For more than two decades, the prominent education historian Diane Ravitch has championed the “intellectual purposes” of schooling. Her new book, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, is both a history of American education and an impassioned, 466-page argument against those she believes steered the public schools away from their core, academic mission.
The scholar reserves some of her harshest critiques for progressive educators: a diverse group of theorists and practitioners with numerous, sometimes incompatible aims, who tried to remake the schools to better reflect the needs of society, on the one hand, and the innate nature of children, on the other. She charges that, in their many varieties and phases—from child-centered education to social reconstructionism—the progressives have fostered hostility toward the academic curriculum. The students most harmed by their efforts, she argues, have been poor and minority youngsters, who often have been shunted into a differentiated, lesser course of study that more affluent Americans would find unacceptable.
Senior Editor Lynn Olson recently spoke with Ms. Ravitch about her new book and her perspective on American education.
Q. How long did you spend researching and writing this book, and how did the topic evolve over time?
A. I started writing this book in the late 1980s, and I had written about 350 pages at the time I left to go to work in Washington at the federal Department of Education. Then, I spent a little over a year at the Brookings Institution. When I came back to New York in 1994, I couldn’t remember what my train of thought was, so I just set it aside and started all over, and I began to see the shape of a completely different book. The book wasn’t so much a focus on progressive education, initially, but on why we have the recurring problem of low expectations in our schools, why we seem to have these curriculum battles again and again, and so very often it seems to be the same battle.
What surprised me was to discover that the earlier reforms of the 20th century that progressive educators today repudiate were progressive reforms: things like vocational education, tracking, and IQ tests. These were born out of the progressive movement and, in their own time, those who advocated them called them progressive reforms and thought of themselves as progressive reformers.
Q. You suggest that at the turn of the 20th century there was, if not a golden age in public education, at least a broadly shared ideal about the purposes of schooling. What was it?
A. What I tried to establish in the beginning was that while there were huge gaps in educational opportunity, there was a broadly shared ideal about what should be taught in schools, and it was shared among educators and parents and local school boards. The fundamental idea was that poor kids should get what rich kids got, and there shouldn’t be a different kind of education based on social class or race. The assumption was that equal educational opportunity should mean access to a common academic curriculum.
Q. How, in your view, did progressive educators steer us away from that ideal?
A. To begin with, there was a rebellion against tradition. And tradition was, first of all, this belief that there was something called “mental discipline” and that some studies were good in and of themselves. So part of the progressive revolt was against the subject- matter curriculum; the idea, for example, that it was good to study Latin because Latin disciplined the mind. In the work of Edward L. Thorndike, there was an absolute rejection of this idea that any subject was good in and of itself unless it had utilitarian value.
Q. You argue that progressives made three great errors when it came to education. What were they, and why, in your view, were they so harmful?
A. One was the idea that not all children would benefit by having a high-quality academic education. And that was harmful to children because it led to a kind of social-class and racial division of education, where the good stuff was reserved for the children of the advantaged. The college-bound track, throughout most of this century, was explicitly stated to be reserved for only a small minority of children.
The next error was the idea that the school can be expected to solve all of society’s problems. The social-efficiency experts, who called themselves progressives, claimed that what was good for society was good for children. Where the progressives of the early part of the century were extremely successful was in latching on to a very strong political current in society, which said we’re now emerging as a great industrial nation, and how are the schools going to serve society? And the best way to serve society is to prepare workers. And who should they be? The children of immigrants and the poor and people who are not articulate enough to make demands. In the early part of the century, the great progressive reform was industrial education, and a fervor for sorting children into different curricula. This practice of curricular differentiation was considered modern and progressive.
The third great error was this idea that the schools could minimize or ignore the transmission of knowledge. You find this frequently even now, when people say, “We don’t care if kids learn these facts. They’re mere facts. They can look it up.” And yet we know from a lot of cognitive research that background knowledge is critical. You can’t develop thinking skills in a vacuum. Knowledge builds on knowledge. And those mere facts turn out to be very important.
Q. As you note in the book, progressive educators didn’t initially set out to create different education programs for children from different social classes. What happened?
