No Idea Left Behind: An Interview with Dr. Diane Ravitch

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The spring 2003 release of The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, brought its author, Dr. Diane Ravitch, considerable acclaim and notoriety. The book is a thorough and concise review of American educational materials (primarily textbooks and standardized testing instruments) in the context of our politically correct landscape. The state of affairs turns out to not be a happy one, but Dr. Ravitch's work is absolutely one that had to be written.

Her resume is quite extensive, and currently she is a Research Professor at New York University and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington , D.C. Previously, she was assistant secretary in charge of research in the U.S. Department of Education in the first Bush Administration, and was also appointed by Bill Clinton to the National Assessment Government Board.

Dr. Ravitch has a great many publications to her credit. Her subject matter primarily has concerned American education. Some of her notable works include Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform, National Standards in American Education: A Citizen's Guide, and The Schools We Deserve: Reflections on the Educational Crisis of Our Times. With such voluminous publishing and vocational responsibility, we are truly grateful that she could share with us some of her time for this interview.

BC: Dr. Ravitch, your book, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, has been an excellent seller this year. What kind of reactions have you received from people to the work (both professionally and politically)? I hope it hasn't resulted in the ex-friends phenomena that occurred to Norman Podhoretz.

DR: The response to date has been overwhelmingly positive. I have not yet received a "bad" or negative review. The positive reviews have come from mainstream places like The Washington Post (where Jonathan Alter compared it to Steinbeck, Nader, Carson , etc.), The NY Times, The LA Times, and other major newspapers. Reviews have also appeared in publications of the left (Mother Jones), the liberal center (The New Republic), and the right (National Review). Basically the reviewers found the revelations to be convincing, well documented, and alarming.

I have a few good friends in the publishing industry who are not thrilled by the book, but they have apparently decided to ignore it and let this pass. There was a critical letter to the editor in The Wall Street Journal by Patricia Schroeder of the Association of American Publishers, claiming that they expurgate only in response to the pressures of the free market and that they are great defenders of the First Amendment. Of course, one of my major points in the book is that textbook adoptions in big states procedures remove book purchasing from the free market altogether and warp the marketplace, as well as provide a forum for cranks and zealots. She ignored that.

I have received a terrific response from small publishers who are part of the 25% niche that competes on an uneven playing field with the big corporations. Also, I was a keynote speaker at the national convention of the AFT, the second biggest teachers' union, and their reception was very positive.

BC: You've also published Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform. For readers who may be unfamiliar with your works, what do you view as being the foremost problem with America 's public education community? Is it fair of me to state that there is little that is actually progressive about today's educational progressives?

DR: No, it really is not fair, because the word progressive covers such a broad and elastic set of meanings. In some ways, we are all progressives. Who can be against progress? There are so many big problems that it is hard to pin it all on just one source. Certainly, hostility to knowledge (i.e., anti-intellectualism) is one area of concern. The education schools are (as I tried to show in Left Back) complicit in this. But parents don't escape blame, as so many abdicate their children to the TV, internet, or peers. One could go on and on, but what interests me most is to see how we can teach our cultural traditions/heritage, and also teach the next generation to be critical of that heritage. Unfortunately, every word of that last sentence is now regarded as debatable--What do you mean "our"? What do you mean "cultural"? What do you mean "heritage"? And then what are kids left with but dumbed-down lessons and text, so they turn to the TV, movies, and video for excitement and sensation.

BC: I'd like to mention a short piece that you recently penned. It's called 'What Harry Potter Can Teach the Textbook Industry,' and it highlights that learning and reading can still interest children if they have meaning and are applicable to human truth. I experienced this as a child with Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, and Lloyd Alexander. All of the works that I read did not contain bells, whistles or fireworks as photography. They were printed in simple text. Is it your opinion that if textbooks 'de-glossify' and instead focus more on politically incorrect reality they will be of more interest to students?

DR: I think they should concentrate on terrific writing, both in literature and history. These books need not be so superficial and empty. If they spent as much money paying great writers as they do on the artwork, the textbooks would be very different. I also think it necessary to have books written by people with real names, who sign their name, not committees (especially the history books, where no one knows who wrote what or anything).

BC: I wrote a piece about you and someone wrote to me saying that you're not a political moderate but actually a conservative. I responded by saying that you worked for both the first Bush Administration and the Clinton Administration. Is my description of you as a political moderate correct? You seemed to work very hard in The Language Police to present criticisms of both the right and left.

DR: I am a political independent. I am a registered independent. I worked in the first Bush administration (at that time, I was a Democrat). I was appointed by President Clinton to the National Assessment Governing Board, and I have advised governors, legislators, etc. of both parties. Judge me by my works.

BC: Dr. Ravitch, as a faculty member at New York University in the Steinhardt School of Education, you are in a position to accurately respond to the question of diversity in the universities. In your opinion, are the claims of many in the conservative press accurate regarding the presence of rampant cultural Marxism in today's universities? The last class I taught contained 28 students and I believe I was the only person present who did not fashion myself to be a VOP (Very Oppressed Person).

DR: I teach at NYU. The faculty is certainly not Marxist. However, I am willing to bet that 98% of the education faculty belong to the same political party. It is probably true of many other departments as well, but I really don't know. Also the education faculty is overwhelmingly opposed to testing, but favors bilingual education, constructivism, favors diversity and affirmative action, etc. On most education and culture issues, there is very little if any diversity of opinion.

BC: You also hold a position at the Brookings Institute as a Nonresident Senior Fellow in Governance Studies. Due to your simultaneously being a part of academia and a think tank, are there some advantages that employment with a university convey over working at an institute? I ask this because there are so many conservative scholars who are in think tanks as opposed to being professors at colleges.

DR: Conservatives are mainly in think tanks rather than universities not by choice but because they are often shunned at universities. I have several friends and acquaintances who were pushed out because they were considered conservative. This reduces the possibilities for debate and intellectual freedom in universities. I loved working at Brookings because I heard much more diverse opinions than I had when I was at teachers college or even now at NYU. I am a visiting fellow at Brookings, but was in residence in the '93-'95 era.

BC: Sol Stern's got a new book out, Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice, and he is also joined in his critique of 'progressive education' by the likes J. Martin Rochester and Kieran Egan. Do you feel that the tide has turned and the days are over when the general public will sit helplessly on the sidelines during debates over public education? Will we soon be seeing genuine reform?

DR: No, the education schools have not changed, nor are they likely to. People will often write dissident books, but change happens glacially in education.

BC: How do you rate the Bush Administration on education? They've certainly spent a ton of money, but has the increased expenditures been of benefit to children?

DR: The jury is still out.

BC: What are your future writing plans? What's the next subject you'll address?

DR: I am planning to edit an anthology of English poems, essays and speeches with my younger son, Michael Ravitch. We have a contract with Oxford University Press. However, I have not yet been able to do this because talking about and writing about The Language Police has consumed most of my energy for the past six months. BC: Thank you very much for your time, Doctor.

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Bernard Chapin's picture
Columns on STR: 33

Bernard Chapin is a writer from Chicago.