Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, June 21, 2002


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I thought it was bad enough that New York and California educators had sanitized or excised literary works from statewide tests (see #327).

But now comes word that excerpts from Anna Quindlen's nonfiction book, "How Reading Changed My Life," were subject to similar gutting by the Educational Testing Service (which Quindlen calls "one of America's most powerful monopolies") during its preparation of the Georgia End-of-Course Tests.

And the ironies keep on coming. The New York Regents exam, you may remember, ended up testing students on the very material that had been cut out.

The same thing applies in Georgia. There, if the ETS were to have its way, students would have a tough time comprehending "How Reading Changed My Life" because Quindlen's message - open a book and you get the whole, raw, unmediated world - would be cut down to "pabulum" (her word).

But at least the ETS, Quindlen writes in Newsweek (6/17), "had the common courtesy to ask permission to mess with my stuff.

"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," Quindlen writes.

Guess what word got plucked out of this sentence: "And soon publishers had the means, and the will, to publish anything - cookbooks, broadsides, newspapers, novels, poetry, pornography, picture books for children..." Yes, "broadsides," a terrible insult to students everywh - oh, excuse me, it was "pornography," of all things.

The ETS "supernumerary," as Quindlen called the person who contacted her, explained that the deletions were proposed because "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."

Imagine the blemishes that could pop out before test's end. "This was in a week when students likely heard of another suicide bomber in Israel, the gunpoint abduction of a teenager in Utah and the arrest of an R&B star for appearing on videotape having sex with an underage girl. And they're going to be distracted by the words 'slaves' and 'pornography'?"

The "most shocking" aspect of the entire test-gutting scandal, Quindlen believes, is a question for test preparers from the New York state guidelines: "Does the material assume values not shared by all test takers?"

As Quindlen points out, "There is no book worth reading, no poem worth writing, no essay worth analyzing, that assumes the same values for all. That sentence is the death of intellectual engagement."

I'm not the first to say these "sensitivity guidelines" are so stupid and sound so phony you just know some other agenda is at work. In #327 I suggest it's the Christian right with its tentacles spreading everywhere and its threats of lawsuits or media leaks or thousands of calls and emails tying up phone and computer lines unless just a word here is deleted and a word there is changed until finally, as in New York and California's case, somebody in the education system caves in.

The Teachers Speak Out

What we don't hear is that teachers behind the scenes have been fighting this onslaught from the beginning. This came to light this week when Fran Claggett sent a note and reference to a teacher's listserve that prove both instructive and illuminating.

Ordinarily I would put this in LETTERS, but I was so taken by these teachers' commitment to high standards, their respect for students' ability to investigate literature as part of the testing exercise and their belief in and protecting literary excerpts from sanitization or deletion efforts that I felt their comments stand as a piece in its own right. It begins with an email message:

"Pat: As the primary facilitator of the development of the CLAS (California Learning Assessment System) test, I was very thankful for your writings in the Chronicle and the publishing of the book of the banned works of Alice Walker. You might be interested in a bit of the 'conversation' that teachers are having on a nationwide NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) talk list about the censorship of test items.

"Here are a couple of messages:

"For those of you (all of us, I hope) outraged by the misuse (and illegality) of bowdlerizing literature for state tests, I just want to remind you of the situation that we dealt with in California a few years back.

"Here we had (thanks to the teachers) state tests in reading and writing that used whole, entire, unbowdlerized works of good literature (Alice Walker, Annie Dillard, Gary Soto, Gerry Haslam, Toni Morrison, and about a hundred other real writers). And what did we get? Outraged parents! Parents who brought suit after suit (all of which they lost); parents who rewrote the test until it was truly outrageous, used our headings, and passed it out in churches all around the state saying this was our test; parents who thronged to meetings in Southern California and caused the organizers to provide police protection to those speaking on behalf of CLAS.

"And we got a governor who ran for reelection on the promise that this dastardly test would be killed. Which it was. And that the new test would be teacher-proof. Which it is.

"And this is the situation that resulted in New York and Georgia and who knows what other states, to turn around and commit this illegal, reprehensible act in the name of education!

