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The Revisionists Revised Hardcover – July 13, 1978
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Whether pertaining to the U.S. or Britain, the leftwing critiques were fundamentally the same. Whatever the good intentions of educators and public policy makers, schools did nothing so well as reproduce and legitimate an inequitable social class structure. Instead of functioning as agencies of upward social mobility and progressive social reform, schooling worked to maintain and reinforce the status quo, assuring that the wealthy and powerful retained their privileged positions, while the less fortunate were socialized and trained to constitute a tractable workforce.
During the period that occasioned publication of these politically charged, critical evaluations Diane Ravitch was in the early stages of her career as an historian and conservative policy analyst. She had already published one book, titled The Great School wars, and she responded to the left-of-center critiques with a rejoinder titled The Revisionists Revised.
In retrospect, there is a good deal of irony in Ravitch coming to the defense of American public schooling: she subsequently became one of its most vocal critics, a champion of private schooling, tution tax credits and vouchers, and a proponent of the view that public schooling was a lazy monopoly, an institution that needed the influence of market forces to become more effective and equitable. In her conservative guise, she was an influential education policy wonk in the U.S. Department of Education, gaining special prominence during the years that George W. Bush was president.
The Revisionists Revised is a fairly ham-handed polemic, claiming that left-leaning authors distorted historical materials to suit their essentially subversive ends. It reaches its low point when Ravitch charges Bowles and Gintis with championing the cause of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong during the Viet Nam war. I've scoured Bowles and Gintis' book Schooing in Capitalist America in search of the seditious references that Ravitch attributes to them, and they are not to be found.
It's also clear that Ravitch lacked the statistical knowledge to properly evaluate quantitative work that she cited in support of her position that American education is an effective agency of upward social mobility. For the most part she took statisticians' dubious assertions as demonstrably true and reported them as such, all part and parcel of her tendentious effort to diminish the credibility of critics from the left.
Since the book is now more than thirty years old, and given that it was not well done, why should anyone care about it? Mainly because Ravitch has, within the past few months, reversed her previous position with regard to the efficacy and equity of American public schooling, and has been outspoken in her judgment that No Child Left Behind, the domestic policy centerpiece of George W. Bush's administration, is a failure. After nearly four decades of rightwing policy making, Ravitch has conspicuously moved back to the center, disavowing her earlier positions and making us wonder how this could happen.
No, I don't think The Revisionists Revised provides us with an answer, but it does contribute to explaining where Ravitch is coming from. Given her public policy prominence and the dramatic nature of her change in position, this background material may be of interest.
While many tides have flown under the bridge of history since the 1960's, the public school is still under attack by erstwhile reformers, and Diane Ravitch has never ceased to question their aims and methods and to apply rigorous reasoning to the problems to which succeeding waves of reformers claim to have the answer.
In The Revisionists Revised Ravitch took a cool look at the views put forward by New Left critics, discussing them in the context of earlier revisionists and their arguments about the nature and purposes of public education since the early days of the republic. The public school which had received and Americanized generations of immigrants (a reminder is the dedication of this book to Ravitch's grandparents) was being characterized in the sixties as a class-based system designed to provide docile workers for an industrial economy--a precursor to the factory, an enforcer of class distinctions and racism.
Referring to scholarly work by historians and studies by sociologists, Ravitch refutes the charges of the radical Left on social mobility; on the number of black students, graduates and professionals; and the mechanisms of political decision-making. Her arguments are cogent and her careful reading exposes examples of slipshod research serving as the foundation for conclusions. She leads the reader to recognize the radical critics' disdain for liberal reformers while freely admitting that the myth of the Great American School as the Bulwark of Democracy is in itself a politicization of history.
The overtly Marxist view of society has been largely discredited, yet Ravitch's book on the arguments of its proponents does not seem dated. It not only refutes the view of public education in America as exploitation by the corporate state, it stands as an example of how to conduct a debate in a democracy, with reasoned argument based on evidence.
In the years since the publication of The Revisionists Revised Ravitch has gone on to deal with the never-ending problems and proposed solutions in the world of education. As she has witnessed the failure of once promising plans--from class size to vouchers to teacher accountability--she has had the courage to change her mind about what is happening to the public schools and why. Anyone interested in the present and future of America's schools and America's future should read her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, in which she explains how and why she has turned from popular panaceas in her defense of public education for democracy.