We Built the Pineapple, Not Pearson.

This article makes some excellent points about “Pineapplegate”. On the whole the incident reflects more poorly on our media and public debate than it does on Pearson.  There’s so much wrong with the way that we test students in American education, but smirking at a trippy test question fixes none of it, and denies some of the very real problems testing was set up to solve.

But let’s put that aside, because I think the author of this response nails the real thing that bothered people:

“The Hare and the Pineapple” is an absurd and almost trippy story, and it is emblematic of the sort of sanitized material that makes it onto tests and into too many classrooms because, as described in Diane Ravitch’s 2003 book The Language Police, interest groups have collectively created a culture in education that makes rich and provocative content out of bounds and leaves fun but nonsensical passages like “The Hare and the Pineapple” to fill the void. It’s an enormous problem and this episode highlighted it, but that lesson was lost in the din.

Honestly, this is what people reacted to when reading that story. If you really couldn’t guess why the pineapple was eaten, you are a poor reader, period. What sucks about saying “The animals ate the pineapple because they were annoyed” is, well, who really cares? This is a made up story, a one-off, that has no relation to culture or real life or people.

Why has it been sanitized? Why can’t kids have a bike race? Real kids? Or why can’t we use an Aesop’s fable?

Well, it can’t be kids, because a female or a male will have to win. It can’t be an Aesop’s fable, because there are issues of gender and role stereotypes. It’s not just the Left either that takes a chunk out what’s possible.  The Times Literary Supplement does a nice job of summarizing what Diane Ravitch found as she tried to construct a national test. I’m going to quote it at length because I think it’s really important to understand the level of restriction in these materials.

Ravitch admits that much of the censorship imposed on educational materials today was spurred by the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements of the 1960s and 70s. The original goals were laudable: to rid textbooks and test questions of prejudicial language and to open history and literature to neglected voices and points of view. Anyone who was educated in the American public schools in the 1950s and 60s (as I was) can recall the white-bread “Fun with Dick and Jane” imagery and the uninflected view of American power and moral virtue in the textbooks of that time. But Ravitch demonstrates that the effort to provide students with a more varied and just perspective has been taken to an extreme. Now, only the most blandly inclusive, morally simplistic material can gain entry. Stylistic eloquence and the free play of ideas have no place.

Ravitch’s discovery of textbook censorship began when she was appointed by the Clinton administration to the National Assessment Governing Board, a non-partisan federal agency charged to develop a voluntary national proficiency test. The Board began gathering material from literature and history for a fourth-grade national test. But no sooner had they compiled this material than it was handed over for review to a “sensitivity committee”, a group with backgrounds in counselling, diversity training, guidance, bilingual education, and so forth. The committee flagged many seemingly innocuous passages gathered by the Board as potentially offensive or biased: an essay on peanuts because some children are allergic to peanuts; a biography of the designer of the Mount Rushmore monument because the site is considered sacred by some Native Americans; a legend about dolphins because it reflects a regional bias against children who don’t live near the sea; an inspirational story about a blind mountain climber because it suggests that a blind person might find it harder to climb a mountain than a sighted one. The examples go on. Even Aesop’s fable, “The Fox and the Crow”, was flagged as sexist because a male fox flatters a female crow; to gain approval, the gender of the animals had to be changed. The review committee also gave the Board a list of topics to be avoided. These included abortion, evolution, expensive consumer goods, magic, personal appearance, politics, religion, unemployment, unsafe situations, weapons and violence — among others.

The attempt to create a national test was eventually abandoned, but Ravitch found her curiosity piqued. She did some research and discovered that most tests and textbooks used in American public schools were governed by sensitivity and bias guidelines, many of them more detailed and absurd than those she had encountered on the National Assessment Governing Board. Anything that could be categorized as disability bias, regional bias, or ethnic bias was immediately flagged. Any word using the term “man” (man-made, manpower, mankind, salesman), and any images of men, women or minorities engaged in allegedly stereotypical activities (women sewing, white men practising medicine, African Americans doing athletics, Asian Americans studying) were judged to be stereotypical and therefore unacceptable. Any passages that were situated in particularized locales (rustic environments or urban ones, for example) were said to be discriminatory against those who had no experience with these environments. By the same token, references to religion, to parental discord, to disrespectful children, and to evolution were also judged to be out of bounds. Conservative interest groups had learned from liberal ones to exert their influence. In short, the textbook and testing guidelines were wary of anything that might raise an eyebrow — whether it was the brow of a maiden aunt or of a committed anarchist. The goal was to satisfy everyone. This meant not only censoring and bowdlerizing what might be offensive but also cramming in as much innocuous material as possible so as to give every interest group its due. Ravitch quotes one textbook writer who finally broke under the strain:

“They sent 10 pages of single-spaced specifications. The hero was a Hispanic boy. There were black twins, one boy, one girl; an overweight Oriental boy; and an American Indian girl. That leaves the Caucasian. Since we mustn’t forget the physically handicapped, she was born with a congenital malformation and only had three fingers on one hand. One child had to have an Irish setter, and the setter was to be female . . . . They also had a senior citizen, and I had to show her jogging. I can’t do it anymore.”

The drive to please everyone explains why textbooks have increased in size and why the weight of children’s school backpacks are causing health problems. As Ravitch notes, the textbooks are not only big, they are visually spectacular. They use glossy paper and are crammed with photographs and colourful graphics. But the content is stultifying. There is no overarching narrative to inspire students with a love of literature or history. Everything is presented as equally important, since any use of emphasis would suggest that certain ideas, cultures or individuals are worthier of interest than others. Ravitch further notes that these textbooks are, in their own way, discriminatory. By mandating that students only be exposed to material that conforms to their presumed experience, the books engage in the very stereotyping they take pains to avoid on the level of language and imagery.

The point here is that what people are really laughing about is that we used to test our children on materials that meant something, things that had real storylines, connections with history, deeply motivated characters, and rich settings. But we’ve swept all of that away — in the service of good, absolutely — but apparently without much thought for how much this undermines and erodes the connection between learning and real life.

I’m writing a textbook right now on fair comparisons, and even here, at the college level, I’m working very hard to give it “balance”, putting eviscerations of “No Nukes” jingo-ism next to dissections of America’s health care  inefficiency.  I don’t mind doing that, because I know if the students feel there is any bias to the book they will tune out immediately, and see the stats instruction as just more propaganda.

But here’s the thing — wasn’t it us that trained them to do that? To demand as consumers of education that nothing jar their sensibilities, that they never be asked to look past a bias, or an unflattering potrayal of someone in their demographic? That if an issue couldn’t be presented as having two equally right sides that it not be presented at all?

It’s us, not Pearson, that built The Pineapple. Maybe it’s time to own up to that.

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