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Saturday, September 1, 2001

Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms by Diane Ravitch

An Extraordinary Review of 100 Years of Education Fads

Simon & Schuster · 2000 · 555 pages · $30.00

Reviewed by Robert Holland

In his 1996 book, The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, E.D. Hirsch categorized and then proceeded to demolish the doctrines of progressive education that hold American education in thrall. Hirsch exposed the intellectual shallowness behind such notions as “child-centered schooling,” “multiple intelligences,” “authentic assessment,” and “constructivism.” He also traced the origins of progressive education to the Teachers College, Columbia University, in the teens and twenties.

The “education schools” of the nation have mindlessly perpetuated this anti-intellectual tradition and passed it along to new teachers.

The Hirsch tome, it turns out, was the first of a powerful one-two punch. In Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, education historian and Brookings scholar Diane Ravitch has written an extraordinary review of 100 years of education fads. Where Hirsch critiqued ideas, Ravitch names names and provides dates so that it is possible to assign responsibility.

Among the first progressives she identifies is G. Stanley Hall, winner of the first doctorate in psychology from Harvard. In 1901 Hall declared before the National Education Association that guardians of the young “should strive first of all to keep out of nature’s way.” Educators, declared Hall, “must overcome the fetishism of the alphabet, of the multiplication table, of grammars, of scales, and of bibliolatry.” There are many children, he asserted, who would be better off not being educated at all.

The elitist-progressive hostility to such core academic subjects as history, literature, algebra, and chemistry clashed with the desire of immigrant parents for their children to have a solid grounding in English and the American heritage. The intellectual heirs of Rousseau sought instead to impose a system of social efficiency whereby children would be sorted at an early age into useful occupations. They created industrial schools for children as young as 12 and junior high schools for the specific purpose of tracking children toward predetermined vocations.

The progressives’ penchant for pigeonholing children and selling their intellectual potential short has resurfaced periodically under deceptive new labels. In late ’30s and ’40s it was the infamous “life adjustment” movement, which amazingly held that 60 percent of American children lacked the brains to aspire either to college or to skilled employment. The benevolent schools would have to “adjust” them to be decent drones. With a 1945 U.S. Office of Education conference playing a pivotal role, “life adjustment” steered most children away from books and academics and toward home and family living, vocational guidance, and such vital questions as “What causes pimples?”

Even now, when economic change would seem to put a premium on broadly educated people, progressives seek to shove aside classical disciplines in favor of attitudes, “real-world” concerns, and a niche in a government-managed workforce. In the 1990s that mindset showed up in such freshly minted fads as Outcome-Based Education and the federal School-to-Work system, though Ravitch chooses not to mention either abomination by name. Whether from a lack of candor or an excess of modesty, she also fails to mention her own prominent involvement as an Education Department higher-up during the first Bush Administration in the failed movement toward national education standards.

The most eye-opening chapter in Left Back relates the fondness that the progressives’ hero, philosopher John Dewey, developed for the system of education in the Soviet Union. Dewey relished the fact that the Marxists had hammered schools into agencies of social uplift, with teachers leading students in applied “project” learning—taking them into the community for problem-solving in sanitation systems or bringing the peasants around to the communist way of thinking. This demonstrated a naïve affection for statist use of schools as instruments of a new social order. Progressives still see them that way.

From a century’s litter of failed fads, Ravitch concludes that anything in education labeled a “movement” ought to be “avoided like the plague.” That seems to be a wise caution when one considers the likes of the self-esteem movement, the whole-language movement, the multicultural movement, and dozens of other mindless education fads.

Both Ravitch and Hirsch are education egalitarians in the best sense. In contrast to the progressives who would level us down by draining intellectual content from mass education, they believe all children can benefit from a core curriculum grounded in the liberal arts. If they err on the side of idealism, they are at least correct that it is wrong to sell children short without giving them a chance to master serious subject matter.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public-policy think tank in Arlington, Va.