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Schools: The Price of ‘Progress’

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Diane Ravitch’s clever, acerbic, and highly readable account of what she summarizes as “a century of failed school reforms” will alienate many of her readers. That is not particularly distressing. What is distressing is that it may put off just those readers whom Diane Ravitch should be recruiting as her allies—those who share her wish that schools should be intellectually demanding as well as intellectually liberating, and that schools should demonstrate their democratic and egalitarian commitments not by lowering their standards for the badly off, but by treating the disadvantaged and underprivileged with the same unsentimental seriousness with which they treat the children of the better-off.

Professor Ravitch’s account of the failures of assorted reforms over the past century has only one flaw, but it is potentially fatal. Her account is so deftly done, and so cruelly accurate about the shortcomings of assorted progressive educators, that it sometimes seems that everything wrong with American public schools is to be laid at the door of progressive education. This is something that no rational person could believe—the most passionate enemy of progressive education would allow something for inadequate funding, corrupt administration, and the evils of segregation—and Professor Ravitch herself does not believe it. What she believes is that once we have allowed for all the other things that public schools have had to contend with, the contribution of experts enthusiastic for a more scientific approach to education has been more damaging than useful. Indeed, what she believes most deeply and devoutly is that every move away from an emphasis on the academic curriculum has done more harm than good.

Her reasons for so believing are interesting. Diane Ravitch is very far from being a standard cultural conservative. She calls W.T. Harris, the unlikely figure who was both the superintendent of schools in St. Louis in the late nineteenth century and the leader of the St. Louis Hegelians and the editor of The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, an “egalitarian traditionalist,” and that is what she is. Her concerns in Left Back are exclusively with public schools, and it is threats to intellectual standards in public education that alarm her. Children in private schools do not concern her; and she thinks that the children of well-off and attentive parents will survive just about anything. As one would infer from her introduction to City Schools,1 a collection of extremely illuminating essays on schooling in New York, she minds most about the fate of the hard-up children of unskilled parents in big cities like New York. She is aware that there is a paradox in the fact that if she is right, the well-meaning efforts of the progressives have undermined the education of the very people they wanted to help. But education is hardly the only realm in which it has been claimed that would-be reformers have produced perverse effects.

Still, the personal irony is perhaps greater than usual in Diane Ravitch’s case; for some years, she was a professor at Teachers College at Columbia, where she was a colleague of the late Lawrence Cremin. Cremin was the doyen of educational historians, and Diane Ravitch admires him and his work. Though he was a somewhat chastened defender of progressive education, Cremin was certainly more of a friend to it than an opponent, and he was deeply loyal to Teachers College, which had a longstanding reputation as the home not only of progressive education, but of socialist educators. Although John Dewey was never a faculty member, Teachers College was for forty years thought of as a hotbed of Deweyanism. Much as she admires Cremin, Diane Ravitch is hostile, if not to Teachers College itself, then certainly to much of what Teachers College has been seen to stand for in the eyes of the outside world, and it is Cremin’s most famous book, The Transformation of the School, published in 1961, that provides her with a stalking horse.

Put succinctly, as she herself puts it, her argument is that Cremin was doubly wrong about progressive education. First, he was wrong to think that it had expired in the middle 1950s, and second, he underestimated progressivism’s hostility to intellectual standards:

The progressive education movement did not disappear in the 1950s; at the very time Cremin thought he was writing its obituary, the movement was at a low ebb, but it sprang back to life in the early 1960s. More troubling, it sprang back to life with anti-intellectualism at the forefront.

In Cremin’s important book, anti-intellectualism appears as an occasional, unfortunate byproduct of the progressive education movement for much of the century. However, this book documents the thesis that anti-intellectualism was an inescapable consequence of important strains of educational progressivism, particularly the versions of progressivism that had the most influence on American public education.

One thing to bear in mind, however, is that Professor Ravitch is interested in secondary education—that is, in the public high school—while a good many progressive educators were interested in much younger children. Dewey, to take one example, one of Professor Ravitch’s more prominent targets, hardly wrote enough about secondary education to fill a very short book. Sentimental progressives have usually focused on small children—Friedrich Froebel is the most obvious example, and Maria Montessori a close runner-up—and their efforts have frequently begun and ended in the kindergarten. There is a good reason for this: many writers on education in early childhood have thought that if we could avoid destroying the innate curiosity and imagination that children bring with them into the world, they would subsequently teach themselves what they needed to know. Some of us who have read them with pleasure are at least half-persuaded that that is true.