"I just didn't want the profession to forget where so much of this started! And why.

"So what can we do about it? I know NY has reneged on the practice (they will probably write their own pure texts, the way some 'literature' books for primary classes are simply mish-mashes of controlled vocabulary). But what about other places? Not only states, but districts are doing this. I know of one consultant (sometimes on this list) who quit her job with a big city assessment because they wanted to do this very thing."

"Fran Claggett, "obviously still angry after all these years about the killing of the CLAS test."

Gloria Pipkin, author of "At the Schoolhouse Gate: Lessons in Intellectual Freedom" (Heinemann) responded to Fran Claggett:

"But now I've come to believe that having better tests really isn't the issue. It's having high-stakes tests at all that perverts everything and everyone associated with them."

This seems to be the gist of comments from many a teacher/test preparer: You can fight to bring challenging and diverse literary works into a test, but even it you get them in, withstanding the attacks to come is a no-win situation.

Fran Claggett wrote back:
"Gloria: I have come to this position, too, but in 1984 (1984!), when teachers began to work together to design what we thought of as an authentic writing assessment (the literature came later), we were all pretty naive about the political aspects of it. And there were so many good things that resulted from the teacher commitment to teaching writing, from the teacher-led workshops all over the state, to the looking together at student work, that we felt quite virtuous. I should add, we designed a matrix sampling test - no individual student scores. We were truly using assessment to improve instruction. But, alas, our cards came tumbling down when the governor insisted that the test be used to rank individual students. None of us wanted or accepted that ultimatum."
Gloria Pipkin responded:
"Sad news from Georgia: Earlier today Georgia's Professional Standards Commission suspended the teaching license of James Hope, a Gwinnett County fourth grade teacher, for six months. Two years ago James posted six flawed test items from Gwinnett's Gateway exam to a web site maintained by parents opposed to the test."


I used to think the problem with the New York Times was that reporters were paid to dull up the news. I mean it isn't called the Grey Lady for nothing.

But what a relief to read Martin Arnold's column yesterday! If ever there were the equivalent of brass bands and ticker-tape parades in print, Arnold's comments about independent booksellers took the Times to delirious new heights (or is it new lows) in his column, "Gay Stores Feel the Pinch of Customers' Liberation."

Writing about a "slackening in tourism" that has slowed sales at gay bookstores, Arnold decided readers needed to understand the larger context: "Until recently," he wrote, "the outlook [for independent bookstores was] grim ... their territory having been largely gobbled up by the march of chain stores across the land and the buying of books on the Internet."

At that point he could have described the huge and sustained effort by thousands of independent booksellers to become models of good business right alongside the (lying, thieving) chains; lawsuits out the eyeballs that placed chain bookstores on a level playing field (except for you, "Captain" Borders); an inspired idea called Book Sense that has galvanized publishers to believe again in the power of independents; and the thousands of books whose lives have been saved by independent bookstores' discriminating buyers and passionate, hand-selling staffs.

He could have said that, but here is what Arnold wrote: "...there now seems to be a bit of a resurgence of the independents, publishing executives say."

Thank heaven. Now we know it's true.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Many thanks for running the chapters of Dorothy Bryant's book, "Literary Lynchings," all of which have been thoughtful, and a pleasure to read - particularly, for me, her reflections on A Day in San Francisco.

A Different Light Bookstore hadn't opened its store on Castro Street when the book came out -- we arrived in 1987 -- and I don't know whether Paperback Traffic on Castro or Polk, or Charles Gilman's Walt Whitman, stocked it. I did at A Different Light in Los Angeles, in the Silverlake neighborhood, though I can't recall how I heard of it: possibly through Bookpeople, perhaps through your review in The Chronicle or even the scathing mention in Coming Up.

We sold a good number of copies, and if anyone was angered by the book, I wasn't behind the counter at the time. Our goal was to carry "everything by, for, and about" the lesbian and gay community, and this book was all of that back then. Most of our customers respected our stock, whether or not it was to their taste. If we were being attacked by anyone in those days for what we stocked, it was usually women upset that we sold the s/m magazine "On Our Backs" . . .

