Diane Ravitch
Diane Ravitch; drawing by David Levine


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.

That there has always been a good deal to complain about in the educational experience of American children, she freely admits. Although she contrasts an emphasis on pedagogy with an emphasis on subject matter, to the disadvantage of the former, Professor Ravitch is willing to admit that the question of how to introduce children to what sort of intellectual disciplines, and in what order, is a real question. Readers of Lawrence Cremin’s The Transformation of the School will recall the horrifying descriptions of late-nineteenth-century schools that he quoted from the investigations of Jacob Riis. Children almost universally learned by rote. In one classroom, they were in addition forced to stare rigidly ahead. When asked why, their teacher responded with another question: “What else is there that they should look at?” True enough, the walls were completely devoid of anything of interest.


John Dewey is one of Diane Ravitch’s prime targets for attack, but she acknowledges that his reaction against rote-learning was justified. Dewey grew up in a small New England town; he was bored to distraction by the traditional curriculum of classics and algebra. Old-fashioned “recitation” as a mode of instruction was exactly what it suggests: boys memorized lessons and recited them to their teachers. The same pedagogical techniques continued into university instruction. Meanwhile, outside the classroom window, Burlington, Vermont, was changing its character in the way in which almost every other town in the northeastern United States did at the same time.

Not everyone who felt the contrast between the real life of society and the aridity of a frozen classics curriculum behaved like Dewey; it was not everyone who could draw on Hegel and William James to come up with a vision of the classroom in utopia. But almost anyone might have felt that it was a good question whether the established curriculum met the needs of children as they were, and society as it might become. Diane Ravitch concedes the point. She does not like Dewey’s prose style or his utopianism, but she is prepared to admit that Dewey’s skepticism about academic subjects was not the result of a perverse anti-intellectualism—a hard charge to bring against a man who said that his favorite reading was Plato—but stemmed from a reasonable hostility to rote-learning and to the amassing of information disconnected from life.

Of course, it might still be true, as she says, that Dewey underestimated the difficulty of translating the ideals and techniques that he and his wife brought to the laboratory school at the University of Chicago in 1896 into the environment of a large public school. This is a fair enough complaint. Dewey left Chicago in 1904 at least in part because the university would not provide sufficient funds for the school, and he always overestimated the readiness of the public to pay for social change. Like E.D. Hirsch in another context,2 Diane Ravitch agrees that Dewey’s obsession with what a subject means to us in experience was not a way of denigrating the subject matter at hand; when Dewey wanted children to learn chemistry by first growing corn, grinding it into flour, and baking it into bread, he really meant them to learn chemistry. But he also meant children not to learn formulae by rote, but to experience the inner meaning of the formulae by seeing them in action.

By the same token, Professor Rav-itch sees that the contrast between “child-centered” and “subject-centered” education also broke down once Dewey insisted that teachers were supposed neither to let children think just whatever they like nor to drill them into a stupefied acquiescence, but rather to make sure that children have learned something. Dewey, of course, was a “teacher-centered” theorist of education rather than a child-centered or subject-centered theorist; children could learn only if teachers could teach. The question, then, is not so much about the virtues of subject matter versus pedagogy as about the possibility of translating the personal, patient, almost tutorial mode of teaching that Dewey’s ambitions imply into methods for public schools with much less favorable teacher–pupil ratios, and with instructors who must be on average less imaginative and energetic than those that Dewey could recruit. Diane Ravitch is not the first critic of Dewey’s prose to complain that once his ideas were vulgarized in teacher-training colleges, the nuances were lost; and he was then recruited for assorted anti-intellectualist movements, whether they were vocational, “activity”-based, or geared to life-adjustment.

To appreciate the many virtues of Diane Ravitch’s account of educational reform, we need to consider three separate elements in Left Back. First, there is the swift, lucid, sharp, and elegantly written narrative history of educational theorizing from the 1880s to A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education that compared the damage done by the decayed condition of public education to what a foreign state might have inflicted as an act of war. Second, there is a less articulated running commentary on the damage these assorted intellectual movements have done. This depends rather heavily on the claim that progressivism in education almost invariably leads to anti-intellectualism, which is something less than self-evidently true. Third, there is an almost wholly implicit defense of a particular kind of school, very often described by contradiction—that is, by indicating what contemporary schools largely are not. The first aspect of the book is entirely admirable, but it leaves one large issue unresolved—whether there is anything useful that so-called “educational science” can do. Ellen Condliffe Lagemann’s recent study, An Elusive Science,3 casts an interesting light on that issue, though it is itself an elusive light, since the burden of the book is that most attempts to create a science of education have been inept, and that it is none too clear what a more deft, Deweyan science of education might be like; nor is it clear in what settings it might best be pursued. The second and third aspects of Ravitch’s book are the more contentious, although they inevitably invade the first.