A. The mental-testing movement was a central part of the progressive movement after World War I. It represented scientific, modern thinking in education. And it was inevitably devoted to curricular differentiation. John Dewey opposed any division between the vocational and the academic. He thought they should be integrated, but they weren’t. And the reality was that as the mental-testing movement became stronger, and the tests were used more and more to classify kids, this became the facilitating mechanism for curriculum differentiation. All of the mental testers encouraged schools to use the tests to decide which students got which curriculum. Lewis Terman said you could decide as early as the 1st grade whether a child was college material. It’s interesting that the leading anti-progressive in my book was William Chandler Bagley, who also happened to be the leading critic of IQ testing within the profession. Bagley saw from the beginning it was not the tests themselves that were bad, but that they would be misused.
Q. You also lay much of the onus for anti-intellectualism in education on the “experts,” especially those in schools of education. Isn’t it true that America, in general, is anti- intellectual?
A. There is a strong strain of anti-intellectualism in American culture, but it should be the role of the schools to combat anti- intellectualism, not to reflect it or foster it. I differentiate in the book between teachers and theorists. The book is very pro-teacher. The practitioners found themselves time and again in despair about the parade of ideas that were pushed on them by the experts. At one point in the early part of the 20th century, the superintendent of schools in New York City gave a speech to the National Education Association on “The Arrogance of Educational Theorists.” The experts frequently discussed what to do about recalcitrant teachers.
And then there is an ongoing debate, especially in the 1930s, between the “knowledge curriculum” and the “experience curriculum.” The experts hated the knowledge curriculum. They preferred the experience curriculum, which meant that children would learn by going out and doing things rather than reading or studying. They didn’t use the word, but if they had known it, they would have said the teacher is a “facilitator,” not a teacher.
Clearly, what they did not want was the teacher transmitting knowledge. That was considered very old hat. So there was this great push to revitalize the teaching of history by turning it into social studies, and revitalize the teaching of English by making it very hands-on and changing the kind of literature that was used.
Parents never really bought this idea. Even immigrant parents somehow understood that it meant their kids were going to get something different, and that different wouldn’t be better.
Q. I was really captured by your descriptions of some of the great unsung heroes in American education—men like William Torrey Harris, William C. Bagley, Charles H. Judd, and Isaac L. Kandel. Who is your favorite among these men, and why?
A. Originally, what I hoped to do—and it’s embedded in this book—was to trace a different tradition, a nonprogessive tradition, of educators like Bagley and Kandel and Harris. They weren’t conservative. They were liberal in their politics, but traditionalist in their approach to education. They had a very keen devotion to public education and to children. And they believed that change was evolutionary rather than revolutionary. I became fascinated with them because these were the people who were left out of the standard histories of education. I call it “the lost tradition.”
My favorite is Bagley. I love Bagley. First of all, he was a very beloved educator. When he died, there were a lot of tributes to him by former students, and they all spoke about what a gentle and kind person he was. And he was totally fearless in standing up for principle.
He started off being a rather conventional member of the profession. Then, as he saw what was happening, in terms of this movement toward differentiation of the curriculum, he took on the role of defending children’s access to a common academic curriculum. When he defended liberal education versus vocational education against David Snedden in a celebrated debate in 1914, he was clearly against the progressive mainstream. And when he criticized the IQ tests, he virtually stood alone against the fraternity of testing experts. The overwhelming majority of educators and testing experts disagreed with him. And he got the reputation of being a loner. I thought he was very courageous. What he had was a clear set of ideals and the courage to defend them, so I found him very admirable.
And whenever I take an unpopular position, I think about him. When he died, William Heard Kilpatrick wrote a note and said he was the only respectable person who stood against the progressive movement, and after him there would be no one else.
Q. As you note, not all the effects of progressive education were negative. What is the positive legacy of progressive education that we should hold on to?
A. My own children went to a progressive school. The positive legacy is attention to the individual child and concern for motivation. And I think that, as I tried to point out, there were a couple of different kinds of progressivism that I thought were very beneficent. In the private progressive schools, there was a wonderful intellectual excitement about learning. Unfortunately, that seldom got translated into public schools. I found it in my own children’s school. There wasn’t the curriculum differentiation or pushing kids into unworthy curriculum, but rather, “How can we take a lesson on Ancient Greece and make it exciting?” That was in large measure a legacy of the progressives that benefited everybody who had an opportunity to have it.
Another example was the Winnetka [Ill.] public schools under Superintendent Carleton Washburne. They were very, very good public schools; in the ‘20s, they were probably the best public schools in the country. Carleton Washburne today sounds incredibly like E.D. Hirsch [the author of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know]. He had his teachers sit together and go through magazines and newspapers and say, “What do our kids need to know, and how can we make sure that they learn it?” He individualized the curriculum, not in a way that would divide up kids into who gets the good stuff and who doesn’t, but rather so that the goals were the same for everyone, but kids moved at different paces.
