12/06/2011 05:29 pm ET Updated Feb 05, 2012

Diane Ravitch and the History That "Reformers" Do Not Know

Diane Ravitch has again done the seemingly impossible. She prompted Education Sector's Kevin Carey to take a glance at the history of education. Even so, Carey's piece in The New Republic, "The Dissenter," indicates that he did not read carefully.

Carey wrote that Ravitch "left a polarized history profession in her wake," as if she did not enter the field at a time when traditional historians were under siege. During the sixties, history was dominated by class-based analyses of theories on the oppressiveness of various power structures. History was dominated by genres, ranging from the New Social History to the various Marxist schools of thought, that sought evidence for or against ideological orthodoxies. Too many fell under the umbrella of "history with the people left out."

Ravitch dissented and wrote richer, eclectic narratives on a broader canvass. Rather than claiming that history "proved" their theories, more balanced historians, like Ravitch, still practiced the approach that Carey condemns as using "historical narrative in illustrating various points." These historians also assumed that in the end, "there will be heroes, villains, naive collaborators, [and] rigid ideologues." They appreciated a world of contradictions.

Today's historians have largely embraced Ravitch's position that history does not tell us what decisions to make but advances the "pursuit of truth and understanding." I was one of the historians who owes a debt to Ravitch and others, on both the Left and Right, for rejecting the didacticism of the "neos," and getting our profession back to chronicling the complexity of ideas and persons "who will live forever in the minds of future generations."

I must thank Carey, however, for driving me back to the university library where I first wrestled with the debates over the various forms of educational progressivism, albeit from the perspective of a student of the equally diverse and barely definable field of political progressivism. In virtually every issue cited by Carey, Ravitch's views are now seen as prescient. Two generations ago, when immigration was at its nadir, readers could easily conclude that Ravitch overemphasized its role in our "education wars." Whether a reader agrees precisely with Ravitch's narrative in The Great School Wars, her vision, and questions she asked, are more consistent with the scholarship of today, not to mention that of previous generations who experienced great waves of immigration.

Contrary to Carey's attack on Ravitch's Left Back, her commitment to educating "all children to high standards" is mighty timely, as is her condemnation of "tracking." A decade ago, Ravitch explained that the target of her book, "is not progressivism as such (my own children went to progressive schools) but anti-intellectualism." Her sensible advice was, "Progressives today will be better off if they can understand their history and distance themselves from the elitist, anti-intellectual tradition that my book describes."

Carey concludes, "the most consistent thing about Ravitch has been her desire to be heard." Be that as it may, a consistent thing about her scholarship has been the commitment to the integrity of academic disciplines and their various methods of inquiry. The problem is not multidisciplinary studies; the problem, when it occurs, is the watering down of standards. The problem is not multiculturalism; the problem, when it occurs, is expecting less of poor children of color.

So, Carey is correct in claiming that Ravitch, "enjoys the credibility of the sober analyst while employing all the tools of the polemicist." She has earned that status through her excellence in multiple genres. I would think that Carey, with his background of non-peer reviewed writing for think tanks, would appreciate the distinction.