One of the particular pleasures of Ravitch’s narrative history of progressive education is the enthusiasm with which she rescues some of the older defenders of intellectual standards from an unjustified obscurity. Almost the most enjoyable pages in the whole book are occupied by her account of W.T. Harris—perhaps a less obscure figure to historians of American philosophy than she supposes—who combined a passion for Hegel with the position of superintendent of schools in St. Louis and, between 1889 and 1906, US commissioner of education. Harris, who among other things started Dewey on his philosophical career by publishing two unreadable essays in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, had sharper and more incisive views about what was worth learning and why than one might think compatible with his Hegelianism.

Nonetheless, it was as a Hegelian that he wrote. “Being a Hegelian,” Ravitch writes, “Harris regularly delivered extended disquisitions on the relationships among the state, civil society, the family, and the individual. His reports as superintendent in St. Louis were unlike any written by other school superintendents before or since.” The point of education, he held, was essentially to allow us to enjoy the inheritance of the human race without having to reexperience the whole chaotic history in our own persons, and to acquire the habits of self-discipline, perseverance, ingenuity, and cooperation that allow us to conduct ourselves as free men and women. He provided an elegant if not absolutely watertight justification for the conventional grammar school syllabus; arithmetic, geography, history, grammar, and literature had their particular purposes—quantification, knowledge of locality, understanding progress, making speech more definite, and opening to us the literary imagination of mankind. To the erosion of such a conventional syllabus he contributed a certain amount himself. He had left Yale without bothering to take a degree because he wanted to study modern subjects rather than the narrowly classical curriculum, and in due course he added science, art, music, and drawing to the curriculum of the St. Louis schools.

In a still more Hegelian and more imaginative fashion, he defended the study of Latin as an aid to “self-alienation.” The Hegelians of St. Louis would have relished the reference to Hegel’s theory of alienation, but the most aphilosophical parent would have seen the point with little trouble. Children live in the present and in the here and now; one of the things that education can most usefully do for them is to teach them how to see the present from an imaginative distance. Immersion in the classical literatures teaches the reader to see her or his society and time “anthropologically,” as if they were distant times and places whose inhabitants had quite alien cultural attachments. The object, true both to Hegel and to American practicality, was not that students should lament the passing of Greece and Rome and feel permanently at odds with their own society, but that they should have something beyond a “merely instinctive and implicit” understanding of and attachment to their own society.

No good Hegelian can have much time for Rousseau, and Harris did not. He, like Dewey, thought of Rousseau as the preacher of the natural goodness and the natural self-sufficiency of the child. The idea that children were naturally destined to acquire whatever knowledge they needed seemed to Harris, much as it later did to Dewey, very like a simple denial that education needed teachers. Unlike Harris, however, Dewey wanted to borrow at least one of Rousseau’s central ideas. This was the denial of original sin for which Rousseau’s Émile was burned by the public hangman in 1762. Professor Ravitch thinks that Harris believed in the liberating power of self-discipline, but that progressives rejected his belief in discipline in all its manifestations. The truth is more complicated. Dewey’s attachment to Rousseau extended to a belief in the natural innocence of children—not in their natural goodness. To put it differently, he disliked the Calvinist doctrine of absolute depravity, but would have thought it quite foolish to substitute a belief in natural goodness for a belief in original sin.

So Harris and Dewey were not at all at odds over the need for self-discipline. Dewey, however, made much more of the “self” in self-discipline, and insisted that acceptable forms of discipline must not be externally imposed but genuinely spring from within us. Interestingly, Harris and Dewey were also at one in distrusting the movement for vocational education and manual training. The absurdity of thinking that there was ever one form of progressive education is nicely brought out by Professor Ravitch’s discussion of the vocational movement.

In 1893, a “Committee of Ten,” led by Harris and by Harvard president Charles Eliot, had produced a report proposing that all children should be given an academic high school education. Their case was one that has been made ever since: the later we differentiate between children, the more likely we are to encourage every bit of academic talent they possess; and the less we allow some children to undertake a less academically demanding curriculum, the less likely we are to have the children of manual laborers go into a lifetime of manual work and the children of lawyers become lawyers.

The Committee of Ten was in obvious ways progressive; it repudiated any idea of deciding early in life that some were destined to be hewers of wood and drawers of water and should be educated for the purpose. It was in that sense democratically minded. But the committee was vulnerable to attack from two directions at once. Businessmen wanting to keep the tax bill low could not see the point of teaching the children of the poor anything that did not immediately lead to employment. Some progressives thought that they could detect the aptitudes of the young at a very early age, and that children whose talents pointed toward simple forms of employment ought to be steered in that direction and be trained appropriately.

Dewey was as it happens deeply hostile to every actual plan for vocational education he encountered. But his unwillingness to draw the sort of sharp oppositions to which Ravitch is naturally attracted meant that he could easily sound as though he wanted to assimilate academic subjects to vocational ones:

In one of his famous lectures, he chided those who favored a course in zoology over a course in laundry work; he said that either could be narrow and confining, and either might “be so utilized as to give understanding and illumination—one of natural life, the other of social facts and relationships.” This was true in theory, but in practice the children who were studying zoology were probably learning the principles of science, while the children in the laundry work course were surely training for unskilled work.

