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Pens and Pencils Down: New York City's "Banned Words" Controversy

Last week, the New York City Department of Education stirred up controversy by issuing a Request for Proposals (RFP) listing fifty words to avoid on the standardized tests used by the city's schools. These were not the dirty words that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that George Carlin could not say on the air, but innocuous ones like dinosaurs, birthdays, aliens from outer space, rap, and rock 'n' roll. A school spokesman told the New York Post that the words could "evoke unpleasant emotions in the students."

I am a product of the New York City schools, and I even taught in them for a couple of years. So I'm well aware of the unpleasant emotions inspired by the standardized tests I had to take as a student at P.S. 150 and by the trips I had to make to the Board of Education headquarters at 110 Livingston Street as a school employee (there they tested, interrogated, even fingerprinted me before I could get my teaching license). I was glad to hear that the city was finally trying to do something to make school more pleasant.

The RFP did not explain what unpleasant emotions might be inspired by dinosaurs, space aliens, or birthdays. In elementary school we often took class trips to see the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History, and I don't remember anybody crying on those trips or being frightened by shows about life on other worlds at the Planetarium next door. Of course this was the 1950s, and in our school we were all Jewish or Catholic, except for an occasional Lutheran—I guess the creationists who might object to dinosaurs and ET had yet to evolve. We were always being told that we behaved so poorly on the trip that no class would ever be allowed to go to the museum again, and I guess a ban on dinosaurs would have made that official. As for birthdays, which were to be banned ostensibly because Jehovah's Witnesses don't celebrate them, I do remember the unpleasant emotion of choking on a birthday cupcake at a class party in second grade. I wouldn't have missed school birthdays, but what about Washington's Birthday and Lincoln's Birthday? Or is that why we now have Presidents Day?

There were also plans for a partial ban on computers, and a total ban on rock 'n' roll. The schools in New York are big on computers, but tests weren't supposed to mention home computers because students who don't have them will feel left out. I imagine, though, that seeing computers in their classrooms more strongly reminds students who don't have one at home that they don't have one at home, leading to more unpleasant emotions. Plus, the official position of many school principals in the 1950s was that rock 'n' roll was highly unpleasant, if not downright immoral, so we were never going to be tested on that.

Critics noted that education involves not suppressing unpleasant emotions, but leading students out of their comfort zone and challenging them to think critically about everything. Commentators also ridiculed the Department of Education's list of banned words as a case of political correctness gone out of control. And there did seem to be an element of the absurd in attempting to ban the mention of foods that "persons of some religions or cultures may not indulge in," which could exclude mentioning not just pork and shellfish but just about everything edible except tofu and sprouts (and don't forget the children who are allergic to peanuts). But since the list also would have forbidden any mention of bodily functions, that suggested a blanket test ban on any kind of eating or digestion. Might as well play it safe and ban all tests dealing with any aspect of biology.

But if the goal of the word ban was to prevent unpleasant emotions that could impact student test performance, then I for one would have liked to see the list of banned words expanded. Words like hypotenuse and logarithm ought to go, along with atomic number, specific gravity, and adsorption. Banned as well: synecdoche, dactylic hexameter, and ablative absolute. In fact, to really reduce unpleasant emotions, schools should stop giving standardized tests altogether. Standardized tests produce high levels of anxiety, which is definitely an unpleasant emotion, and they don't measure anything except students' ability to take standardized tests. Think how pleasant school could be if tests, not words, were banned, and students never had to hear that unpleasantly emotive phrase, "pens and pencils down," again.

Finally, after a week of merciless ridicule from the media, New York's Department of Education ditched its banned word list. The DoE's Chief Academic Officer, Shael Polakow-Suransky, announced:

After reconsidering our message to test publishers and the reaction from parents, we will revise our guidance and eliminate the list of words to avoid on tests.

The City indicated it would still ask test developers to consider student sensitivities as they created tests, but I still think it would be better to permit the words but ban the tests. 

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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday April 5th 2012, 1:33 AM
Comment by: Tina L. (Walnut Creek, CA)
jeepers. can you spell "money down a rat hole?"
Thursday April 5th 2012, 1:56 AM
Comment by: David D. (Seattle, WA)
I sure am with you on this one, Professor Baron. I am so old that we did not have tests of this sort, but my tiny junior high school in Maryland was a test location for ... tests. We learned two things and one was how to take and pass tests, the other was how to manipulate any tests that proposed to suggest our best life path. I was definitely best suited to be a mechanic on one test and then I was definitely fated to be a forest ranger. The academic tests were clearly proposals and we understood that we were guinea pigs, but the teachers did not seem to get it. Well maybe some teachers knew what was going on and regretted that they could not teach for most of a semester. We thought we were victimized because we were such a back water place, but it seems the most centered place on the planet is victimized also.
Throw out the tests! Never ban words but explain when something is uncouth and never ban a book. If something must be banned, ban administrators and give teachers raises.
Thursday April 5th 2012, 8:16 AM
Comment by: Mike (Florissant, MO)
Amen! Oops, am I allowed to say that?

Those tests said my daughter couldn't make it in college. Based on those tests her high school advisors told her she should get a job in retail or food service and marry the first male who proposed to her. Thank God (can I say that?) she is as stubborn as her Old Man. She earned her BA in History, her teaching certificate after student teaching in Korea, and will receive her Master's degree in December, 2012.

Sometimes teaching and learning happen in spite of testing. Just think how much of that would happen if the tests and administrators melted away like the wicked witch.

PS, There is nothing wrong with working in retail or food service. I've worked in both. My daughter decided she wanted to go to college, and I am so damn proud of her!
Thursday April 5th 2012, 10:35 AM
Comment by: brindle (Canada)
It seems to be the the usual outcome that results from bureaucracy.
Thursday April 5th 2012, 11:34 AM
Comment by: Rain
The brilliant Lewis Carroll could have written this entire situation into his book, "Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There" (1872). I'm glad New York's Department of Education came to its senses and banned the banned word list in the end.
Thursday April 5th 2012, 2:20 PM
Comment by: Kelly
This made me laugh and cry at the same time, a common response these days given my current state of insanity being a teacher in these times.
Thursday April 5th 2012, 4:57 PM
Comment by: Patricia K. (Salinas, CA)
I find Visual Thesaurus a wonderful tool and I am so glad that you inform us of the senseless things that school administrators come up with.
Why do we pay New York Department of Education? Perhaps thy should put down Pen and Pencil and go home.
Saturday April 7th 2012, 7:33 AM
Comment by: Elle
As a creationist, I have no objection to the word "dinosaur". I neither doubt their past existence nor have a problem with that being taught in government schools.

Just sayin'.

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