Education’s Troubled Crusade: No Easy Victories, No Lasting Defeats

By Eileen White — January 11, 1984 12 min read

New York--When Diane Ravitch set out nearly 10 years ago to write a historical narrative of the changes in American education since the end of World War II, she was at first unable to identify a theme that would characterize the era.

All of the evidence available to Ms. Ravitch--whose best known previous work is a history of this city’s public schools--at that time pointed toward significant and constant changes: curriculum revisions, the growth of teacher unionism, school consolidations, wider access to higher education, the integration of students and faculty, increased opportunities for women, the growth of the federal role in education, social unrest on campus, school finance reform, and so on.

A commentary by Diane Ravitchappears on page 24.

But the effects of that frenetic activity were not revealed until the late 1970’s, when studies--beginning with the 1975 report by the Educational Testing Service on the drop in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores--began to identify the academic decline that accompanied the social changes in schools and colleges.

It took, Ms. Ravitch says, “seven years of reading to reach a point where I began to see what had happened.” Her conclusion: School reformers, for reasons that her book examines in detail, did not attain their lofty goals for American education, but their belief that education offered an “endless prospect for self-improvement and social improvement” was “an admirable, and perhaps even a noble, flaw.”

Hence the title of the book, The Troubled Crusade. In that struggle ''against ignorance, there have been no easy victories,” she writes. And, she adds optimistically, “no lasting defeats.”

“American education had succeeded in so many ways that were real, tangible, and important--in providing modern buildings, larger enrollment, better materials, better trained teachers, more courses, more departments, and more graduates--that it sometimes seemed dfficult for educators to remember what they had accomplished or why they had struggled so hard, or not to wonder whether they had gone wrong somewhere or why so many people criticized the nation’s schools, colleges, and universities.”

The Troubled Crusade, released this fall amid the clamor over the many reports and studies on educational renewal, contains not one specific remedy for schooling’s current ills, an omission that has brought the author criticism from some reviewers.

The omission was a deliberate one, says Ms. Ravitch, a historian who has taught at Teachers College, Columbia University. She specifically avoided pronouncements on improving the schools. For the most part, the book lets voices, documents, and events illuminate the period. Analysis and interpretation by the author are also present, however. “I explain what happened, but I also say, ‘This is what it meant,”’ Ms. Ravitch says.

She acknowledges, too, that her findings convey a subtle message for educators: Beware of any tonic labeled “educational reform.” Many of the school practices instituted in the name of “innovation” in the years 1945 to 1980, the author says, are an illustration of “the use and misuse of social-science data.”

In chapter after chapter, she describes how “new” educational theories were quickly picked up and transformed into practice, only to be abandoned, neglected, or most likely, replaced by “newer” educational methods as they came into vogue. Progressive education, child-centered learning, life-adjustment education, open education, de-schooling, experimental schools, functional education, schools-without-walls--each reform is scrutinized in the book, and most are found wanting by the author.

For example, she writess of open education, a British “innovation” that was popularized in the United States in the 1960’s:

“Open education was an idea whose time had come, and there was no shortage of enthusiasm for it. The problem, which became more acute as enthusiasm grew, was defining it. ... Some advocates refused to define it, since to practice open education meant, they said, to be flexible, open to new ideas, ready to respond to children’s interests, and free from predetermined lesson plans. But other advocates believed that it would be impossible to disseminate open educational practice without giving teachers some reliable examples of what to do and how to teach. So, one focus of proponents of open education was simply to try to explain what it was, how to do it, and how to evaluate it.

“Its advocates tended to define it in terms of what it was not, which accounted for much of its appeal to those seeking to disassociate themselves from the old discredited ways of teaching: it was not traditional; it was not achieved by merely removing walls; it was not the same as team teaching, individualized instruction, or nongraded classes. One researcher, after trying to explain why open education seemed so vague and formless, concluded that the best way to define it was to observe an open classroom.”

