Babar the Racist



New York. -- Perhaps it was inevitable, but the latest minority to join the plethora of ethnic, sexual and cultural groups now seeking the status of victimhood are, yes, witches.

According to the Anti-Bias Curriculum, a publication of the National Association for the Education of Young Children that is gaining prestige in teachers' colleges, they have suffered too long from disparaging prejudice. The book advises teachers to explain that Halloween witches are not evil hags who like to eat children, like the one in Hansel and Gretel, but actually good women who use herbal remedies to ''really help people.''

Deborah Goldsbury, a pre-school teacher at the Happy Medium School in Seattle, sings with her 4- and 5-year-old preschoolers a song about witches that includes the line: ''Maybe your great, great grandmother was one.'' ''I also tell the children about women I know who consider themselves witches,'' says Ms. Goldsbury. ''And I bring in some interesting herbs so we can make potions together.''

The latest educational area for extrasensitive pedagogy is kindergarten. In classrooms across the country, experiments -- some sensible, some plain crazy -- seek to put the PC into ABC.

The practice begins with the essentials. Many kindergarten teachers find in Columbus Day and Thanksgiving an excellent opportunity for object lessons in ethnocentrism. Take Lawrence Zilke, a teacher at the Center for Early Education in West Hollywood. He shows his first-graders old educational films about the founding of America in order to demonstrate the bias on which their parents were raised.

In Monica Marsh's kindergarten class in University Heights, Ohio, children celebrate an ''international Thanksgiving'' during which everyone contributes food and flags from his own country. In Brooklyn, when one boy began to cry in confusion because his ancestry was English, Scottish, Irish, German and Jewish, the teacher relented from an earlier prohibition and allowed the child to bring in an American flag.

Family Day is the brainchild of Patricia Ramsey, director of the Gorse Child Studies Center in Mount Holyoke, Massachusetts. It is designed to replace Mother's Day, which Ms. Ramsey says is a regressive symbol of a sexist organization of labor. Family Day allows ''all the members of the family [to] be honored.''

In lowa (the first state to mandate ''multicultural, nonsexist education''), the Area Education Agency in Cedar Falls recognizes that story time presents a special moral challenge for enlightened early-childhood teachers. It has put out the ''Multicultural Nonsexist Teaching Strategies'' to help. Among its suggestions for giving a sensitive twist to children's classics is reading '' 'Twas the Night Before Christmas and ''pretending there is no 'Papa' in the story. Why not have Mama run to the window?''

Sadly, many of the great children's books are beyond help. Babar, for instance, ''extols the virtues of a European middle-class lifestyle and disparages the animals and people who have remained in the jungle,'' according to Ms. Ramsey.

A resource for the teacher wishing to eschew subversive stories of this sort is the Council on Interracial Books for Children, whose bulletin circulates to educators in all 50 states. It ''analyzes the content of new children's books and educational materials for racism, sexism, ageism, handicapism and other anti-human values.''

Older books critiqued by the council bulletin include Rumpelstiltskin (''sexist''), Snow White, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins (all ''racist'' and ''sexist''), and Shel Silverstein's ''The Giving Tree'' (''a male supremacist fantasy'' because the generous, nurturing tree is referred to with a feminine pronoun). The bulletin reminds teachers to be leery of books in which ''law enforcers are depicted as the people's best friend'' or in which ''teachers are portrayed as loving, kind, bilingual and as having answers to all problems.''

Should a retro book somehow find its way into the classroom, however, it provides an opportunity to teach the young children to ''think critically.'' At the Longfellow School in Teaneck, New Jersey, children are indulged in their reading of Cinderella, but they will then be asked, according to the principal, incisive questions like: ''Will Cinderella be happy after she and the prince are married'' ''Wouldn't it be better if Cinderella had wanted other things to make her happy?''

Ms. Goldsbury uses a more direct approach. She suggests confronting any tot who may have enjoyed the fairy tale with the observation: ''You seem to think this story is fun, but it's not fun for me. This person isn't making decisions for herself or taking charge of her own life.''

Other educators recommend considering the point of view of the giant in ''Jack and the Beanstalk'' and the wolf in ''Little Red Riding Hood.''

Playtime in general is full of incorrect temptations. But remedies are at hand. In the dress-up corner a teacher can ensure that there are more briefcases than pocketbooks and that there are plenty of scarves to wrap the head and body like people in other countries so that, as Ms. Ramsey points out, the girls won't be tempted to ''clomp around in high heels with pocketbooks like middle-class Americans.'' She would also make sure that toys like earthmovers and dump trucks are banned from the playroom, as they reflect the American desire to ''conquer nature.''

Ms. Marsh noticed that many times a crowd of boys surrounded the workbench or ''inventor's table,'' so she made a rule: There must always be two boys and two girls in those areas, evidently to ensure that girls and boys will conquer nature in equal numbers. Heaven knows what regulations apply in the sandbox.

Kay Sunstein Hymowitz is a free-lance writer. This article, slightly abridged, is reprinted from The New Republic.

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