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.)
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.