Ms. Ravitch is likewise unimpressed by the attempts of the federal government to speed the process of innovation. As she describes the $55-million, five-year Experimental Schools Program, which infused large amounts of money into elected school districts to bring about “comprehensive” change:

“The program failed not because of the backwardness or insincerity of local school officials, but because it laid bare the contradictions and vacuousness inherent in much of the contemporary rhetoric of education reform. ...

“First of all, neither federal nor local officials knew what “comprehensive” change meant, and yet federal officials insisted that each proposal had to claim that it would be “comprehensive.” ... “Comprehensive was a buzz word, a word that local officials learned to invoke at the right time if they wanted federal funds. In the same way, school officials somewhat ritualistically described what they were doing as “humanistic,” “affective,” “individualized,” and so forth, as though it were possible to change the reality of an activity by renaming it in warm, reformist terminology.”

“It was typical of the 60’s and early 70’s,” the author says during an interview, “to find researchers who made many claims and recommendations and reached conclusions from experiments without control groups. What I was looking for in my research was, “Had there ever been a kind of Consumer Reports that evaluated all these studies?’ I never did find it. But I’m still hoping someone will come along and do it, because we still have a lot of this sort of debris in people’s heads and in books.”

Ms. Ravitch says she hopes her book will be “useful to people who won’t agree with” her. She expects there to be many of those, especially among advocates for programs that do not appear attractive under the glare of her historical light. She was aware, she says, that some of her findings would refute the common wisdom, but she asserts that “it’s useful to occasionally remind people of the historical realities.”

One such example is bilingual education, which she characterizes as a politically popular program without verifiable academic underpinnings. Ms. Ravitch asserts that bilingual advocates who claim that the U.S. Supreme Court mandated bilingual instruction in the 1974 Lau v. Nichols decision are incorrect, and she cites the decision and the events surrounding it as evidence.

“As bilingual education was debated over the past few years,” she says, “I kept reading letters from bilingual spokesmen saying, ‘the Supreme Court has spoken. Bilingual education is a constitutional right.’ But the Court didn’t say that. They said children who can’t speak English are entitled to special assistance, but they also refused to impose a remedy. The problem is everyone assumes the advocates are right because they’ve heard it so often.”

Ms. Ravitch also attempts to bring into focus the process by which the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case came before the Court 30 years ago. “If the [school district] lines are drawn on a natural basis, without regard to race or color, then I think that nobody would have any complaint,” she quotes Thurgood Marshall, representing the naacp Legal Defense Fund, as telling the Court.

Next, she traces how, fueled by such documents as the 1966 report by the sociologist James Coleman, “Equality of Educational Opportunity,’' “the Brown decision was increasingly defined not as a command to eliminate racial discrimination but as a command to eliminate racial isolation.”

“At the time of the Brown decision, the naacp didn’t have the concept of racial balance in mind at all,” the author maintains. “Reading the briefs and arguments of Brown, you find that historically there has been an enormous switch.”

Causes and Effects

A third poorly understood issue that is subjected to long and detailed examination in The Troubled Crusade is the progressive educational philosophy of John Dewey. Mr. Dewey, on whom the excesses of 1960’s educational innovations are frequently blamed, is vindicated, while his followers are vilified. “It was a long time,” Ms. Ravitch writes, “before it was recognized, even by Dewey himself, that the form of progressive education seized upon by the emerging profession was a bastard version, and in important ways, a betrayal, of the new education he had called for.”

“The idea of doing a narrative history is that you try to find causes and effects and put them in some kind of broad context so that they can be understood,” she says. “I was trying to look at the past 35 years--about which hundreds of general histories and political books have been written--through the prism of education.”

In reviewing the book, Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote that it should be required reading for any of the current school reformers. If a reformer took that advice, he might be surprised to find that the latest debate over the purposes of schooling continues a controversy that Ms. Ravitch found has been going on for nearly 100 years.

“The most important debate in education,” she says, “took place between educators in 1893 and in 1918. In a sense, that debate has been repeated over and over again.”

“The publication of the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education in 1918 launched pedagogical progressivism into the mainstream of the organized education profession. ... In terms of both its authors and its educational philosophy, Cardinal Principles contrasted sharply with a document issued 25 years earlier by the nea’s “Committee of Ten,” which recommended that all secondary students, regardless of whether they intended to go to college, should be liberally educated and should study English, foreign languages, mathematics, history, and science.

