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  February 20, 2001 This month in Lingua Franca  

Progress Report
by Matthew Price

The roiling debates about the state of American education are unlikely to subside any time soon. Vouchers for the poorest students, or more money for public schools? To test or not to test? With the election of George W. Bush, who vows to put his own brand of education reform first, the battles over the future of the American student and teacher will only heat up. How did we get to our current impasse? Diane Ravitch's well-timed history, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (Simon & Schuster) tries to answer that question. Ravitch, noted historian of education and former member of Bush père's cabinet, lays the blame for the mess at the feet of so-called progressive educators like early 20th century Teachers College professors Edward Thorndike, a pioneer of educational psychology, and David Snedden, who was suspicious of traditional academic subjects like math and history. To Ravitch, this is so much rubbish; in her view, progressive feel-good theories about learning short changed high school students in the name of enlightening them. Ravitch explodes progressive pedagogical nostrums with a series of sharp-edged intellectual character sketches. For her efforts, Ravitch has received a mixed report card.

The New York Review of Books' Alan Ryan, while generally admiring Ravitch's seriousness of purpose, worried if she hadn't simply gone too far: "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, Ryan charged, is simply not rational: "The most passionate enemy of progressive education would allow something for inadequate funding, corrupt administration, and the evils of segregation."

Ravitch's almost single-minded focus on her gallery of grotesques came at the expense of historical context, charged David Tyack of The American Prospect. He explained that by "focusing on the clash of doctrines, the book only deals glancingly with alternative explanations that recognize the importance of politics and demographics. Educators with the 'wrong' ideas make inviting targets, but there is much more to educational change than that. Expansion of nontraditional curriculum owed much to the gung-ho lobbies of citizens who persuaded legislatures to require the teaching of new, nonacademic school subjects. School leaders did not have autonomous power, for the public also flexed its political muscle."

Ravitch also had her champions, especially on the book pages of conservative journals of opinion. Sol Stern, writing for Commentary, gave the book an A+, calling it a "a richly documented chronicle of a century of educational folly that makes an invaluable contribution to the ongoing debate about our schools.. it will provide embattled parents with much needed historical perspective." Carol Iannone in the National Review praised it as "invaluable and enlightening."

In addition, Ravitch's book was welcomed by two noted liberals: journalist Nicholas Lemann and sociologist Alan Wolfe. Lemann, in The New Yorker, gave her high marks for her efforts: "Ravitch goes at it with energy and enthusiasm," he wrote, "constructing a gallery of heroes and villains many readers won't have heard of. One of the virtues of Left Back is that it reminds us that most of the educational battles of the moment, which are usually discussed as if they were carryovers from the cultural warfare of the sixties, have actually been going on for a hundred years." And Wolfe, writing in The New Republic, did not stint in his praise when he heralded it as "the most important book written in many decades about America's most important public institution." Unlike Alan Ryan, Wolfe felt she had not gone far enough in her attacks on the progressives: "If anything, considering the stakes involved in democratic education, Ravitch shows admirable restraint,"he noted.

Matthew Price

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