Diane Ravitch: the only honest reformer, or an opportunitistic, grudge-bearing polemicist?

Used and discarded by the king!

In “The Dissenter” in the current New Republic (h/t RealClearBooks), Kevin Carey has written a fascinating article on professional education reformer Diane Ravitch.  As many of you may recall, she has switched sides recently from being a conservative supporter of No Child Left Behind, charter schools, and vouchers, to identifying those very reforms as part of an intentional effort to “destroy” public education.

The whole portrait of Ravitch is worth the read.  Like many women of her generation (Ravitch was born in 1938), she achieved her graduate education only after marrying and starting a family.  Even then, she couldn’t win acceptance into Columbia’s doctoral program in History–she was deemed too old (at 34!) and too female.  But Carey makes it clear that hers is really the career of a polemicist, not an academic.  More important than graduate school is the fact that she volunteered for six years at The New Leader, “a small but influential publication of the anti-communist left, [where she] asked for a job. When the editor, Myron Kolatch, said he couldn’t afford to hire her, Ravitch offered to work for free.”  Carey continues:

The New Leader was where Ravitch received her true education. The small staff was crammed into one room on the fourth floor of an old building. Then and future luminaries like Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer would drop by to turn in their latest essays; strong argument was prized. “This is where she learned how to write,” says Kolatch. Ravitch worked intermittently for The New Leader until 1967, when she took a part-time assignment from the nonprofit Carnegie Corporation to report on the city’s school system. 

.       .       .       .       .

Curious about the origins of [contemporary heated debates about education], Ravitch looked for a comprehensive history of the New York City school system and discovered that none existed. She contacted Lawrence Cremin, the esteemed education historian at Teachers College, Columbia University, and floated the idea of writing one herself. A book-length history was way beyond her capacity, he counseled—better to start with a few essays instead.

Ravitch ignored his advice and spent the next five years researching her book, usually writing after she’d put the children to bed. During this time, she applied to the doctoral program in Columbia’s history department, only to be turned away, she says, on the grounds of being old (she was 34), female, and interested in the unimportant subject of education. She obtained her Ph.D. through the university’s College of Arts and Sciences and Teachers College instead. Although her book was a work of popular history and not an academic one, the college allowed her to use it for her dissertation. 

Interestingly, Carey suggests that a big part of her turn against conservative reform efforts may be the personal grudge he says she harbored against former NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein, who refused to retain her partner, a former public school principal, who had been hired by the previous schools chief to run a new principal training program.  (I’m personally a little skeptical of this portion of his story.  He makes liberal use of the old stereotypes about powerful and influential women:  “aggressive,” “angry,” “her righteousness can be breathtaking.”  Carey says he FOIA’d e-mails between Klein and Ravitch in this portion of the essay, although he admits that they were heavily redacted.  Therefore he appears to have relied on the anonymous talking walls of the NYC schools at the time, sources liklier to be friendlier to Klein than to Ravitch.) 

Jeanne had her revenge in history.

In any case, Carey pretty thoroughly documents her voltes-faces, suggesting that she understood her value to the opponents of her former preferred brands of reform:  “Her identity as an academic gave her an implied expertise and impartiality; her government service gave her credibility. Added to this was the assumed integrity of the convert.”  I seriously wonder if she would have proved so malleable if she had been trained in a History department rather than granted a degree at Teacher’s College.  I don’t think it’s a bad thing to change one’s mind in the course of a long career.  Because of my conviction that historians are bad polemicists because we tend to be splitters devoted to nuance rather than lumpers devoted to political advocacy, I believe that a history education makes one more immune to intellectual fads, and there appears to be nothing more faddish than education research and education policy, in my view.  Then again, if she had become a historian, she would have probably led a much more obscure professional life.  (The long view is just not politically useful these days, I’m afraid.)

Carey is himself more than a bit of a polemicist, and someone who writes very clear, magazine-style argument-driven essays much like the ones that Ravitch learned to write at The New Leader 50 years ago.  He concludes his essay thusly:

Under the mountain of Ravitch’s firmly held opinions, it is difficult to locate many enduring intellectual convictions. Only two stand out: the value of a common, core academic curriculum for all students and the role of public education as a pillar of democracy. These are fine things in which to believe. But they are nothing close to a comprehensive philosophy on which to base a lifetime of inquiry into something as complex as public education. 

I asked James Fraser if, as a historian, he could locate any consistent intellectual point of view in her work. He thought for a while before saying: “No. And that’s an interesting ‘No.’ I can’t really think of anything at this state, beyond her ability to use historical narrative in illustrating various points—sometimes hugely contradictory points!—about current debates in education.” 

