Posted in Commentary, Politics

Race to the bottom

You know, you kind of expect better from California, but not all of it is rife with Birk-wearin’, granola-eatin’, tree-huggin’ liberals. A conservative corner of that great state is achieving new lows of intellectual degradation with a recent decision to remove dictionaries from its schools because an elementary student found some “bad words” in one, specifically, “oral sex.”

Evidently, the Menifee Union School District has been derelict in its educational duty for generations, because neither the parent that complained nor the school district officials who ruptured a disk bending over backwards to accommodate the complainer have any concept of what a dictionary actually is: it’s a book that contains ALL the words. Not just the cute, fun, cuddly, happy words, but all the words, distasteful though they may be, like “sewage” and “webinar” and “pederast” and “GOP.”

That is to say, a dictionary is descriptive of a language, not prescriptive. It is a reference book, where people who are, you know, interested in knowing things (a small minority of the population, I know,) can go to find out about new things they’ve just discovered, free of prejudice, politics, or prudery. I remember feeling vindicated to find “ain’t” in the dictionary, despite the schoolyard saw that swore it wouldn’t be there. I use a dictionary on a regular basis, but I know a lot of people don’t. I taught school for years and can’t remember a time I saw a student get up from his/her desk to go grab a dictionary off the shelf and look something up. Instead, they’d holler, “What’s xyz mean???” to the assemblage and expect an answer. That never played at my house when I was growing up. I’d ask my parents, and they’d tell me to look it up. And so I did.

If you’ve got a kid who is looking up “oral sex” in a dictionary, you should be glad. First of all, your kid knows what a dictionary is, what it’s for, and how to find one. You’d be surprised at how many students are 0 for 3 on that one. Secondly, your kid has accessed a reputable source for information instead of getting gory and probably inaccurate details from their equally ignorant classmates. (When I was in the 3rd grade, I was told by my best friend, a 4th-grader, who had it direct from another 4th-grader who had an older sister who was an authoritative source on the subject, clearly, that sex was when a man peed inside of a woman.) If they’re hearing it, they had probably better know what it is on a basic level, if only so they can avoid it. Or else some day they’ll be president and not realize that what they were engaging in with their intern was “oral sex.” And thirdly, if your kid is checking the dictionary, then you’re off the hook for 30 minutes of awkward, red-faced, hemming and hawing as you try to come up with an appropriate explanation for a perfectly natural activity engaged in by two loving, consenting adults that’s illegal in 18 states.

Ignorance isn’t bliss, and the selectivity of this kind of censorship has more to say about American discomfort with sex than it does about any purported safety of children. After all, we don’t scrub the labels off of cleansers and antifreeze in fear that a kid will want to drink them if they know what they are.

As goofy as the parent who complained is, the response of the district is ridiculously overboard. From Betti Cadmus, school spokesperson:

“‘It’s just not age appropriate,’ said Cadmus, adding that this is the first time a book has been removed from classrooms
throughout the district. ‘It’s hard to sit and read the dictionary, but we’ll be looking to find other things of a graphic nature,’ Cadmus said. She explained that other dictionary entries defining human anatomy would probably not be cause for alarm.”

That’s good news, I suppose, but what to do in the case of a word like “head”? It has 21 definitions, one of which refers to drug use and another to the aforementioned unmentionable topic. Are they going to chuck the 19 polite definitions out with the two rude ones? Will they get out black markers and start doing line-item censorship?

“Board member Randy Freeman, an elementary school teacher and parent to four daughters in Menifee schools, said he supports the initial decision to ban the dictionary temporarily. Freeman said it’s ‘a prestigious dictionary that’s used in the Riverside County spelling bee, but I also imagine there are words in there of concern.'”

Lots of ’em, I imagine. Words like “censorship,” “oppression,” “ignorance,” and “ham-handed”; these are all words that concern me.

No one’s arguing that oral sex is appropriate for children. But it’s a dictionary, not The Sexual Life of Catherine M, (which, for the record, wasn’t nearly as good or juicy as you might hope from a book with that title.)  Dictionaries are about simple facts; there’s no how-to, no illustrations, no sound effects. Just words. But the good people of Menifee are afraid of words, and the concepts they represent. And to avoid a handful of “age inappropriate” words, they will remove all the rest of the dictionary from use in classrooms. I really just cannot find any way to understand the mindset that dictionaries do not belong in classrooms, especially on the part of supposed educators. They are well and truly cracked, in my opinion.

And I question the lesson they’re really teaching to kids and parents, which is that if one person questions you, you should immediately cower in fear, overreact, and do things that are ultimately unproductive to appease that person, even if means displeasing scores of others who just didn’t care to take the time to carp. Timidity in the face of tyranny; now that’s a solid traditional American value! Well done, Menifee.



I've been doing some form of creative writing since 9th grade, and have been a blogger since 2003. Like most bloggers, I've quit blogging multiple times. But the words always come back, asking to be written down, and they pester me if I don't. So here we are. Thanks for reading.

4 thoughts on “Race to the bottom

  1. This is spooky! Just yesterday I was thinking about how it’s time to kick dictionaries out of schools, not because of words like “oral sex” which are included in the dictionary, but because of words like “muffin top,” “text-hole,” and “2KX” which are excluded from the dictionary. Printed dictionaries can’t keep up with our language; the internet can. I approve of Menifee’s new policy… provided they replace dictionaries with unlimited and unfiltered internet access.

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