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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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