In Defense of Traditional Education

As printed in the Hartford Courant, 09/03/2000

by Diane Ravitch, Simon & Schuster, $30, 544 pp.

Education has become one of the most talked-about political issues of 2000. Hardly a week goes by without Al Gore or George W. Bush talking about their latest school reform plan. We should welcome this debate, for the truth is that despite slight improvements on some test scores, most U.S. students are getting a mediocre education – at best. Failure is especially concentrated among minority students, which prompted Education Week to write recently, “Most eighth graders who live in U.S. cities can’t use arithmetic to solve a practical problem.”

How did we get here? This important question is addressed – and answered – by Diane Ravitch’s new book “Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms.” Ravitch is known in the policy and think-tank communities as one of the nation’s most articulate and honest voices on education issues. This book will reinforce that reputation. “Left Back” aims “to trace the origins of America’s seemingly permanent debate about school standards, curricula and methods,” and, more specifically, to recount “the story of unrelenting attacks on the academic mission of the schools.”

Ravitch describes the 20th century history of education as a battle between progressivism and what she calls “traditionalism.” At different times during the last hundred years, one or the other of these modes of thought has colored our views of education. In fact, according to Ravitch, the two movements typically arise in reaction to one another. This is a somewhat circular, and therefore not always useful, historical approach.

Nevertheless, Ravitch takes sides in these education debates. She suggests that traditionalists usually (though not always) stand on the right side of history. The problem with progressives, she writes, is that they follow “John Dewey, who in 1897 had proclaimed that the school was the primary means of social reform.” She accuses Dewey of arrogance cloaked in good intentions.

Ravitch believes that the progressive education movement was responsible for the three great errors of education reform in the 20th century:

  • The belief that schools should be expected to solve all society’s problems – leading to a loss of focus and diversion from schools’ core mission of actually teaching students something.
  • The belief that many children are incapable of acquiring a true liberal-arts education – leading to the introduction of vocational education and low-quality electives for students who truly need a solid liberal education (minorities).
  • The belief that schools should concentrate on students’ immediate experiences and minimize the actual transmission of knowledge – leading to pedagogical confusion, tentativeness and waste.
  • If all this sounds familiar, it is. Although a handful of states have begun to turn schools, student performance and the teaching profession around, major pieces of progressivism still hold sway in the education world. Consider a recent example from Vice President Gore in one of his debates with Bill Bradley:

    During a debate at the Apollo theatre in Harlem, Gore was asked two questions about school choice by a young African American reporter. She said, “A majority of the African American community supports vouchers, 60 percent. You yourself are the product of private institutions, as are all your children. Is there not a public or charter school in D.C. good enough for your child? And if not, why should the parents here have to keep their kids in public schools because they don’t have the financial resources that you do?”

    Gore answered by telling the young woman to “leave [my kids] out of this,” attacking Bradley’s Senate votes in favor of vouchers, and calling for the timeworn Democratic solution of higher teacher pay as one way to achieve “revolutionary” educational change.

    Ravitch’s history avoids current controversies such as these. This is unfortunate, because they reveal the truly harmful and ongoing consequences of progressivism in education where high standards and equal educational opportunity have been sacrificed.

    Near the beginning of her book, Ravitch quotes traditionalist W.E.B. Du Bois: “The object of a school system is to carry the child as far as possible in its knowledge of the accumulated wisdom of the world.” This sparkling concept has been under assault ever since it was uttered. The assault will continue. But, thankfully, so will the defense with books like Left Back.