That is sadly plausible. But it could be the subject of two different kinds of comment. Those who share Dewey’s ambitions might speculate about the ways in which we could narrow the difference between vocational and non-vocational education—which we do, after all, try hard to do when insisting on liberal arts requirements for degrees in business, law, or medicine—while those who do not will follow Diane Ravitch in thinking that Dewey may have inadvertently done a lot of damage.

But then a great many people come under the same accusation in these pages. Professor Ravitch gives a strikingly grim account of the IQ testing movement, for instance. Whereas most of us would, I suspect, think that it was conservatives and biological determinists who could accurately be accused of using IQ tests to exclude assorted groups from even a chance at a decent academic education, she admits only very grudgingly that IQ tests serve a useful purpose in identifying pupils with severe learning problems. She complains that the recantation by the social scientist Carl Brigham of his formerly racist and hereditarian views was less well known than his earlier A Study of American Intelligence, which encouraged intelligence testing; she seems to think that because Lewis Terman, the inventor of the leading IQ test, was a supporter of the New Deal, it is plausible to identify him with the cause of progressive education tout court. But this lumps together too many different persons and ideas under an excessively broad label.

Once Professor Ravitch has her contrasts assigned, her narrative bustles along. The two threats to academic education are “life-adjustment” on the one side and vocational education on the other, and the motivating force behind them is always the willingness to sacrifice educational values to immediate social ones. Like everyone who writes on the subject, she enjoys herself at the expense of the life-adjustment movement. In the 1950s, investigators discovered that

high school students worried about getting along with their brothers and sisters, making arrangements to drive the family car, being underweight or overweight, poor posture, poor complexion, ill-fitting shoes, and not getting enough sleep. The traditional curriculum did not speak to those needs. It might teach them how to think clearly, it might teach them about the achievements of humanity, it might prod them to think abut the causes of war, but it would not teach them how to behave on a date, what to do about acne, or what kinds of socks to wear in the winter.

This is all good fun, even if it is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, and lacks the historical subtlety of Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

It also raises two further questions: first, how plausible is Diane Ravitch’s charge that progressive education is intrinsically anti-intellectual, and second, how defensible is her alternative? The answer to the first question is surely that she entirely fails to make her case. The idea that it was a Deweyan enthusiasm for democracy that animated the post-1945 attempt by the federal government to diminish expectations and to slow the tide of high school enrollments makes no sense whatever. Nor is it remotely plausible to hang the life-adjustment movement around the neck of the social-democratic types who created the journal Social Frontier in the 1930s. Life-adjustment appealed to conservatives rather than educators on the left. What Professor Ravitch has done, forgivably but wrongly, is to conflate the main intellectual challenges to her own egalitarian traditionalism—vocational education, life-adjustment, a distaste for tough instructional methods in the classroom, and a hankering for utopia—into one enterprise, “progressivism.”

Both the intellectual and the institutional history of American education in the twentieth century are just too messy to be dealt with in this way.4 Nobody on the left would have signed up for “life-adjustment,” but different versions of vocational training appealed both to right-wing defenders of capitalism looking for well-trained workers and to left-wing utilitarians wanting trained workers who could sell their labor for a decent wage. The results in fact were in any case dictated by school boards of all ideological colors or none, through which the enthusiasms of educators, the anxieties of parents, and the caution of taxpayers have always had to be filtered.

Finally, what of her vision of the secondary school as it should be? Here I have to declare an interest. I am a member of the governing body of three British secondary schools—one ancient and very upper-class, one a little less ancient but supported by a charitable foundation providing the same sort of education for hard-up families, and the third a so-called “comprehensive” school, which is the British equivalent of an American public high school. All are deeply committed to providing a liberal education. The second, which provides an expensive boarding education on the basis of “need” without any question of the ability to pay for it, also provides a kind of life-adjustment that I cannot believe Professor Ravitch would object to—that is, it rather explicitly encourages ambition, self-reliance, the ability to cooperate, and those other qualities that W.T. Harris wanted a secondary school to encourage. Of course, so do the other schools, but perhaps in a somewhat less self-conscious fashion. Since I am thoroughly committed to all three of these schools, I am equally receptive to what Ms. Ravitch says in defense of the intellectually ambitious high school.

Oddly enough, if there is one thing one might say against Professor Ravitch’s enthusiasm for the academically ambitious high school, it is that it is rather more utilitarian than it should be. She knows, and often says, that the greatest gift of a decent education is the one that is intrinsic to it—a genuinely functioning intelligence with a sufficient stock of information to provide a person with materials for reflection and enjoyment. But she is so appalled by the uselessness of bad schools, the ones that send out illiterate and innumerate and only half-employable teenagers with no sense of purpose and no understanding of the world in which they have to function, that she sometimes sounds as though she is marching under a banner reading “Latin gets you a job.” She knows better. That is to say, she knows that the connection between democracy and education is not only that we are publicly committed to teaching young people whatever they need to be active, productive, and full-functioning citizens, but that we think the cultural and intellectual achievements of the human race are the inheritance of all of us, and not only of a favored few. Anyone who thinks that will be as outraged as Diane Ravitch at schools that shortchange the citizen, and at ideas that encourage them to do it.

This Issue

February 22, 2001