In Left Back
, Diane Ravitch explodes pervasive myths of how American schools developed in the last hundred years: "The conventional story of the twentieth century told by historians of education is about the heroic advance of the progressive education movement, how it vanquished oppressive traditionalism in the classroom, briefly dominated American schools, then lost its vitality and withered away in the mid-1950s." Ravitch, herself an eminent historian of education and the author of The Great School Wars
, calls this so much malarkey. She reveals how an endless wave of reforms prevented schools from doing what they were built to do: educate children. "Whenever the academic curriculum was diluted or minimized, large numbers of children were pushed through the school system without benefit of a genuine education," she writes. These words may not be welcome at teacher-training colleges, where so many of the ill-begotten theories and half-baked ideas she chronicles now percolate. But classroom veterans will appreciate Ravitch's insights: "What was sacrificed over the decades in which the schools were treated as vehicles for job training, social planning, political reform, social sorting, personality adjustment, and social efficiency was a clear definition of what schools can realistically and appropriately accomplish for children and for society."
The bulk of Left Back--and it is a bulky book, both in size (467 pages of text) and intellectual heft--is a history of progressive education reforms and the bad consequences that often follow them. Yet it is more than just history; Ravitch constantly keeps her eye on lessons the present can draw from the past, and isn't afraid to reach controversial conclusions, as when she writes, "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." Ravitch may add to that river of ink, but to everyone's benefit. Left Back is a fine book that should find a wide audience--the jacket features glowing blurbs from liberal historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and conservative author William J. Bennett. More important, it deserves a wide audience. --John J. Miller
From Publishers Weekly
HPlainly written and abundantly documented, this opinionated history of the "permanent debate" about school standards, curricula and methods should initiate new discussions about the purpose of American schools. Taking a firm stance in favor of liberal education, Ravitch argues that the ascent of so-called progressive education has undermined the intellectual development of students and the democratic principles of American society. For example, she writes that by the end of WW II, progressives had reserved academic education for an elite of college-bound students while they directed other children (mainly the poor, immigrants and racial minorities) toward undemanding vocational and general programs. In doing so, she argues, progressives "institutionalized white supremacy" and set a precedent for the present-day tracking of African-American students into vocational subjects. Ravitch depicts the century as falling into two halves, divided by the 1950s, when a sudden and concerted backlash against progressive ideas was sparked by teachers' and parents' resistance to education "experts," and she draws clear parallels between early-century ideas and contemporary trends. Along the way, she persuasively advocates a return to the "fundamental mission of teaching and learning" as the cure for the anti-intellectualism that ails American schools. Like The Closing of the American Mind, this is a personal crusade, but unlike Allan Bloom, Ravitch is anchored in a dispassionate history of the ways education has failed this country's children. Agent, Lyn Chu of Writers Representatives. Author tour. (Aug.) FYI: Ravitch served as assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education from 1991 to 1993.
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