He was, in his own time, not revolutionary enough to win the regard of other progressives. He was trying to make the curriculum individualized, active, have kids move at their own pace, so it was a very positive progressivism, but it wasn’t adopted in enough school systems.
The more popular progressivism was the one endorsed by people like Ellwood P. Cubberley, who went out and surveyed school systems and told them they needed to push more kids into vocational education and use more IQ tests for sorting kids into different curricula.
Q. You argue in the book that “anything labeled a movement should be avoided like the plague,” yet you’re a great proponent of the standards movement. Why?
A. That’s because I don’t believe it’s a movement. I think having a good education involves knowing what you’re doing, and making sure that kids are learning what you’re teaching, and making sure that the tests reflect what was taught. That’s just good education.
What I’ve been trying to do in my book is to follow through on three things that inspired me. One would be from Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, where he said if we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we could best judge what to do and how to do it. It’s the first part that we’ve been missing for a long time, knowing where we are and where we’re going.
The other piece is the one I quoted from W.E.B. Du Bois at length. Du Bois told his audience that there was only one way for the schools to cure society’s ills, and that was by making people intelligent. To do this, the school has again but one way, and that is, first and last, to teach them to read, write, and count. And if the school fails to do that, and tries beyond that to do something for which a school is not adapted, it not only fails in its own function, but it fails in all other attempted functions. That is a quote that I have used time and again.
The third inspiration for me is what John Dewey said, which is that what the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, we should want for all members of the community. And I think that often gets misinterpreted or forgotten. If all the children of the community had access to the same quality of education as the children of the best and wisest parents, that in itself would be a revolution in education.
Q. In the book, you talk about “intellectual progressives,” “liberal traditionalists,” and “conservatives.” How would you define your own views when it comes to education?
A. I think of myself as an egalitarian traditionalist—even a progressive traditionalist. I believe that there are traditions that are important. That education involves standing on the shoulders of giants. There’s a great deal that’s been learned in the world in all different fields of exploration, and what you learn in school enables you to stand on the shoulders of giants and see further than they could see. That, to me, is the essence of a great education, where you can have the essence of the past and go beyond it.
So, in that sense, I’m a traditionalist. But despite the fact that I take a lot of knocks at progressives in this book, I’m not anti-progressive. I would be very happy to have my child in a school run by Deborah Meier or Ted Sizer or Howard Gardner, but at the same time, I’m very concerned about whether any school of that kind can be replicated en masse. I’ve seen good progressive education, and at its best, it’s wonderful. But I’m an egalitarian in that I’d like to see all kids have access to the best we know how to deliver, and we’re not delivering it.
Q. Do you think progressive education is dead in this country? Have you written the obituary?
A. I hope I’ve written the obituary for anti-intellectualism. But I think in some peculiar sense progressivism is our tradition. So when I say I’m a traditionalist, part of being a traditionalist is looking for the best in progressive education. I think that any good education is going to involve progressive methodology. And I’ve been in wonderful schools that use progressive methodology to teach very traditional subjects.
What makes me despair is when I see people teaching social studies who really don’t know any history at all, so they’re teaching some sort of process skills without content. I also get very upset when I discover schools that teach no literature.
So I’m a traditionalist if it means to be in favor of a liberal education. But I think our only American tradition is progressivism. So the task that we all have to set ourselves is to make sure that progressivism is firmly wedded to liberal education, and that we are teaching our children math and science and history and literature and foreign languages and the arts. And if those subjects are being taught by people who have the knowledge and skills to teach them, our education system will be greatly improved.
Q. At the end of the book, you disparage extremes in public education—whether on the left or right. What do we really need to move public education forward?
A. I think it’s to have a clear sense of values. I think that somehow parents instinctively want their kids to have the best education, but they don’t know how to argue for it. And they haven’t really had the support of the experts that they should. The most important thing is to have a generation of well- educated educators. To have people in the schools and in the administrative offices and in state capitals and in Washington and in the districts who care deeply about children getting an excellent education.
With one exception, the book has no policy prescriptions. I think the one policy prescription is that we should not have such large high schools. We’ve gone overboard with creating these large, anonymous institutions. But, in general, the book is not a policy book. It doesn’t tell people what to do in their schools tomorrow. I don’t think I’m competent to do that. What I have tried to do is to describe this sea of ideas, developed over the past century, in which we swim.