Educational Enthusiasms and Their Critics

April 9, 2001


Diane Ravitch, currently affiliated with the Brookings Institution: Viewed by some as "the voice of common sense and rationality," she is considered by others "a conservative elitist only slightly to the left of Genghis Khan."
Book Review
Philip J. Davis

Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms. By Diane Ravitch, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000, 555 pages, $30.00.

"The only trouble with progress is that it goes forward and not backward." ---Oscar Wilde

Readin', writin', and 'rithmetic were once the three mainstays of elementary education. But who needs reading in a culture that is increasingly iconographic and aural? Who needs writing (or even printing) when everyone has a laptop? Who needs spelling when spelling comes free with all word processors? Who needs arithmetic when calculators are built into everything in today's chipified world? There is hardly an intellectual discipline, a topic for discussion, or an art or a craft, old or new, that, when proposed for a curriculum, has not been trashed.

Diane Ravitch has written a new book that presents a substantial and well-documented history of American education in the past century, with its associated enthusiasms and trashings. She has been a professor of education at Teachers College (Columbia University) and New York University, and is currently associated with the Brookings Institution. To some, Ravitch is the voice of common sense and rationality; to others, she is a conservative elitist only slightly to the left of Genghis Khan.

During the period under consideration (from 1890 to roughly the present day), I would characterize American education in six words: constant complaint, constant change, and constant controversy. Ravitch describes the changes in terms of a variety of enthusiasms or idealistic movements; and her conclusion, which she could also have placed up front as an epigraph, is that

"if there is a lesson to be learned from the river of ink that was spilled in the education disputes of the twentieth century, it is that anything in education that is labeled a 'movement' should be avoided like the plague."

The primary purpose of her narrative is to show how we got to where we are now so that we can find a way to provide a proper education to the current generation of children, who

"swim in a sea of images shaped by the popular culture, electronic media and commercial advertising . . . [in which] everything becomes trivia packaged to fit the terms of celebrity and sensationalism."

The secondary purpose, largely historical, is to show how "progressive education" has fallen from grace over the years and is now a terrible mistake. The centerpiece---or perhaps more appropriately, the production number---of Ravitch's book is the chapter entitled "The Great Meltdown." Here we are presented with the history---in micro-Gibbon fashion---of the Decline and Fall of the Progressive Educational Movement. A partial characterization of progressive education might state that it

"sought to make the schools more practical and realistic. It sought to introduce humane methods of teaching, recognition that students learn in different ways, and attention to the health of children. It sought to commit the schools more to social welfare than to academic studies."

Ravitch asserts that "by the end of WW II, progressivism was the reigning ideology of American education"; by the 1950s,

"the public schools had become agencies for socializing students, teaching them proper attitudes and behaviors and encouraging conformity to the norms of social life and the workplace." [My italics.]

What are the things that Ravitch abhors? Her three major bugaboos are:

Other Ravitch aversions: large schools, as advocated and promoted by James B. Conant (one-time president of Harvard); history converted into social studies. Progressivism, far from being a monolithic doctrine, harbored many submovements. Among them were the vocational education movement and the mental hygiene movement, the "self-esteem movement," the "liberation movement." Perhaps the most prominent among them was the life adjustment movement. "Basic living" courses, "common learning" courses became the order of the day. Courses that taught students "how to find a job, how to become popular and get along with the opposite sex," garnered both praise and derision. Satirizations and parodies flew back and forth across the doctrinal aisle.

From its birth, progressivism met with constant criticism, and opposition both from conservative educators and from parents and politicians. In 1955 Rudolf Flesch's Why Johnny Can't Read made the best-seller lists, and concerned parents shuddered. In that same year, the Progressive Education Association folded, having "expired from intellectual exhaustion." Who among the dozens of educators mentioned are Ravitch's heroes? John Dewey? A.N. Whitehead? Think again! Her heroes are three individuals unknown to most of us in the math business: William T. Harris, William C. Bagley, and Isaac L. Kandel, "men whose ideas were balanced and sound, if not often heeded." (Years ago I met Kandel---a professor at Teachers College---and I would add: conservative.)

With regard to mathematics, once an honored part of a classical curriculum, Ravitch says that the progressive movement turned it into a minor option.

In my own days as a (naïve) student, I was totally unaware of the existence of the turbulent and muddy waters of educational theorizing. In my 1-12 years (no K for me), the only discussion involving teaching I ever heard concerned whether aspiring teachers in my native city had to buy their jobs from the politicians on the School Committee. In later years, still fairly ignorant, I began to hear of "progressive" education. My initial assessment of this movement was that it was the cat's whiskers (= cool). I therefore find Ravitch's description and discussion of the various movements that have "plagued" education tremendously informative. I was not aware, for example, that by 1942 the movement had become (in I.L. Kandel's view) strongly anti-intellectual.

