Among the Intellectualoids

A Bland Society Is a Sensitive Society

The latest educationist mania? Erasing words from history.

By 4.5.12

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Amid all the tumult -- Republican challengers goring each other while smiling, furtive Iranians spinning centrifuges in hardened bunkers deep underground, and President Obama admonishing the Supreme Court -- it is very easy to miss an event of monumental importance intended to enhance our nation's sense of values and promote a vision of a sensitive society.

Perhaps unnoticed and lost in the ebb and flow of events, the New York City Department of Education recently indicated it would like to ban from school tests over fifty words that it finds objectionable. Among the offending words are "dinosaur," "Halloween," and many others deemed unfit to an enlightened body politic because of sensitivities and perceived bias.

In uncovering this potential mind control plot, and as reported by CNN, the New York Post has suggested that for the Department of Education, dinosaurs might invoke theories of evolution which could be offensive to fundamentalists. To elaborate, implied is that the mere mention of the gigantic stegosaurus, tyrannosaurus, pterodactyl, and others that ruled the terrestrial expanse for about 200 million years could somehow contradict earnestly held views of creation, as set forth in Genesis. Yet degrading dinosaurs is most unwise: those enormous, roaming creatures had a span of control of 320,000 times as long as the Ottoman Empire. To the contrary, we should celebrate this type of hegemony which far surpasses the Greek, Roman, British and other empires in duration. Further, it could be particularly exhilarating to discover that Man is descended from the even earlier trilobites, the three-lobed marine creatures frequently studied by first graders.

In another brash act of thought policing, "Halloween" is evidently deemed suggestive of paganism, those crude Celtic rituals that might be offensive to believers everywhere. Given its Scottish origin and association with All Saints' Day, the natural extension would be to prohibit bagpipes and the wearing of kilts, embargo travel to the British Isles, revoke the UK's NATO membership, and strike out by name those references to all martyrs of the Church who have ever lived and died.

The Department of Education may believe there is no limit to the amount of additional public good that can be achieved through robust censorship and the elimination of certain words and the institutions they represent.

First, we should get rid of any mention of the Renaissance and of the 18th century Age of Enlightenment. Science and the arts flourished during those times, and the idea evolved that Man is fundamentally a creature of Reason. Indeed, this could be highly offensive to emotional people who are not interested in being confused by facts.

Second, we should get rid of all editorial, op-ed and other columns, and indeed all print, social and other electronic media that express any opinions. By their very nature, opinions suggest some sort of value judgment and hierarchy of views and are therefore destined to offend someone, sometime, somewhere.

Third, the English language is rich in words with the power to offend both people and animals. There is no limit to the number of words that could be expunged from our common usage. A blue chip non-partisan Congressional committee could be mobilized to identify them. For example, "work" may alienate Europeans who protect lengthy vacation entitlements; "Russian roulette" may imply that the successor to the USSR is reckless; "Belgian waffle" may suggest that Belgians are indecisive; "Dutch treat" could mean that the Dutch are parsimonious and poor hosts; "Trojan Horse" might imply that the majestic animal known as equus is actually duplicitous; "Arctic Circle" could be offensive to students of Pythagoras who liked triangles; the Brazilian song, "The Girl from Ipanema" could be offensive to boys from the beach by that name who feel excluded from music; and "Chinese wall" may be taken to mean that the Chinese system is not fully transparent, damaging relations with the world's second largest economy. As one droll observer told me, references to shoe-string potatoes are potentially offensive to those wearing tassel loafers.

The list of offensive words and phrases is indeed long. Yet the mere existence of a list is offensive to whatever is not on it. There is immense potential to build a bland but sensitive society -- we should seize not only the day, but the word. 

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About the Author
Frank Schell is a business consultant and former international banking executive. He serves on the Dean’s International Council of the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago where he is a lecturer.