Education Opinion

Democracy Rests on Disagreements

By Diane Ravitch — October 16, 2007 2 min read
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Dear Deb,

I agree with you about the uncertainty involved in medicine. The closer any of us gets to a very serious medical problem, the likelier we are to encounter medical uncertainty. Many years ago, I lost a two-year-old child to leukemia. At that time, in the mid-1960s, the doctors tried a range of drugs, knowing that in the end, it was a lost cause. I kept hoping for a miracle that never happened. That was when I discovered that there is a limit to what doctors know. The good news is that medical research keeps pushing the limit farther and farther out. So, today, most children who have the same disease that killed my little boy in six months are likely to survive and live a normal life. That is incredible progress!

About ten years ago, when I suffered a near-fatal pulmonary embolism, I compared medical research to education research in an article for Education Week called “What if Research Really Mattered.” When I was flat on my back in the intensive care unit of my neighborhood hospital, I was incredibly impressed that everyone knew what to do. There were standard tests and standard procedures, and all the doctors, interns, and residents knew exactly what to do. They saved my life, and to them it was no big deal. It was standard operating procedure.

In education, we have no standard operating procedure. You probably think that is a good thing. I am not so sure. However, I suspect that we both would recoil at the standard operating procedures advocated and imposed by the business leaders who are now calling the tune in so many school districts.

I certainly agree with you about the importance of discussion and debate. I passionately advocate for minority views, not least because I am usually the one in the minority and don’t want to be censored or ruled out of order! Like you, I agree that democracy rests on disagreements. Life is not a standardized test. It was Robert Hutchins (did you know him, Deb?) who said that one must always listen to the other person because he (or she) might turn out to be right.

It seems to me that the more you know about history, the more you become aware of dilemmas and uncertainties. One of the terrible things about the history textbooks is that they make it seem that leaders made decisions with full knowledge of how things would turn out. No, they didn’t know. They made educated—and sometimes uneducated—guesses.

In watching the Ken Burns documentary about World War II, I once again have been reminded of bad decisions by the leaders, of information withheld from the public, of chaos and error on the battlefield. It made me think of Tolstoy’s observation in “War and Peace” about how different the battle looks to the general and the soldiers. The general sees order; the soldiers see confusion and smoke.

One could easily become nihilistic. But I would not do that, Deb, nor would you. There are these millions of children. They need to learn lots of things to prepare them for life, for citizenship, for work. The grown-ups have to teach them. One can’t just wave the whole matter away and say let everyone do his or her own thing. There is too much at stake. We agree on that.


Deborah Meier will write about her recent visit to Russia in her post later this week.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.