If it seems cruel and unusual to declare a book about the history of education a must-read, Diane Ravitch’s latest effort makes such strong medicine necessary. Ravitch’s masterful volume is a historical whodunit, a brilliant bit of detective work that definitively answers the question: Who destroyed American education?
It turns out there’s an alternative history to the demise of learning in the United States: The American education system didn’t just fall. It was pushed—by progressive forces bent on substituting social adjustment for academic achievement.
Readers interested in the plight of America’s schools, for whom the sentence above harkens back to 1960s sit-ins and Summerhill School, may feel they’ve heard it all before. Yet Left Back’s larger value lies in proving that the assault on traditional academic education was not a 1960s spinoff but rather a Hundred Years War, dating to the dawn of the 20th century. Indeed, such was the impact that as early as the 1940s, Ravitch writes:
The conventional wisdom decreed that subject matter and academic curriculum were outmoded; that the curriculum should never be prescribed by city or state officials but jointly planned by teachers and pupils; that it should be based on students’ interests and needs, not on the logical organization of subjects; that experiences and activities were more valuable to students than reading and study; that schools should offer different programs to different groups of students, depending on whether they were preparing for work or college; that students should be promoted every year, regardless of their performance; and that professional educators should think of themselves as social engineers, empowered to decide what was best for students and the rest of society.
In reclaiming this history, Ravitch surveys a rogues’ gallery of turn-of-the-century education reformers: Men like G. Stanley Hall, who, Ravitch reports, happened to be the first American ever to earn a doctorate in psychology. A prodigious polymath, Hall employed his erudition to mount an aggressive defense of illiteracy as part of his child-centered approach to schooling: “We must overcome the fetichism of the alphabet, of the multiplication table, of grammars, of scales, and of bibliolatry.”
Deriding grammar as “a school-made artifact and alien yoke,” Hall observed “it would not be a serious loss, if a child never learned to read.” Today’s child-centered school finds early voice in Hall’s writings: “Alas for the teacher who does not learn more from his children than he can ever hope to teach them!” Yet beneath Hall’s surface child-worship ran a stronger current of pessimism over the prospects of most American schoolchildren, whom Hall saw as a “great army of incapables, shading down to those who should be in schools for dullards or subnormal children, for whose mental development heredity decrees a slow pace and an early arrest.”
Indeed, Hall’s educational determinism paralleled the developmental determinism then giving rise to the IQ testing movement. Ravitch recounts the role of Henry Goddard, a Hall student who coined the term “moron.” A committed “hereditarian” who believed with the father of the IQ test, Edward Thorndike, that “individuals differ by original nature in intelligence as in stature or eye color or countenance,” Goddard helped pave the way for the American introduction of what came to be called the Stanford-Binet IQ tests. Soon, a new breed of American educators was armed with scientific evidence that would “prove” why certain categories of children were essentially unteachable.
If Hall, Thorndike, and Goddard are hardly household names, better known to readers of Left Back will be John Dewey, who, Ravitch reminds us, once praised as a “school of tomorrow” Indianapolis’s PS 26, a segregated school that taught black students carpentry, tailoring, shoemaking, and cooking.
Dewey later saw the future in the Soviet Union during a pilgrimage there in 1928, confirming the suspicion of this reviewer that in every self-described social engineer lurks the soul of the commissar. Witness the startling candor of Ellwood P. Cubberley, the widely-read progressive pedagogue who saw in 1909 a new era that would be “paternalistic, perhaps even socialistic, in the matter of education.” More and more, he wrote, “The child is coming to belong . . . to the state, and less and less to the parent.”
Having hammered home the dark history of school reform, Ravitch turns in her later chapters to trace the tumbling trajectory of American educational achievement. She sees a direct line from 1920s and 1930s Rousseauian romanticism to the relativism of the 1960s and early 1970s, which turned American education into the factory school with a cafeteria curriculum, leaving students free to choose among for-credit rap sessions in “girl talk,” “personal relations,” and “what’s happening?”—offerings that elevate Basket Weaving to the level of an AP course.
Through her exhaustive effort in educational archaeology, Ravitch helps us see that the implosion of American education was less a failure to learn than a refusal to teach. Which is why, in the end, Left Back is oddly reassuring. After all, if it took such a sustained and systematic assault to effect the “educational cleansing” of America’s schools, think of how much our children might learn—if only someone set out to teach them.
Daniel McGroarty, author of Trinnietta Gets a Chance: Six Families and Their School Choice Experience, is a Bradley fellow at the Heritage Foundation and senior director of the White House Writer’s Group, a communications and public policy firm.