Education Opinion

Balkanization and the future of public education

By Diane Ravitch — March 27, 2007 2 min read
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Where we agree, where we disagree. I think that public choice is a good idea. I have even explored ideas to help Catholic schools survive, perhaps by giving some sort of scholarship for needy kids that may be used at any nonpublic school. I am no constitutional lawyer, but that seems to me not very different from Pell grants.

But I do worry about the risk of Balkanization. We used to use that phrase and no one knew what it referred to. The ethnic rivalries and tensions in the Balkans seemed to be ancient history. For decades, the Balkans were forgotten, unified under dictatorship. Then came the upheavals of the post-Communist era and we discovered all over again how ethnic groups can nurture hatreds that become murderous, as they did once again in the Balkans.

There is a splendid quality about America’s common culture. It really does reflect the many ethnic groups and races that made contributions and changed what we sing, how we dance, our poetry, our view of each other and the world. I see no reason for public schools to abandon their historic role as the great equalizer, the great assimilator of the nation’s cultures, and the great teacher of masses and classes. Yes, it may be more ideal than reality, but I see no reason to abandon that ideal and turn over the schools to ethnic cheerleaders and cultural braggadocio. I have gotten into trouble more than once for defending the historic tradition—the late great historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and I once drafted a statement defending the public schools against efforts to turn them into cauldrons of ethnic passions, and it was signed by a score of the nation’s greatest living historians (Arthur, of course, knew them all).

Yes, I worry about whether public schools teach evolution as science or as religious ideology. I cannot shrug it off as you do. The fact that science has been poorly taught is no reason to say that we should give it up and teach creationism. If too many graduates believe that astrology rules their lives, then we need to teach science better, not abandon it to the quacks.

It is strange, isn’t it, Deborah, that the control and future of public education seems to be up for grabs in ways that it never has been in the past. The “Tough Choices or Tough Times” report suggests that all public schools should be independently managed (e.g., by non-public organizations, be they for-profit or non-profit). Some of the biggest names in public education today signed the report and are promoting its conclusions. This makes me profoundly uneasy. Is it “conservative” of me to worry that we are placing public education at risk with such proposals? Is it “liberal” to dismantle public education and see it if gets better? I have lost all understanding of what such labels mean.


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