Professor Ravitch is interested only in the public high school, and she has only one anxiety. Whether she is attacking the utopian aspirations of John Dewey or the enthusiasm for endless testing of Edward Thorndike, the left-wing ideals of The Social Frontier in the 1930s or the conservative ambitions of the “life-adjustment” syllabuses of the 1950s, Diane Ravitch sees all of them as undermining the traditional academic curriculum, and therefore as undermining the one thing a public high school can offer all the children who enter through its doors—which is to say, an academically rigorous education. Her argumentative style is built on crisply set out dichotomies: experts versus teachers, subject matter versus pedagogy, intellectual excellence versus social engineering. And her case is that experts have slighted subject matter, have tried to use schools as instruments of social engineering, and have in the process sacrificed intellectual excellence without achieving any of the aims they set themselves in its place.

This view can easily be caricatured. Uttered too quickly, it turns into the claim that American public schools were better at the turn of the century than they have ever been since. This is silly, and is not what Professor Ravitch intends to say. She wants to say only that when schools concentrate on doing what they uniquely can do, they achieve a great deal. They are the means of social mobility for the underprivileged, and they hold the keys to the inheritance of civilized humanity—the old and irresistible argument for liberal education. The furthest that nostalgia for the vanished past takes her, as it might take almost anyone, is in the direction of regretting the passing of academically minded secondary schools where teachers were scholars, and where teachers, students, and the students’ parents had a common view of what an educated person was and how a teenage boy was to be turned into one.

It is entirely consistent with regretting the passing of such schools and the slighting of the educational ideals on which they were built to acknowledge that the society in which they flourished was disfigured by all manner of injustices and inequities, and that women, badly off men, immigrants, and persons of color typically got a much worse deal than better-off white men. And it is entirely consistent with recognizing the injustices rife in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century to believe, as W.E.B. Du Bois did at the time, that what women, the poor, and people of color needed was not an unacademic (or manual or vocational) education tailored to their immediate needs and capacities, but an academically rigorous education tailored to the ultimate needs of everyone, and therefore of the excluded, among others.

Professor Ravitch knows as well as the next person that there were very few high-quality schools for teenagers in turn of the century America:

By 1890, 95 percent of children between the ages of five and thirteen were enrolled in school for at least a few months of the year. Less than 5 percent of adolescents went to high school and even fewer entered college. Beyond the age of thirteen, there were large gaps in opportunities to attend school.

Indeed, there were thousands of “one-room schoolhouses” scattered about rural America until well into the 1920s. It was a triumph to secure widespread literacy, and to equip people with the fairly simple skills they needed for employment. It was not, however, the same thing as offering an academically impressive education to more than a very few young people.

Much as in Britain, good academic education was until the second half of the nineteenth century provided by private schools rather than public schools, and this state of affairs changed only slowly: “At the end of the nineteenth century, almost every community had an elementary school, but public high schools were sparse.” Even when one makes all allowances for the nuances of her argument, however, there remains a question that Professor Ravitch might seem to evade when she labels the efforts of an entire century a failure. Is she not guilty of contrasting the standards of a small number of schools adapted to the requirements of middle-class and well-established families with those appropriate to a vast number of schools catering to 90 percent of a much bigger and more diverse population?

I think that she is not. Left Back is more nearly a chronicle of ideals of schooling than a chronicle of practices; her subtitle, “a century of failed school reforms,” is misleading in suggesting that once there were excellent schools which have been willfully destroyed by anti-intellectual reformers. Her complaint is rather that the right schools have never been created in the numbers they should have been, and for the students who most needed them. What Professor Ravitch contrasts is a timeless model of academic education on the one side with, on the other, ideals of vocational training, and of social, political, and psychological transformation. Her argument is hypothetical: to the extent that these contrary ideals have affected American public education, they have had a malign impact; and even where they have not had a direct effect, they have distracted attention from the permanent and central task of teaching academic subject matter.

  1. 1

    Diane Ravitch and Joseph P. Viteritti, editors, City Schools (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

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