With the publication of The Death and Life of the Great American School System, educational historian and journalist, Diane Ravitch, has found her way not only onto best-seller lists, but into the good graces of some on the left for her critical account of neoliberal school reform, and her contrition regarding her significant role as a publicist for this three-decade disaster-in-the-making. Interviewers like Amy Goodman and Doug Henwood have featured her articulate and insider accounts of business model-based reform, No Child Left Behind, charter schools, standardized testing, and the insidious role of private foundations (that continue to handsomely support her).
In light of this, several qualifications are in order. For those who have studied the history of educational reform and closely observed such movements during the neoliberal era from a leftist perspective, there has been no mystery to the nature of this most recent scam, and no surprise as to its beneficiaries (large corporations, the rich) and victims (the poor, minorities). There is something disingenuous at best and opportunistic at worse about Ravitch’s latest political persona. Her fundamental views of capitalism and democracy have not changed. She has developed no coherent historical analysis, and has no insight into how school reform might even modestly contribute to a seriously democratic society. At bottom, Ravitch is elitist and authoritarian, and her educational ideals are tediously conventional and formulaic.
Ravitch’s role as a publicist for school reform began with her association with neoconservative union boss Albert Shanker in the 1970s, in the wake of his war against community schools in New York City run by African-American leaders and parents. When leftist critiques of American public schooling gained some popularity in academia in the 1970s, Ravitch was assigned the role of liberal attack dog by pre-eminent consensus historian Lawrence Cremin, resulting in her 1979 book The Revisionists Revised.
The best book of that era, Schooling in Capitalist America by radical economists and neo-Marxists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, was dismissively caricatured by Ravitch. She re-iterates her judgment in the opening pages of her current book. Bowles and Gintis convincingly argued at that time — and again in a long article in 2001 — that public schools and the alleged meritocracy that they promote have served primarily to reproduce class domination, mimic the social relations of the workplace, legitimize class interests, and repress human development. Schools have been anything but democratic in a meaningful sense.
In the wake of decades of neoliberal public school reforms that starkly differentiate urban and suburban systems, Bowles and Gintis’s observations should by now be uncontroversial, even among the liberal faithful. Yet Ravitch continues to invoke the mantra of the relationship between “democracy” and public schooling without seriously considering the economic and global context that mocks it. As a promoter of “cultural literacy,” she is an economic illiterate, bothering only to regurgitate conventional neoliberal wisdom even in her rejection of “market-based” solutions for schools.
Thus in the concluding “Lessons Learned” chapter of Death and Life she banally asserts, “Education is the key to developing human capital. The nature of our education system will influence society far into the future. It will affect not only our economy, but also our civic and cultural life. A democratic society cannot long sustain itself if its citizens are uninformed and indifferent about its history, its government, and the workings of its economy.”
This is hardly the stuff of insight or inspiration, but is consistent with Ravitch’s long-term neoconservative promotion of “cultural literacy” as the basis for a standardized curriculum. Cultural literacy, standardized curricula, centralization, high-stakes testing, “accountability,” and privatization have been integral to neoliberal/neoconservative reform movements since the 1980s. It surprises Ravitch (or so she says) but has not surprised leftist critics that this pseudo-classical and unsubstantial curricular laundry list has been incorporated into the stifling drudgery of teaching to the test.
After 9/11, Ravitch wrote in the widely-read (by school administrators) magazine Educational Leadership of “Seven Lessons for the Schools”: It’s OK to be patriotic; not all cultures share our regard for equality and human rights; we must now recognize the presence of evil in the world; pluralism and divergence of opinion are valuable; knowledge of U.S. history is important; knowledge of world history and geography is important; and we must teach students to appreciate and defend our democratic institutions.
There is no reason to believe that Ravitch’s current state of contrition has caused her to examine her basic assumptions; she is a consummate insider, and has always lacked serious analytical and visionary skills. Meanwhile, schools simply cannot be anything more than trivially democratic in marketized and repressive society as we know it, and as she loves it.