Sunday, May 6, 2012

Public Education: Keeping Fantasy, Horror and Sci-Fi Alive and Well for Our Emotionally Fragile Youth



This week is Teacher Appreciation Week (May 7 through 11) so, like last year, I thought I'd devote a post to the devoted educators who keep our public schools running for the benefit of our youth--and in particular, the benefit of up-and-coming fantasy, horror and sci-fi devotees.

For this post, I decided to turn my attention to a news story that made headlines last March about the New York City Department of Education's decision to ban certain words and topics from standardized tests. The Department has since rescinded this decision but it still stuck with me because the words that were proposed for banning were common, mundane words such as "birthday" and "celebrities". From what I've read, the motive behind the word ban was to improve student test scores by removing any subject matter that could upset the students and thus hinder their testing performance. Yet after found the complete list of words that the NYC Department of Education, it occurred to me that had this ban been enforced, it would not bode well for teachers, students, and the genres of fantasy, horror and sci-fi. Read on ....

I could devote an entire blog to the problems with censorship in public education, but I'm only going to spend time discussing NYC's banned word list with specific attention to certain words that made the list. Here are some of the banned topics and words that surprised me the most:
  • Disasters (tsunamis and hurricanes)
  • Children dealing with serious issues
  • Creatures from outer space
  • Evolution
  • Halloween
  • Nuclear weapons
  • Occult topics (i.e. fortune-telling)
  • Parapsychology
  • Running away
  • Television and video games (excessive use)
  • Vermin (rats and roaches)
  • Witchcraft, sorcery, etc.
If these words had remained banned in standardized tests and that the ban then extended to the curriculum (which can happen--just as any teacher what the phrase "teaching to the test" means), then everything that could possibly be related to horror and sci-fi--assigned readings, school library books, creative writing assignments, art projects and class discussions--would be gone. (Come to think of it, reading about this list gave me a brief flashback to the Congressional hearings in the early 50s that led up to the creation of the Comics Code Authority.)

The NYC Department of Education, reacting to the word "evolution".

Want to do a term paper about Willis O'Brien or Ray Harryhausen? Nope, because they spent their careers bringing controversial creatures such as dinosaurs on to the silver screen. How about an art project based on Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz? Forget about it, because those books feature children who run away from home while under great stress and encounter the occult and witchcraft during their journies. While we're on the subject, don't even think about doing book reports about Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allen Poe, or even that notorious anti-educational miscreant himself, William Shakespeare.

To quote the document that accompanied the list of banned words, a topic might be unacceptable if it "could evoke unpleasant emotions in the students that might hamper their ability to take the remainder of the test in the optimal frame of mind." By that rationale, I could never have scored highly on a standardized test because my preferred forms of arts and entertainment would've left me an emotionally vegetative state. Everything that I mentioned in last year's teacher appreciation post would've been banned from school grounds had this standard of student-level emotional distress been applied to my districts.

An example of what the NYC Department of Education believes
would ruin a student's "optimal fame of mind".

This recent fiasco with the NYC Department of Education provides yet another reason why fantasy, horror and sci-fi fans should be thankful for their teachers and public education. Even when the curriculum educators teach doesn’t directly address the genres that geeks like me love, it does cover topics such as art, astronomy, biology, history and literature that help fans further appreciate what they hear, read and see when they are not in the classroom. In contrast, sanitized and standardized tests made by private, for-profit companies are created to yield test scores, not stimulate the intellect or the imagination. To let this model of education run the schools is bad news for everyone, no matter what genres you prefer.

Check out the Popehat blog and the Visual Thesaurus site for more commentary about the banned words story.

I prefer that my standardized tests to come from KCRA TV.




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