Back then, one could, and I did, read just about every bit of gay-interest fiction that came through the door, and my reaction to the book stays with me: that this was a book a lot of mothers of gay sons should read (so I guess I thought of Clara as a "good," albeit struggling, liberal); that this was a book which would polarize its readers, much as "Faggots" had done a few years before (which I've always thought the best books should do); and that its cautionary tone, while in my memory a tad too disgusted by the elements of gay social and sexual life it focused on, was something to pay attention to.

What's fascinating, of course, is that many of the same concerns Bryant raised in the book continue to run through gay life: Sex, after all, is one of those primal topics where reason is often diluted by passion. If the book were still in print, and I were still a bookseller, I'd stock "A Day in San Francisco" in the history section these days - along with the late writer Paul Reed's 1984 novel "Facing It," often cited as "the first AIDS novel." The first written by a gay man, yes; but I hope Bryant, despite the pain of a decade of hate-filled letters, and from the distance of 20 years, can be proud of the fact that hers was the first piece of fiction to pick up, sometimes uncertainly but certainly bravely, the story of AIDS in gay San Francisco.

Richard Labonte

Dear Holt Uncensored,

Re: the quote from Barbara Kingsolver:

"A store where you can be sure no one will say to you, as happened to someone I know when he went into a place I shall not name, asking for 'Catcher in the Rye':

"'Um, check the sports aisle?'"

Just to be fair and aware: Former major league catcher Bob Uecker did indeed write a humorous memoir entitled "Catcher in the Wry," which would indeed have been properly shelved in the sports aisle. And the exchange between the customer and clerk was, indeed, verbal and homophonous.

Many years ago in my retail days a customer asked me if we had any books on the Celtics. I duly led her to the history section, thinking ancient Ireland. The customer was thinking Boston, basketball, Bird. A splendid chuckle was had by all.

Michael Wilt

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Your column on the watered down and doctored writings in statewide student exams made me think of all the gory, weird and generally grim things I read as a youth. I have not incorporated them in my life, although in some instances I have known how to order unusual meals, not to drink some things, and to act or react in new situations. Taking the reference to wine out of a high school test made me wonder. In this light, would Christ have turned water into a Pepsi or 7-Up?

Joyce Ruff Abdill

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Just a quick note to offer you an alternative to asterisks for emphasis:

The _underline_ before and after a word is sometimes used for this. I like this because it reminds me of typing, before we had access to italics from a keyboard. (Showing my age, am I?)

Fred Sandsmark

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Have really enjoyed your Estelle Freedman commentaries. Wonderful stuff about cosmetics forming a post-modern veil, and the burka being garb to protect against male predation. This is the sort of discussion we all must have about our culture and Islam, repression versus freedom -- not the shallow points most media reports focus on.

I have three teenage daughters, and for years I've been increasingly bothered by how much our culture still is one of female enslavement, for want of a better word. Magazines such as Cosmopolitan or Jane's or the endless stream of Victoria's Secret catalogs are a visual assault on young girls (and young men's) psyches, as are so many of MTV's shows and teen exploitation (PG-13!) movies with endless puerile dialog about sex, usually at women's expense. All seem to have the same basic message: your role as a female is to be a "ho", not a person. Sure you can be an astronaut or a doctor, but your body and your wallet are really all that matters.

One comment that Ms. Freedman made at the very end struck me in particular: "...if FEMINISTS were a majority in Congress we'd have a different social agenda. That means male and female feminists, of course." I agree wholeheartedly with her -- but I think "feminist" is implicit in being a good human being--someone who honors and cherishes the other sex, and out of that innate respect, strives to understands what motivates the clearest and purest intentions of the other.

James O'Reilly

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Comparing wearing cosmetics to wearing a veil is a wonderful analogy and probably correct. However, should I choose to show my face in public, rouged or not, I don't expect some religious fanatic to stone me.

As for how women are portrayed in the media, that's one area where we're going backward. Twenty years ago, models were approximately 7% leaner than the average woman. Now they are 23% thinner.

Sign me still fat,
Sharon Jarvis

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

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