With a No. 2 Pencil, Delete: The Destruction of Literature in the Name of Children

By Quindlen, Anna | Newsweek, June 17, 2002 | Go to article overview

With a No. 2 Pencil, Delete: The Destruction of Literature in the Name of Children


Quindlen, Anna, Newsweek


Byline: Anna Quindlen

You can imagine how honored I was to learn that my work was going to be mangled for the sake of standardized testing. I got the word just after a vigilant parent had discovered that statewide English tests in New York had included excerpts from literary writers edited so nonsensically that the work had essentially lost all meaning. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Annie Dillard, even Chekhov--the pool of those singled out for red-penciling by bureaucrats was a distinguished one, and I found myself a little disappointed that I had not been turned into reading-comp pabulum.

But the state of Georgia was more accommodating. The folks at the Educational Testing Service, one of America's most powerful monopolies, were preparing something called the Georgia End-of-Course Tests and wanted to use an excerpt from a book I'd written called "How Reading Changed My Life."

In the sentence that read "The Sumerians first used the written word to make laundry lists, to keep track of cows and slaves and household goods," the words "and slaves" had been deleted.

And in the sentence "And soon publishers had the means, and the will, to publish anything--cookbooks, broadsides, newspapers, novels, poetry, pornography, picture books for children," someone had drawn a black line through the word "pornography" and written edit!

I got off easy. In the Singer excerpt on New York's Regents exam, which was about growing up a Jew in prewar Poland, all references to Jews and Poles were excised. Dillard's essay about being the only white child in a library in the black section of town became almost unintelligible after all references to race were obliterated. The New York State Education Department's overheated guidelines are written so broadly that only the words "the" and "but" seem safe. "Does the material require the parent, teacher or examinee to support a position that is contrary to their religious beliefs or teaching?" the guidelines ask. "Does the material assume that the examinee has experience with a certain type of family structure?" As Jeanne Heifetz, an opponent of the required Regents exams who uncovered the editing, wrote, "Almost no piece of writing emerges from this process unscathed." Nor could any except the most homogenized piece of pap about Cape Cod tide pools.

"The words 'slave' and 'pornography' deal with controversial issues that could cause an emotional reaction in some students that could distract them from the test and affect their performance," wrote the ETS supernumerary snipping at my sentences. …

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