigger goal for schooling than “competing in the global economy” and commit to graduating a generation of solutionaries who have the knowledge, tools, and motivation to be conscientious choicemakers and engaged changemakers and who are committed to ensuring that the systems within their chosen professions are just, humane, and healthy for all.
But we cannot possibly achieve such an educational goal if we refuse to actually discuss the pressing issues of our time in schools; if we deny our children the opportunity to develop their critical and creative thinking capacities and collaborative skills, and if we dumb down our curricula in such a way that our graduates never learn about the actual issues of our time and are prevented in school from applying their great minds and big hearts toward the challenges we face in today’s world.
An attempt to ban words on school-administered standardized tests is a depressing development within an already depressing era of misguided "school reform". Ultimately, the effort in New York was a way of keeping students from thinking about and addressing the most relevant issues in their lives. Most revealing, is that teachers are being pressed to teach to tests in order to maintain school funding and keep their jobs, but the tests are prevented from serving a deeper and more meaningful education when the questions are cleansed of content that impacts students most. As Thoreau once said, “There are thousands hacking at the branches of evil to one that is striking at the root.” If we eliminate the root solution to unjust and destructive systems – which I believe is schooling – we will find ourselves endlessly hacking at those branches of evil, and I fear we will fail to solve our challenges and avert potential global catastrophes.