The most consistent thing about Ravitch has been her desire to be heard. In many ways, she has never left the cramped, argumentative office of The New Leader in the 1960s. Her genius was in the construction of a public identity of partial affiliation—a university-based historian who never wrote an academic dissertation, a former government official whose career in public service lasted less than two years, an overseer of the national testing program with no particular expertise in testing, and a champion of public school teachers who has never taught in a public school. She enjoys the credibility of the sober analyst while employing all the tools of the polemicist.

15 thoughts on “Diane Ravitch: the only honest reformer, or an opportunitistic, grudge-bearing polemicist?

  1. The last paragraph, on a “public identity of partial affiliation,” struck me. Before it became the root of a term of academic ‘plaint at the end of the 1970s, the word “marginal” or “margins” was occasionally used in the academy in the same way I learned it from the booklet for “Ecology Merit Badge,” to wit: species that learned to exploit the margins between established habitat niches tended to be richer and more resilient. That may help to explain both her willingness to change sides and her effectiveness in that and a lot of other things. “Consistent intellectual point of view” can be a descriptive mask for a style of analysis that tends to dig in and cling to clarity of argument over attention to the bewildering diversity of empirical phenomena. Both things are needed in healthy habitat.
    To take the other side, briefly, I agree with the point about splitters versus lumpers but I’m not that sure historians (or historically-formatted thinkers) are *that* much more resistant to intellectual fads. Maybe relatively moreso. But no time to develop this before hitting the post-holiday highway.

    Just time to report that–re Tenured Radical on testing in Nassau County in the link the other day–the NYT today has an interesting piece by Michael Winerip about a huge revolt by principals in New York State, one that appears to be centered in Nassau and secondarily in Westchester, against the regime of testing and teacher evaluation. They find it particularly noiseome to be driven into mandatory “training” sessions in which some vendor/consultant shows them how to “build[] an airplane in midair.” The statewide suit-in-chief defends the system with the familiar trope of “there’s research that shows…,” only now the term of art is not “testing” but rather “data on the growth in student learning…”


  2. I think the fact that we write books & not just journal articles (which are really for natural & social scientists data reports & not articles in the way that humanists write them) means that we are less fad-driven. However, I take your point in that I think like most professionals, we’re more adept at recognizing & diagnosing fads outside of our own discipline.

    I agree with you about the importance of attempting to remain skeptical–or at least to look at a problem from several different angles–while also pursuing knowledge in a disciplinary-specific and systematic fashion. I didn’t mean to sound in this post like Ravitch’s lack of a history Ph.D. was a “problem” for her–I really am agnostic about that. A history Ph.D. would have offered different opportunities as well as its own blinkers & limitations.

    I also think that her “problem” with History departments was pretty common for women in the 1960s, after the tail end of the Progressive era “New Women” historians trained earlier in the century had retired (the Helen Taft Mannings & the Mary Beards, etc.) I have heard this story more than once from women who went to study History at the grad level in the 1960s and even the 1970s: they were explicitly shown the door because they were presumed to be taking up space a man could use better; they weren’t offered fellowships and TA-ships that the men were. (Carol Berkin once told me this about her time at Columbia in the same generation, for example, which is why she babysat William Kristol & various other spawn of the soon-to-become neoconservatives. That was all the grad fellowship she was offered!)

    So in my book, Ravitch gets kudos from me for her moxie & her determination. But that choice had obvious consequences for her career as an intellectual. (That’s Carey’s thesis, and on this point I agree.)


  3. It seems worth noting that the author, Carey, works for an education policy think tank that is pretty heavily involved in the education “reform” agenda.


    I would also point out that he writes a rather selective history himself, dispensing with years and years of her career (for example her tenure in the Dept of Ed under Bush I) in mere sentences.


  4. There’s an interesting article out there that I read once but can’t recall (in a history journal) on the experience of women in Ph.D programs and subsequent careers I think you’d say in the post-Beard/pre-1970s era that would be interesting to have a whole separate thread on someday. As you read around, and especially explore in open-stack libraries (while we still have them) you come upon troves of books written by women historians from the c. 1920s through 1950s who seem to have had somewhat different professional trajectories. It would be interesting to pool our mental and memory resources and recover some of that for discussion.


  5. Good points, anonymous. Carey has also written an article recently about how online education is something that “low quality” unis (like mine?) had better get on board with. So, he’s clearly got an agenda. (That’s kind of what I meant to imply by noting his polemicism at the end of the post.)

    And Indyanna: on the books by women historians of that era (and really through the whole 19th and 20th Centuries), see Bonnie Smith’s The Gender of History. That book is like one big Whiggy (Whig of Illusory Progress) for most working professional historians today, who may believe that women historians and women’s history were invented only in the 1960s.

    (She also makes the point that many women historians were the girlfriends & wives of many male historians who didn’t grant them a co-authorship.)