"[The 1918 document said that] the cardinal principles of secondary education, by which educational offerings were to be judged, were: ‘1. Health. 2. Command of fundamental process. 3. Worthy homemembership. 4. Vocation. 5. Citizenship. 6. Worthy use of leisure. 7. Ethical character.’ The objectives of secondary education should be determined, said the report, ‘by the needs of the society to be served, the character of the individuals to be educated, and the knowledge of educational theory and practice available.’ So little did the commission think of traditional, school-bound knowledge that the original draft of the report failed to include ‘command of the fundamental processes,’ its only reference to intellectual development, as a main objective of secondary education.

The period since 1918, Ms. Ravitch writes, has been marked by pendulum swings--symbolized on the one hand by progressive education in the 1940’s and open education in the 1960’s, and on the other hand by the post-Sputnik initiatives of the 1950’s and the excellence trend of the 1980’s.

The author’s preference for the liberal-education approach of 1893 is obvious. As she concludes after reviewing numerous 1960’s theories on the problems of “disadvantaged” children: “To suggest that verbal skills are ‘middle-class,’ to complain that the emphasis on the teaching of verbal skills is unfair to those who lack them, is to propose that the school cease to function as a school.”

“One of the things schools do,” Ms. Ravitch says, “is that they’re repositories of everything that has gone on before them. That’s a conservative notion, but it’s also a very liberating notion, because all progress comes from standing on the shoulders of giants.”

“The trouble with the ‘1918 position,”’ she continues, “is that it went too far to the extreme of utilitarianism in taking the view that schools should serve society. I think that’s one of the effects of schooling, but the primary purpose of a school is to develop the intellect of the student. To say, as they did in essence, that ‘the only knowledge worth having is that which is useful’ is anti-intellectual.”

Dangers of Utilitarian View

One of the worst dangers of the utilitarian view of education, she says, is that “it can lead to a kind of bifurcation, where you have a small elite learning more than ever and doing very well, while the mass of the population is more and more ignorant. I don’t think that’s what we want.”

She acknowledges that fashioning a core curriculum that involves teaching advanced subjects such as science and foreign language to all children is a bit of a “lofty aspiration.” But, she adds, " I’m one of those people who says it is elitist if you say that a certain subject matter is reserved only for the college-bound. If it is to be for all children--as it should be--we’re going to have to demand much better, and more imaginative and interesting, teaching.”

Is the education profession destined to promote endless swings of the pendulum?

“At the moment, we’re veering toward the 1893 position,” she says, “but we may just come back to 1918 in the future. The only way we’re ever going to get out of that whipsaw situation is if it were possible--and I’m not sure that it is--to establish some sensible priorities for the kinds of things schools do. Whatever we do next, it shouldn’t happen in a historical vacuum.”

Despite her book’s overall critical tone, Ms. Ravitch refuses to join those who might label the public-school experiment a failure. She writes: “Those who have labored on behalf of American education have seen so many barriers scaled, so much hatred dispelled, so many possibilities remaining to provide the basis for future reconciliation.” And she ends her book by describing the ardous evolution of a southern school system.

The Hazlehurst school district, as described to the Congress in 1945 by a principal, included a segregated school for blacks in which three teachers, each earning less than $300 a year, taught 190 students. By 1957, black students were attending a new, albeit segregated school, with more teachers for each pupil, she writes.

In the late 1960’s, the same school became part of a freedom-of-choice plan with white schools, in which few students participated. By 1970, the school district was mostly black, with a poor academic climate; most white students attended a segregationist academy.

More recently, aided by federal funds, active parents, and committed educators, the district is considered a success, although its schools are again almost wholly segregated.

“In Hazlehurst,” Ms. Ravitch writes, “the schools are not building a new social order, but they are making their contribution.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 1984 edition of Education Week as Education’s Troubled Crusade: No Easy Victories, No Lasting Defeats