- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2000

What's the reason why we send our children to school? Is it to teach them the best of what Western civilization has produced? Or is it to teach skills that might prove useful to future employers?
Of all the debates in education, this argument between traditionalists and self-styled "progressives" is the longest-running and the most important. In her excellent new book, Diane Ravitch makes a thoughtful and powerful case that time-honored subjects English, history, mathematics should be at the heart of what is taught in today's classrooms.
Mrs. Ravitch, a Brookings fellow, is an experienced author. Among her most important books are "The Great School Wars," a history of education in New York City, and "The Troubled Crusade," a history of American education between 1945 and 1980. But while her earlier books were about events, "Left Back: A Century of School Reforms" is a history of ideas.
Readers may hesitate before picking up the book since it's a very long one about educational research. But if you're a parent or concerned citizen worried about what is happening to our schools, you will find that this volume is worth your time and money. And Mrs. Ravitch is a good writer and storyteller.
About 100 years ago, American classrooms were citadels of tradition. Children spent their days memorizing and doing drills. But this turn-of-the century approach was opposed by a movement which called itself progressive. Progressive educators tended to be disciples of John Dewey. Present at the dawn of the social sciences, these educators assumed that it was possible scientifically to determine what skills children needed. They also favored "child-centered" classrooms, where children would to some degree direct their own learning, instead of being told what to do by adults.
In the 1930s, many progressive educators flirted with communism and contended that teachers should lead children in a revolution against capitalism. (After Stalin's purges of 1937, however, most progressive educators were repulsed by the Soviet Union's tyranny.)
Progressive educators believed that many traditional subjects (particularly Latin) were irrelevant to children's needs and should be discarded. In one chapter, Mrs. Ravitch discusses long-forgotten "educational efficiency experts" such as John Franklin Bobbitt and W.W. Charters, who believed they could precisely determine what skills students would need in the workplace. These men helped transform schools into places where, cafeteria-style, students could choose from a menu of whatever classes they desired. They also created scores of lists of subjects they believed were vital to the youth of the era, such as "the ability to care for the skin."
Mrs. Ravitch is most persuasive when she argues that the ultimate legacy of the progressive educators was to create a stratified school system where the top students studied traditional subjects and were admitted to the best colleges. Others received a watered-down curriculum that would lead them to second-string schools. Particularly harmed by the progressives, she writes, were African-American children, who, thanks to misguided "experts," were given a third-rate curriculum that did little more than train them for careers as maids or porters.
But no matter how "scientific" their analysis, progressive educators would not foresee the future. An influential 1944 report from the National Education Association, for example, argued that because only 20 percent of American high school students would ever go to college, the curriculum needed to be dumbed-down some more. These educators did not know that the GI Bill would cause college enrollment to increase dramatically.
The progressive education movement collapsed by 1955, only to revive in a more virulent form a decade later. The last third of Mrs. Ravitch's book, describing the past 45 years, seems more hasty than her first two-thirds. Moreover, in her discussion of the debate over national standards, Mrs. Ravitch does not reveal her involvement in the creation of the standards while an assistant secretary of education during the Bush administration. While her attempt at objectivity is commendable, readers of this volume should have been told that the author was a participant in the national standards debate, not simply a passive observer.
Readers should draw two conclusions from the book. First, since the future cannot be predicted, students ought to be taught hard subjects to gain the intellectual flexibility needed to thrive in an increasingly dynamic workplace. Second, "anything in education that is labeled a 'movement' should be avoided like the plague. What American education needs is not more nostrums and enthusiasms, but more attention to fundamental, time-tested truths."
Readers dismayed by American education's reliance on frills, fads and jargon will get a great deal of pleasure out of Mrs. Ravitch's excellent book.

Martin Morse Wooster is an associate editor of the American Enterprise and author of "Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds."

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