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The New York Regents: An Editorial


Steering clear of offensive language makes sense most of the time. But where do we draw the line? When does a message become too polite, to the degree that it becomes sanitized, and loses all of its power? This question and others have been raised this month in New York, where Jeanne Heifetz, the mother of a student who was studying for the New York Regents Exams, made an important discovery.

Every high school student in New York State has to take the Regents to graduate. They test students on reading comprehension, among other things, and they tend to use established, well-known pieces of writing as examples. According to a "New York Times" article that ran that week, Heifetz found that "...any reference to race, religion, ethnicity, sex, nudity, alcohol, even the mildest profanity" had been removed from the test.

For example, in Elie Wiesel's essay "What Really Makes Us Free," a passage which once read: "Man, who was created in God's image, wants to be free as God is free: free to choose between good and evil..." was changed to "Man wants to be free: free to choose between good and evil..." In a passage of Anne Lamott's book "Bird by Bird", the phrase "She's gay!" was removed completely, changing the implication of the excerpt

I have been out of high school for a year now and I've had a number of good literature teachers. I believe there is an integrity that is lost when a piece chosen for exhibiting masterful writing skill is chopped down to mere syntactical proficiency and stripped of its essence. And I must emphasize a key aspect of literature - content and form are symbiotic, if not oftentimes synonymous. In an area where the meaning of a text is critical, how are the students supposed to be able create thorough analyses if the passage no longer conveys what the original authors intended? The State Education Department said that the material was censored because, "it did not want any student to feel ill at ease while taking the test." Therefore it wiped out anything remotely resembling controversy.

Exactly how does this reflect on the Education Department's opinion of the students who are taking the test? Perhaps more importantly, how does it reflect on the educational system in this country? In creating a test completely devoid of reference to what they deem "inflammatory," the Regents test spells out a bias itself -- that students can't handle the components that make up the real world.

By the time a young person reaches senior year they should be able to read about issues they may not agree with. On top of that, they should have the tools they need to take any emotion the texts evokes and convert it into smart and passionate responses. In another example given in the Times article, the students are asked to write an essay on human dignity after reading Chekhov's short story "The Upheaval." But a part in which servants are strip-searched by their mistress, who is looking for a missing brooch, is edited out. I understand that standardized tests such as the Regents are meant to test a broad range of students without singling out any group or category in particular, but it seems to me that this heavy censorship works against their aims.

The State Education Department said that the material was censored because, "it did not want any student to feel ill at ease while taking the test."

Stanford second year Nikki Suarez has another way of looking at it. She thinks that students might actually do better if they were angered by what they read. "They'd have greater tendency to work hard if they're impassioned by it," she said.

Nikki has a point. For every student who might be offended by the presence of a reference to a gay person, questioning of America's governmental system, or a religious or cultural experience, chances are there is another student who would identify with those passages and feels empowered by an acknowledgment of their interests.

Not everyone will see this issue as a problem, a test which measures our ability to keep learning should be one which addresses the issues we value and does not bypass of them. Personally, I think these times call for content that will bring the students of New York and beyond to attention.

As humans we learn through exposure, as young people we await what the older generation has to offer in order to create something new. Hiding the truth only causes greater damage once it is inevitably discovered. With everything the real world has in store for this generation, we deserve to be given the room to make up our own minds about what we read.

Maikiko James, 19, is a second year student at New York University and a resident of San Francisco.

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