The Book Club

Left Back and Ordinary Resurrections

Dear Marjorie,

The Brookings Institution scholar Diane Ravitch seems a woman perfectly matched to her era. She’s an erudite diagnostician of school systems, in a time when schools are failing worse than ever. But that’s only half-true. To read Ravitch is to realize that educational crises of the sort we consider contemporary–collapsing standards, faddishness, self-esteem-building exalted over subject matter, social engineering, ill-informed experimentation, propaganda–have been the stuff of American education all century. One emerges from Ravitch’s new book thinking that for most of the century these problems were considerably worse than they are now. It’s democracy at work: American schools are always in crisis.

Left Back is not an account of budgets and busing and teachers’ strikes. It’s an intellectual history of battles between pedagogical traditionalists and progressives. Ravitch is a traditionalist. She believes all kids should get an “academic” curriculum through high school, whether they’re headed to college or not. For most of the century, though, education was controlled by a rising class of progressive educators with different priorities. Maybe today they’d be called the “ed-school establishment,” but their priorities have been pretty consistent across the years.

First, they looked at schools as a tool for changing society–always citing a need to make them “more relevant” to “our changing society,” and always claiming that their doing so made the schools more “democratic.” In 1900, relevant meant preparing workers for industry. The 19th-century curriculum had been too “elitist” and college-focused, reformers claimed, so they started “differentiated curricula,” with courses for the non-college-bound. But this wound up being more elitist than the system it replaced, since it was the already-upper-middle-class kids who got steered into the upper courses and the children of immigrants who were shunted into the lower ones.

In 1945, relevant meant adapting students to modern society, through the “Life Adjustment Movement.” The reformer Charles Prosser designed a program on the “daily problems of living” for the 60 percent of kids who were too dim for either college or skilled labor. It replaced French with Consumer Economics and History with Drivers’ Ed. Then–so as not to stigmatize these slower kids–Prosser urged that it apply to all students and got the U.S. Office of Education to fund it. Ravitch thinks its most damaging effect–before it was dismantled in the face of parental outrage–was that it happened to be in place at just the moment the north’s urban school systems were filled with black migrants from the south, robbing them of the wherewithal to compete in what was already an increasingly information-based marketplace.

(Ravitch doesn’t mention Al Gore’s plans to wire all our schools to the Internet, but one has a sneaking fear that it will have similarly perverse fallout: not lifting poor kids into the middle-class but leaving middle-class kids with what is basically a voke-tech education.)

Progressives have generally favored curricula based on teaching style, rather than on imparting a body of knowledge. The “child-centered education” of the 1920s, in fact, was intended to keep the child in his own child’s world, with no intrusion of confusing adult facts. Attacks on foreign languages and history took on a forthright anti-intellectualism, as when Massachusetts education commissioner David Snedden sneered: “Of what cultural or civic value for girls is most algebra, as now studied? Latin? French? Ancient history, or even medieval and modern history? Physics? Classical English literature?” (Today we have compounded the problem with teachers who are unable even to teach academic subjects, since only 38 percent major in them at college.)

Left Back leaves one curious, though: If as many of the century’s school reforms did actual damage as Ravitch says they did, how is it that we have any public school system to speak of today? Ravitch hints that it’s parental choice: Even a hundred years ago, powerful bureaucrats were struggling to get Latin banished from schools, and yet Latin enrolment continued to rise. One wonders whether she thinks this a good argument for vouchers.

Ravitch is plainspoken but not an ideological battler. She avoids attributing nasty motivations to any of the progressives she describes. On one hand, that makes her a gentle narrator–about the only kind of narrator one would care to accompany through 450 pages of ideologically combustible material. On the other hand, I wish I knew where she thinks the left’s attachment to schools as a tool of reform comes from. Idealism, vested interest, bad faith? My guess would be that, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States was the only major Western country without a real socialist movement. What it had was the only school system that sought to educate everyone. This made the schools a “radical” institution for the time, hence a magnet for busybodies. There remains the question of how progressives were able to carry out such huge reforms with so little accountability.

Sorry I didn’t get to Kozol; maybe we can discuss him later.