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Opinion & Essays - July, 2002 Issue #95 

Education History Revised:
Two Books Reviewed
By Lon Woodbury

A Century of Failed School Reforms
Diane Ravitch
NY:Simon & Schuster:2000
ISBN 0-684-84417-6

A Schoolteacher's Intimate Investigation Into The Problem of Modern Schooling
John Taylor Gatto
NY:The Oxford Village Press:2000
ISBN 0-945-70004-0

The striking thing about these two books is how much their basic themes agree, even though the authors have radically different backgrounds in the field of education.

Ravitch is more mainstream. She served as Assistant Secretary of Education in the Reagan Administration and has been a professor of education at numerous universities, including Teachers College at Columbia University. Her book is the result of her academic research projects.

Gatto is a hero of the Alternative Education network, which explains the use of the word "underground" in the title. Previously, he had been a successful classroom teacher in New York. His book is more of a personal essay, a lengthy musing on American culture in general, as seen by the evolution of American public education.

Each author examines the popular vision of modern education, which is that all children, regardless of their status in life, are entitled to a thorough academic education; it is not something that is reserved for the children of the elite class. Both authors assert that starting in the 1920s, this vision was diluted as a result of academic reforms that promoted social and political goals while diminishing solid academics.

In Left Back, Ravitch asserts, “Democracy requires an educated public, not just an educated elite.” However, the coming of age of IQ tests during the 1920s that led to their use as a sorting tool by the US Army in WWI, caused Ravitch to remark: “Intelligence tests made it easy to decide which children would get a broad liberal education and which would be placed into a vocational track or into a watered-down general curriculum that led nowhere.” In other words, she asserts that by claiming their approach was based on the “science” of education, the founders of the system of modern public education, created a new “elite.” This “scientific” view, in her opinion, concluded it would be a waste of resources to provide a quality liberal education to those not scoring high on IQ tests.

Ravitch charts the history of the various educational reforms that created our current practice of education in US, concluding that each reform effectively diluted academics for everyone. In her opinion, it also resulted in the creation of obedient workers for factories, rather than independent thinkers armed with the intellectual heritage that would enable them to question public policy.

Gatto, in The Underground History of American Education, makes the same argument, in addition to a few others. He explores why education has evolved in the way it has, presenting his view on a number of social issues that he thinks are relevant to evolution of modern education, while challenging many orthodoxies of modern society. For example, he is very skeptical of experts, saying, “Professional interest is served by making what is easy to do seem hard….” and, “…to deny anyone a personal struggle is to strip humanity from their lives.” He also remarks: “Behaviorism has no built-in moral brakes to restrain it other than legal jeopardy.”

Regarding organizations and professionals, he makes several rather controversial comments, for example: “All large bureaucracies, public or private, are psychopathic [no conscience] to the degree they are well-managed. They [bureaucrats] surrender any prospect of developing full humanity in order to remain employed.” Also, “Families need control over the professionals in their lives.”

Ravitch is the more restrained of the two, focusing on education reforms and her view of their impact. For the person seriously troubled about public schools and concerned that perhaps we should be conducting our education in a different way, this book can be very helpful in providing insight about how we arrived at our current system of public education.

Gatto will make many people’s blood boil in various places; his criticisms are aimed far more broadly than simply towards public educators. He challenges our whole culture and its assumptions. However, reading his book will help to explain why some people are so upset about our current system of public education. Even if you disagree with him, it cannot hurt to more fully understand the intellectual underpinnings of aggressive critics of public education.

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