  6. A couple of points:

    First, I’d love to be known as someone who enjoys, “the credibility of the sober analyst while employing all the tools of the polemicist.”

    Second, I am not a big fan of Ravitch’s work under Bush 41 and No Child Left Behind, but I welcome her conversion on the Road to Damascus. I think we need more allies and cannot be too picky in the search for intellectual consistency, or in Ravitch’s case, ideological purity.

    What good is intellectual consistency if your argument is wrong? I am more impressed with people who can reformulate their ideas than I am by people who persist in their wrong headedness for the sake of consistency.


  7. Two points:

    1) Ravitch explains her changing position very well at the beginning of her latest book, _The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education_ (yes, I cut and pasted the title so that I wouldn’t get it wrong). Her intro is part mea culpa, part attack on corporate Dems. Seriously, I couldn’t do it justice. Everyone should just go read the whole book.

    2) Following Ravitch on Twitter is not only a great way to understand just how difficult it is to be a secondary school teacher these days, it is worth getting a Twitter account entirely just to follow her.

    But someone I know whose name and pseudonym both have the letters a-n-n in them refuses to join Twitter. Her loss…and ours.


  8. Hee. You’re right: I still refuse. But thanks for the intel on her latest book.

    Matt, I agree that flexibility & honesty are more important than consistency. But (and I didn’t raise this in a post that was already too long) I think Ravitch’s career is one of those interesting, intellectually flexible (or even that of a political changeling)–something that would mark her except that it seems like most people of her generation or even slightly older started out at one place in the early 60s, then migrated someplace else after the late 60s (or even more specifically, after the students occupied Columbia in the spring of 1968), and then they found themselves sometimes in yet again a very different place intellectually and politically in the 1980s or beyond.

    But, someone who actually knows something about the 1960s, the New Left, and the rise of neoconservativism would have to tackle that more specifically. What I’ve read on this topic suggests that everyone’s reasons for their flip-flopping were an interesting mixture of the political and the highly personal.


  9. It’s kind of late for comments but here it goes: As Matt_L says “I am not a big fan of Ravitch’s work under Bush 41 and No Child Left Behind, but I welcome her conversion on the Road to Damascus. I think we need more allies and cannot be too picky in the search for intellectual consistency, or in Ravitch’s case, ideological purity.” Absolutely.

    Carey says “Under the mountain of Ravitch’s firmly held opinions, it is difficult to locate many enduring intellectual convictions. Only two stand out: the value of a common, core academic curriculum for all students and the role of public education as a pillar of democracy. These are fine things in which to believe.” I think Carey doesn’t have a clue. If a teacher’s beliefs reflect her devotion that is all one needs.

    Another Carey’s piece of wisdom: “I asked James Fraser if, as a historian, he could locate any consistent intellectual point of view in her work. He thought for a while before saying: “No. And that’s an interesting ‘No.’” Does Carey attempt to invent a new intellectual hierarchy? The question shows outstanding depth of shallowness. (I understand basic English.)


  10. I think Ravitch would hold-up better if someone deconstructed (yes, deconstructed as in a specific form of analysis first developed by French theorists and latter applied to great effect in the US – not a synonym for analyzed) her thinking. Ravitch always struck me as someone who was against things much more than she was for them. Against, sloppy multi-culturalism (indeed, sloppy thinking of any kind, against crappy testing, against obnoxious elitist gate keepers who were destroying our precious educational resources etc. etc.. She was never nearly as good at articulating what she was for until much more recently.


  11. A google scan reveals the following title relating to the trajectory of America women in historical practice:
    Jennifer Conlon and Shaaron Cosner, _American Women Historians, 1700s-1990s: A Biographical Dictionary_ (Greenwood Press, 1996). Still can’t find the article I referenced, and JSTOR is not helping, bigtime…


  12. There’s a large and fascinating volume edited by Jane Chance, _Women Medievalists and the Academy_, which has short biographies of a significant number of academic women, going back to the 19th century, including women who worked at European universities.


  13. Re: American and other women historians, see Jacqueline Goggin, “Challenging Sexual Discrimination in the Historical Profession: Women Historians in the American Historical Association, 1890-1940” AHR 97:3 (June 1992); Natalie Zemon Davis, “History’s Two Bodies,” AHR 93 (Feburary 1988), Maxine Berg’s “The First Women Economic Historians,” in the Economic History Review 45:2 (1992),Joan Scott’s Gender and the Politics of History, and Julie Des Jardins, Women and the Historical Enterprise in America. There’s also an article by Katherine Kish Sklar. Hope this helps.


  14. Ravitch is a combo of both opportunist and reformer. The wreckage she has left behind and the distrust of her motives have made her inconsequential to the history field. Also, because the right has no regard for history except as a weapon, she is disregarded there as well.


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