Bertrand Russell once remarked that intellectuals, like savages, are apt to imagine magical connections between words and things. Diane Ravitch’s history of American school reform is a depressing demonstration of the truth in Russell’s quip. Left Back is a chronicle of the idiocies visited upon children and parents by progressive educatorsan elastic term that means whichever faddists were temporarily in control of America’s teachers’ colleges. The common thread is that progressive educators were so in love with their theories that they blithely perpetuated one absurdity after the other to the disservice of generations of American children.
Ravitch, who holds a chair at the Brookings Institution, is perhaps our most respected educational analyst, with more than a dozen books to her credit and a long record of accomplishment as an educator, government official and historian. Her perch at Brookings is evidence of her roots in the reformist wing of Democratic-liberal politics. But Ravitch was also a close observer of the upheavals caused by the outbreak of what we now call multiculturalism in New York City’s schools in the 1960’s; and at least since that searing experience she has been a prominent skeptic of fashionable educational snakeoil.
Progressive education has its roots in Rousseauvian Romanticism, and in America it is most prominently associated with the name of John Dewey, the philosopher and all-around gadfly who was America’s leading public intellectual for most of the first half of the 20th century. The Laboratory School that Dewey and his wife operated at the University of Chicago from 1896 to 1904 is the central event in the progressive educationist’s narrative, a bit as Mohammed’s hegira is to Islam.
Dewey preached a child-centered school that rejected rote learning and attempted to engage children by moving from their present experiences out into...the organizing bodies of truth that we call studies. The Laboratory School, by all accounts, covered a great deal of serious subject matter, but organized it in interesting, innovative ways, like building models of historical battles. And by all accounts, Laboratory School students did very well, which is hardly surprisingthey were all children of faculty members, there was a very high teacher-student ratio, and the faculty parents were deeply involved in the day-to-day programs of the school.
Education reform was typical of the dozens and dozens of Dewey’s causes, from Soviet relations to industrial organization, in that his self-assurance was usually proportionate to his ignorance. It seems never to have occurred to him that his little hothouse experiment in Chicago might not be a blueprint for reorganizing the national educational apparatus. From the time he moved to Columbia University in 1904, although he was on the faculty of the philosophy department, his theories exercised enormous influence over Columbia’s Teachers College, which became the bastion of the progressive movement.
The real secret of Dewey’s great influence, however, lay in another development in which he played a central part: the fascination with the scientific organization of society that gripped the intellectual imagination, especially on the Left, in the wake of the World War. Scientism is profoundly undemocratican intellectual elite prescribing for the massesbut has been an important thread in American policy making at least since the New Deal, most recently in Robert McNamara’s approach to the war in Vietnam. And at least since Plato, it has been a commonplace that the intelligent organization of society starts with education.
The progressive movement that dominated the educational establishment from the 1920’s on was utterly devoid of intellectual coherence. Preachments veered from life-adjustment curricula that disdained learning and hard work (which could warp the developing personalities of boys and girls) through starry-eyed collectivism to outright racismthis last because so-called scientific testing and social planning disclosed that no more than 10 percent of the population would benefit from an advanced education, while the rest of us, especially black children, were fit only to be hewers of wood and drawers of water. Among the recommendations for this latter group was to delay, or even eliminate, instruction in useless subjects like reading.
Despite the obeisance to science, the progressive sect was remarkably impervious to conflicting data. From the movement’s inception, progressive nostrums met widespread resistance from parents, who consistently expressed a strong preference for tough, academically oriented programs. Families came to America so their kids could get ahead, and the least educated parents knew that their children would fare better the more numerate and literate they were. Throughout the recurrent battles over progressive education, its advocates always claimed that they were meeting a crisis of dissatisfaction with traditional learning, when the very opposite was patently the case.
The progressives ruled the educational establishment for more than 60 years, until traditionalists finally regained a precarious upper hand around the 1980’scoinciding with the sudden new respect accorded parochial schools, which had mostly resisted the progressive dogmas. The return to basics, however, is still very shallow, and the progressive legacy is to be seen everywhere, in dumbed-down curricula, grade inflation, the treatment of children as educational consumers rather than as students and the ubiquitous remnants of the life-adjustment movement. Better to be well adjusted than to be challenged or held to account.
Ravitch is master of this material, and she tells the story well, if a bit dutifully. Doubtless anticipating attacks from the still-powerful progressive educational establishment, she quotes at great length from original materials, nailing down her case at the cost of long stretches of narrative tedium. Like most academics, she also tends to exonerate Dewey from any responsibility for the educational mess he helped create. That white-haired figure, it seems, is still too revered to be the subject of honest criticism.
Those reservations aside, this is an important book, an antidote, one hopes, against future infection from the intellectual virus.