Let me now turn more directly to mathematics education. Although Ravitch was assistant secretary of education under President Bush père, her book hardly mentions our present concerns, such as charter schools, vouchers, or student and teacher testing. Nor does it get into the problems and controversies of the computer age, with its mathematical software that is said to make drill of the traditional sort obsolete and drill of a computer sort a necessity of life. Nor does it get into multimedia instruction or distance learning.

In the three pages devoted to the rise and fall of the 1989 standards of the NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics), Ravitch writes:

"The NCTM lost the public relations battle when it de-emphasized basic skills; once that was communicated to the public, its other strategies, no matter how worthy, sounded like pedagogic jargon. Moreover the standards were . . . a way of teaching, rather than what most people would recognize as standards."

Critics on the other side objected to universal standards, preferring to have available a variety of curricula, corresponding to a variety of talents and interests.

The NCTM has now put out a new version (Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, Reston, Virginia, 2000). Examination of the extent to which this edition has overcome criticism of the earlier version would require a separate article.

Over the years, I have witnessed a number of mathematical movements, major and minor, elementary and advanced, driven by enthusiasts who reacted with religious fervor to new developments, new insights and possibilities. There was the New Math (late '50s). Then, in 1973, NYU mathematician and historian Morris Kline's Why Johnny Can't Add, together with much teacher and parental opposition and dropping test scores, dealt the coup de grâce to the movement. Today, there is the New New Math, sometimes called Fuzzy Math by its opponents, which has given rise to the current "Math Wars."

There was the bourbakiste movement. There was the R.L. Moore style of teaching---a method that today, and in a context much wider than topology, is called "constructivism." There was the nonstandard analysis movement for teaching elementary calculus. Its stock rose a bit before the movement collapsed from inner complexity and scant necessity. There have been math curricula designed toward certain special goals, as though these goals were the be-all and the end-all of mathematical theory and wisdom: e.g., the spectral theory of operators, catastrophe theory, and fractals. Advocates of the educational enthusiasms at the cutting edge of modern mathematics seem to be researchers dreaming of an education they think they should have had when they were students. These movements have displayed energy, intelligence, knowledge, but not always wisdom. They have absorbed vast amounts of public money and have occasionally created considerable public éclat.

I, too, have had my personal enthusiasms. In the days of the IBM 650, run with punched cards, I was one of the first to teach both a "computer calculus" (to considerable faculty resistance) and a "computer art" course.

So what does Ravitch want? That's not entirely clear. A liberal arts education for all, certainly, stressing intellectual skills and accountability. She wants students to be taught

"science, history, and the principles of self-government, great works of literature and art, [in a] conscious effort to build shared values and ideals."

Unless I have it all wrong, Ravitch dreams of the education she received as a girl in Houston, Texas. But what specific topics and manner of instruction will lead to these goals?

She doesn't really declare her hand. As a historian, she doesn't have to. She comes closest in her treatment of the whole-language and reading controversy. In her comments on aching reading, she implies that anyone with a bit of sense will use a variety of methods. I agree with her there, and I would go beyond reading.

So what do I want? I am moderately conservative. I find some good in each of the movements and enthusiasms. Each is akin to one dish in a large salad bar of education. Paralleling the information on the back of a cereal box, we might look at a given curriculum as composed of a hundred basic ingredients. The problem is to decide what the recommended daily amounts are and for which students they apply. I do not advocate teaching only what is relevant today or what is conjectured to be relevant tomorrow. I had woodworking in grammar school and thirty years later found in cabinetry a relaxing and satisfying hobby.

I am an elitist in that I consider deeper math appropriate only for those who display innate skills (dirty terminology?), and would recommend less math for J.Q. Student than is suggested by the NCTM's Principles and Standards. I wish there were informed teachers who could put together their own mathematical menus, relying much less on what the publishers of texts dish out on the basis of these standards.

Though I am all for computers in education, I am worried by the hell-bent-for-leather enthusiasm of those who would bring in the computer and multimedia with hurricane force. Like Ravitch and Talleyrand, I am suspicious of "too much zeal." What I also want---and this is not core material---is for students to acquire an appreciation of the role that mathematics plays in today's highly mathematized civilization---what it does for us and what it does to us.

Philip J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University, is an independent writer, scholar, and lecturer. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and can be reached at philip_davis@brown.edu.


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