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, 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 …