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Ravitch on “Progressive Education” and School Reform

RJO’s Reviews on Amazon.com

These brief book reviews have been posted to Amazon.com, and they may be viewed there in their original form either collectively (on my public reviews page) or individually (by following the link at each title below).

Romping Through a Hundred Years of Educational Folly

Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms
Diane Ravitch
Simon & Schuster, 2000

Left Back is a magnificent book, and everyone concerned with education owes Diane Ravitch a debt of gratitude for having written it.

The book’s theme is the so-called “progressive education” movement and how for the past 100 years it has deprived students from all socio-economic groups, but especially poor students, of the rigorous academic education that would help them advance in society. However well-meaning the advocates of progressive education may have been, they have caused terrible harm by holding an array of destructive views, from poisonous social determinism at one end (black students are probably going to grow up to work in menial jobs anyway, so there’s no point in teaching them abstract academic subjects that they will never need) to loony naturism at the other, under which children should never be taught about anything that they don’t ask to be taught about. (And if they never ask, that’s fine; they can just play for twelve years.)

Ravitch’s writing is unfailingly smooth and well-ordered, and more than fifty pages of detailed endnotes will allow curious readers to follow up on any of the topics she examines.

Although Left Back confines itself to K–12 education, I found many parallels to what has gone on in higher education as well, particularly since the 1960s. Higher education has been infected with many of the ideas Ravitch describes by way of student affairs and residence life departments that oversee undergraduate life outside the classroom. Academic faculty at most universities abrogated their responsibilities for student welfare a generation ago, and the social and educational consequences have been disastrous.

My copy of Left Back was given to me by a kind student who knew of my interest in university reform, and to her I am grateful. If you want to do good for your own neighborhood and your own local schools, buy a few copies of Left Back and start passing them around. Teachers, parents, politicians, and school board members should all read it and take it to heart. It will help them spot the next vacuous fad and the next new-and-improved brand of educational snake oil.


© RJO 1995–2014