Published Online:

Humanities Reports: Unity of Themes, Clash of Authors

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Washington--A brief but acrimonious clash over the use of government research data has accompanied the release of the two new federally funded critiques of humanities education.

The dispute between the reports' authors--which flared into the open on a national network news program Sept. 6--pitted Lynne V. Cheney, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, against Diane Ravitch, a prominent education historian, and Chester E. Finn Jr., an assistant secretary of education.

At issue was Ms. Cheney's use of data from the first national student assessment in history and literature, which Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Finn developed under a $369,636 contract with the neh

In addition, Ms. Cheney scored a publicity coup by releasing her report Aug. 30, four months before it was due and 11 days before Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Finn's study was scheduled for release in book form by Harper & Row Publishers Inc.

Ms. Cheney's report, "American Memory," makes only brief references to the results of the assessment. In press and television interviews publicizing her report,however, the neh chairman provided further details from the assessment, apparently without crediting Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Finn. A Sept. 7 article in Newsweek, for example, featured a photograph of Ms. Cheney and sample questions from "the neh assessment."

"Her use of that data was unauthorized," charged Ms. Ravitch, an adjunct professor of history and education at Columbia University's Teachers College.

During an appearance by Ms. Cheney on the ABC-tv News program "This Week With David Brinkley," the network's White House correspondent, Sam Donaldson, confronted her with Ms. Ravitch's accusations. Mr. Donaldson asked if Ms. Cheney had "plagiarized" from from the other authors' work.

"Oh, Sam," Ms. Cheney responded. "This is astonishing to me. Diane is a strong supporter and a good friend."

The neh chairman noted that the information she had disseminated--including some of the most startling results from the assessment, such as the fact that two-thirds of the 17-year-olds tested could not place the Civil War within the correct half-century--had been in the public domain since April. At that time, she said, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which conducted the test, placed the findings on a data tape available to researchers.

Moreover, Ms. Cheney maintained, she had a right to make the information public because her agency had funded the research.

"It is the right of the taxpayers, and this agency as their custodian, to use those data," Noel Milan, a spokesman for the endowment, reiterated late last week.

Following the Sept. 8 release of their book analyzing the assessment data, What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?, Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Finn declared the incident closed. "That's water over the dam now," said Mr. Finn.

But the incident has led some observers to question who controls data from publicly funded research that will be published commercially. And it has raised eyebrows among some researchers, who fear that they, too, may be "scooped" by their funding agencies.

The sensitivity of the issues is underscored by the unwillingness of education researchers contacted last week to discuss them on the record.

Raw Data Available

Although the data from the 1986 humanities assessment becameavailable last spring, the information is in raw form, according to Ina V.S. Mullis, deputy director of naep.

"You couldn't look at it and say that 80 percent of students knew who Juliet was," she said. "You would have to compute that."

Naep customarily puts information on data tapes, which researchers can use for $135 per age group tested, provided they agree not to disclose the questions.

While the cost and the form of the naep data may seem to limit access to the federally funded information, the arrangement is not uncommon,according to Laurie Garduque, director of governmental and professional liaison at the American Education Research Association.

Often, Ms. Garduque said, agencies release technical papers, while researchers publish the findings commercially. For example, she noted, James S. Coleman, the University of Chicago scholar, has published several books based on the Education Department's "High School and Beyond" surveys.

Like Mr. Coleman's books, Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Finn's What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? makes an analysis of government-funded data available in commercial form.

Mr. Finn, as an Education Department employee, did not receive any compensation from Harper & Row for helping write the book and will not share in any royalties, even though the original 1984 contract had been awarded to him by William J. Bennett, who was then director of the neh

Mr. Finn then was a professor of education at Vanderbilt University and founding head of the Educational Excellence Network. The assistant secretary has also received no compensation through the neh contract since assuming his federal post in 1985, according to a spokesman for the endowment.

After Mr. Finn joined the Education Department, the contract was transferred to Ms. Ravitch. The copyright is in Ms. Ravitch's name only.

Lion's Share of Publicity

Ms. Cheney, by moving up the release date of her report--in order, she said, to coincide with the observance of the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution--clearly garnered the lion's share of the publicity. She spoke at a National Press Club luncheon here and appeared on numerous television programs, including "The Today Show."

A top publicity official at Harper & Row acknowledged last week that the attention accorded Ms. Cheney had reduced the "news value" for What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?

"That did hurt us in the initial publicity of the book," said Scott Manning, the company's deputy director of publicity.

Mr. Manning noted, for example, that after Ms. Cheney appeared on"The Today Show," the program cancelled a scheduled appearance by Mr. Finn and Ms. Ravitch.

But, he added, Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Finn are scheduled for a six-city promotional tour next month, and Harper & Row has received "more than the average number" of requests for review copies.

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories