Monday, March 2, 2009

On Schemes and Schools: How We Got "Here" from "There"

Below is a recent review I have written of Diane Ravitch's bok, "Left Bac: A Century of Failed School Reform." In the book, Ravitch attempts to give an in-depth history of the progressive turn in education and its excesses. In the end, she argues that progressivism bears the responsibility for the Amreican education system losing its way. While I disagree with Ravitch on a number of points (she is very anti-utilitarian when it comes to education, and I cannot see education justified any other way), her historical arguments are very persuasive. Highly reccomended!


Diane Ravitch's "Left Back" is both a history and a polemic. As the subtitle suggest, Ravitch does not only cover the history of educational ideas over the past century, but the history of "failed" educational ideas. As other review rs suggest, Ravitch's book is a history of, and argument against, progressivism in education.

Most of this book centers around two recurring dualisms of 20th century educational theory: essentialism v. utilitarianism, and learning as transmission between teacher and student v. learning as natural student-led proces.
The debate between essentialists (like Bagley) and instrumentalists (like Dewey and Thorndike) was over whether educational learning was valuable in itself or whether its value derives from its utility. In Left Back, Ravitch demonstrates that the concept of justifying education in utilitarian terms (how useful it is to students' lives) may have been an interesting idea at one point, but, like many ideas, it was pushed too far. Not many people - even the eseentialists - would argue that education should not have utility to students lives, but the overselling of this idea by progressives resulted in everything from hastily done tracking (tailoring instruction to students' predicted 'station' in later life), to the stripping away of academic rigor (why take biology when one can take a class on how to grow plants?).

The debate between those who argued for teacher-led education versus those who argued for student-led education was an outgrowth of the previous debate. The 'student-led' advocates (William Kilpatrick, Carl Rogers) rediscovered and revamped the Rousseauian idea that the best education is a non-coercive process of letting the student explore what she likes, and fostering her creativity. By contrast, the 'teacher-led' advocates (Leon Kandel, Michael Demiashkevich), believed that learning was as often an artificial process that necessitated the teacher being a teacher, and that part of s good education was learning things beyond what one would learn on one's ow.

In each debate, the progressives (utilitarians, student-led believers) won the day, often in spite of public outcry against them. In fact, one ironic theme in Ravitch's book is that while the progressives constantly invoked the word "democratic" to support their various cure-alls, the movement was, at every turn, undemocratic. Progressives always saw themselves as superior to the clamor of "reactionary" parents (who audaciously wanted their kids to learn subject-matter), were constant enthusiasts of tracking students at an early age by their predicted 'stations' in life, and constantly spoke of "creating a new social order," rather than educating independently-thinking students.

The undoubted hero of the book is William Bagley (an education philosopher that may have been John Dewey's most serious rival that is unjustly all but unheard of today). For his part, Dewey is portrayed as an out of touch intellectual whose "innocence was [often] comical" [p. 207) Many will object to this characterization of an educational icon, but Ravitch is certainly not the first to suggest that Dewey was entirely too aloof to articulate a philosophy with any real clarity.

Some negative reviewers comment that Ravitch's characterization of the various progressive movements is an unfair and mistaken straw-man. While I have only read a handful of the plentiful original sources she cites, it is difficult to see how an author who quotes so frequently from primary sources can be said to have gotten them (many unambiguous in meaning) wrong. My thoughts are that this book is a fair portrayal of progressivism, and that the reviewers may be mad because Ravitch is not afraid to mix history and polemic.

All in all, this is a stunning work for anyone who wonders how we got here - social promotion, self-esteem movement, flexible standards - from "there." Ravitch may have mixed history with polemic, but the book is well-researched history and necessary polemic. Ravitch's conclusion:

"If there is a lesson to be learned from the river of ink that was spilled in the education disputes of the twentieth century, it is that anything in education that is labeled a "movement" should be avoided like the plague. What American education most needs is not more nostrums and enthusiasms but more attention to fundamental, time-tested truths." (p. 453)


  1. Of course, both pure essentialism and pure utilitarianism are too extreme. If education has no practical purpose, then it's fine to pursue it for yourself, but it's insane to require it by law. On the other hand, if only the practical, career-oriented material matters, then we'd be better off with a national apprenticeship program.

    I'd say utilitarianism is the right underlying philosophy, but if every idea has to pay its own way, then what you get is a shallow collection of facts instead of a deep understanding, no matter what your ultimate goal. In my experience, the best approach is to block off some time for free exploration, some time for directed study, and make the distinction clear and explicit (otherwise one will tend to overtake the other).

  2. Yes, I too cannot see how to justify education if not by its uses. The problem is that the "utilitarian" school of educaiton has a very narrow version of what is useful, many of whom have argued to do away with things like literature classes (which are useful in disciplining one to decipher and think about compilcated text). Even a philosophy class - which Thorndike would have argued very much against - can be justied by utility in its ability to get the mind used to argumentation, rhetoric, and thinking in abtraction.

    So, I am definiitely a utilitarian. I think, though, that the utililtarians went too far in creating the "child centered" school which pretended that all learning must be made interesting to the child (nice sounding but unworkable), that we can differentiate every lesson for each individual student (again, nice sounding but unworkable) and that thet teacher should become a "facilitator" rather than remain an authority figure.

    Now, having said all of that, I do agree that especially in high school, at least half of one's classes should be elective. Of course, "essentialists" like Bagley did not disagree with this, and I like his plan of having a "common curriculum" until high school. (Many utilitarians did not believe in any common curriculum, or in maintaining one only until a very early age.)

  3. Parents have 18 out of 24 hours a day to spend with their children. I wouldn't call it undemocratic if every rowdy parents criticism of the system wasn't dealt with.

    More attention to "fundamental, time-tested truths" is one thing, but after a certain age, and a certain level of all-around competence is reached by students, it would seem that allowing them more choice and less mandated learning would seem alright.

    The only years students at my highschool got any real choice between classes were grades 11 and 12. Part of the problem at the school I went to was that there were far too much of what I think you're calling essentials e.g. bio., phy., calcu.,eng. lit., etc... and not enough classes where useful things could be learnt.

    I would definately tend to disagree with the books conclusion. The biggest problem is that that same essentialist attitude tends to carry-over into post-secondary education and you find engineering students paying their english literature friends to write their creative writing papers for them and creative writing students paying their engineering friends to tutor them through a math class (it's hard to cheat at math).

  4. You have to get into a masters/phD program to finally learn what you're passionate about, but if you can't get through one of those mandated courses like a second-language, or science... (what can you do?).

    Whose to say that if those barriers were lifted you wouldn't go on to become an eminent professor.