Editors' Desk

11/24/2003 By: Susan McLester and Dominic Milano

Besides that it's just plain fun, one of the great things about using digital video as a teaching tool is that it's not subject to the same whimsical, de-flavorizing censorship that textbooks are. Since parents aren't likely to see a textbook reviewed in say, the New York Times, it's probably not common knowledge to them, or even to some teachers, that a small but exceedingly squeaky percentage of the far right and far left hold sway over what kids read-or don't-nationwide. California and Texas are the two largest textbook adoption states and so set the tone for what's okay and what's not, censorship-wise. Therefore, the agendas of lobbying groups and anti-bias panels in those two states take front and center in debates that focus on everything from feminism and other groups' rights to an overall conservative whitewash of the history of the world.

According to Diane Ravitch, author of The Language Police (Knofp, 2003), a few of the hundreds of offensive terms banned by textbook watchdogs include: "fisherman" (replace with "fisher"); "gay" (replace with "happy," "lighthearted"); "Adam and Eve" (replace with "Eve and Adam"); "stickball" (regional, ethnic bias); and "yacht" (elitist). There are also rigid guidelines for images to avoid in text and illustrations. A couple of our favorites from the gender wars: "mother comforting children"; "father expressionless or relaxed during trying circumstances." For reasons not apparent to the man on the street-hold it, make that the person on the street-the food blacklist includes corn chips, jelly, salad dressings, pickles, and tea. And among topics to steer clear of on tests-because they might upset or distract kids-are aspirin, birthday celebrations, blizzards, poverty, farms, unemployment, and cancer.

But there are even more serious omissions. Because no religions can be presented in anything other than a positive light, the treatment of Islam, for example, lacks any real critical analysis in textbooks and standardized test materials. And because modern-day tyranny is shied away from, there can be no negatives in the portrayal of leaders such as Mao or the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Is real life just a bit too much for our kids to handle? If we "dumb down" textbooks, if we don't arm kids with the tools to meet its challenges, it surely will be.

Enter digital media. From what we've seen, when you put any kind of empowering technology into the hands of kids-whether it be a computer, the Internet, a video camera, or whatever-kids begin to connect with each other to explore the world around them in a manner that doesn't usually shy away from the harder facts of life.

Granted, digital media is not a quick-fix answer to censorship. It brings with it a different set of dangers and concerns. We have to teach students to be responsible, to be safe and ethical, and to be critical consumers of the vast amounts of information they can so easily access. But when students walk off the school grounds at the end of the day, they don't enter a sanitized world-whether we wish it so or not. Let's show our kids some respect by encouraging them to channel their energy toward solving authentic problems, by teaching them to use 21st century tools, and by trusting them with the truth.

Susan McLester (smclester@cmp.com, editor in chief, T&L

Dominic Milano (dmilano@cmp.com, editorial director, DV


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