Education Opinion

Great minds (if there are such) also differ

By Diane Ravitch — April 16, 2007 5 min read
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Dear Deborah,

Well, that was a useful car ride if you were able not only to produce this list but to remember it when you reached your destination. Sometimes I have great ideas in the middle of the night, but I never have great ideas while driving!

You are right that we disagree about the role and meaning of progressive education. You refer to only one variety of progressivism, however, the one that you like, the Deweyan strand, the one that you believe produced greater concern for equity and democracy in education. I would argue that there were many varieties, as I do in my book Left Back, some of them repulsive even to you. For example, the psychologists who invented I.Q. testing considered themselves progressives; they thought they were the very models of modern progressivism, bringing scientific thought to the backwater that was American education. Similarly, men like W.W. Charters and John Franklin Bobbitt thought of themselves as progressives, and they invented the curriculum field. In their version of progressivism, they wanted to oust most academic subjects and replace them with activities and tasks that would be useful in the adult world. David Snedden was a progressive, and he wanted to discard the academic curriculum and put most children into vocational programs. Ellwood P. Cubberley was a progressive educator, and he believed that most immigrant children and working-class children lacked the brains for academic studies; he advised educators to give up their naive democratic ideas and get on with sorting kids into tracks with different life outcomes.

There were non-progressive educators—you would call them believers in traditional academic studies—who were fervently devoted to demcracy and equity in education, no less than John Dewey. The American public—and especially American educators—need to become acquainted with the ideas of William Chandler Bagley and Isaac Kandel. These are men who were quite critical of the extreme romantic individualism of progressives like William Heard Kilpatrick, yet they carried the banner for democracy in education, more surely I would argue, than many of their progressive colleagues. It is still thrilling to read Bagley’s debate with Snedden from 1914 over whether the schools should emphasize a liberal education or vocational education. And Kandel takes a back seat to no one in his devotion to democratic ideals in society and education.

It is because we disagree about progressivism—even in its most exalted form—that we disagree about other particulars. Like Bagley and Kandel, I do think that there is a common body of knowledge in the disciplines that is shared by educated people. You are right that I believe there are “particular facts, information and stories that are at the essence of being well educated.” In every nation, and in particular cultures, there is a shared body of information and factual knowledge—and yes, stories—that educated people know. In this culture, I can’t imagine that someone would call herself or himself educated who had never heard of the civil rights movement, the Brown decision, Rosa Parks, or Martin Luther King, Jr. I can’t imagine that such a person could say, “Abraham Lincoln? Who was that?” I can’t imagine an educated person who had never heard of Michelangelo or Mozart or what they had done. There are certain fundamental ideas, events, and principles that educated people know; they don’t know them by osmosis. They know them because they have been educated. They are not educated by happenstance but because adults have designed a curriculum to teach them “the best that has been thought and said in the world.” The “best” is not elitist; we might argue about what is “the best,” but I suspect that we might agree more than we disagree, if you weren’t so darned insistent that it is impossible to have any agreement on curriculum at all!

I also believe that a large part of the rationale for public education is its mission to build and sustain a shared democratic culture, which it cannot do if every school and every local community teaches its own thing rather than our common democratic ideas.

I am not troubled about the idea that some authoritative group establishes a curriculum. If the decision is left to each school or each teacher, then schools in elite communities and private schools will have a superb curriculum, and schools for everyone else will have a pastiche of this and that. The question for me is not whether there should be a set curriculum (I think there should), but who should set it, and how we can make sure that it does not serve anyone’s political or ideological agenda. That is a practical task, and I believe it can be solved, if we can agree that it is worth doing.

My view is that schools have a moral obligation to diffuse knowledge widely, not haphazardly, to the entire population. That is their reason for being. To do that, they need to agree on what knowledge is of most worth. I believe that can be done here, as it is done in many other nations.

Yes, we disagree on the value of standardized tests. I don’t condemn them out of hand; I don’t think they are invalid on their face. Testing is a part of modern life; testing has been a part of education throughout the past century. Testing is not going away, because there must be a means of determining whether programs are working or failing, whether students are making progress or falling behind. We must do our best to make sure that tests are valid, reliable, and fair, and that they are used intelligently. We must make sure that they include essays, constructed responses, and much more than filling in a box or a bubble. We must also do our best to make sure that schools are not converted into testing factories and that inordinate amounts of time and money are not devoted to prepping kids for tests.

Is our nation in crisis? No, I don’t think so. I think we are losing jobs to India and China because employers can get well-educated workers there for far less than they must pay here. But I do think we have serious problems in education. Our kids do poorly in math and science on international tests like PISA and TIMSS. Check out the AIR report showing that we consistently rank about 8th or 9th of the 12 nations that have these tests. What’s worse is that the spread of achievement in this country is far too wide, an evidence (I think) of our not having a common curriculum, an agreement about what children should learn in these subjects. I must say I am also disturbed by the steady erosion of the humanities, which I suspect has taken a back seat to the popular culture, which requires no study or preparation to enjoy (mainly as a spectator).

I’ll save our agreements for a future posting. I don’t want to wear out our readers!


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.