To the Editor:
Diane Ravitch spends some of her article [“Moral Education and the Schools,” September] attacking my book, Free the Children: Radical Reform and the Free School Movement. I found all of her characterizations of my views to be wrong, but I don’t feel that this could be usefully straightened out in a barbed-wit letters-column exchange. People who are interested can read the book and judge for themselves. However, on one point I do feel so strongly that I want to say something. In fact, my feelings were quite hurt. Mrs. Ravitch accuses me of advocating “indoctrination” and of standing for some vague grouping of fanatics of Left and Right, with Jehovah’s Witnesses and such thrown in who want to brainwash their students and discourage am critical thinking.
I admit that this sounds corny, but I really do believe in free speech, in free schools as well as public schools, and I have always so stated and acted. Since Mrs. Ravitch quotes no words of mine to back up her very serious accusation, I would like to quote a paragraph which addresses the issue directly.
Describing a seminar I taught on political affairs, I commented:
So far as influencing young people toward a particular point of view, a teacher can only be as honest as possible: that is, he can be a good teacher, raise his own doubts, explain how he got to where he is, try to bring out the plausibility of differing views, but without expressing some phony methodological neutrality aimed at preventing the young people from figuring out what he really believes. (This, of course, makes it impossible to take account of the teacher’s bias and leads them toward a false conception of objectivity.)
Readers may choose to agree with Mrs. Ravitch that I represent some kind of fanatic ideologist, but that’s what I wrote and that’s what I believe.
To the Editor:
Congratulations for a discussion of the much neglected subject of “Moral Education and the Schools.” Diane Ravitch’s article laudably urges that the schools do a better job of encouraging rationality and justice in human behavior. She wisely reminds us that “in order to teach justice, a school must itself be just.” Perhaps the ravages of Watergate will get educators and the public to turn more attention to the taboo subject of moral values in the schools, touchy though it is, and if so f hope it will be on the basis of the sound precepts put forth in Mrs. Ravitch’s article.
But Mrs. Ravitch, sadly, does not set a very good example of her own precepts. Just as schools should be just in order to teach justice, so should articles about fairness and rationality make a little more effort to be fair and rational. There is no need for her to create grotesquely distorted straw men in order to support her own very valid position on moral education in the schools. And Mrs. Ravitch does just that, with some very bizarre assumptions about the positions of others—people she obviously regards as much less wise then herself. To suggest that “‘romantics’ like A. S. Neill” and Catholics think that public schools “should teach no values” seems so far off base as to taint the rationality of the article itself.
And where does Mrs. Ravitch get the idea that “almost all critics are agreed that we should lower, not raise, our expectations of what schools can do”? Which critics does she have in mind? As one who often criticizes our present educational system myself (I hope always constructively), I have become rather sensitive to—and annoyed by—commentators who grossly distort the position of “the critics” in order to make their own points. Such deluding tactics do not promote rational discussion.
How much better it would be if Mrs. Ravitch and COMMENTARY made their frequently worthy contributions to educational thinking in this country without feeling the need to attack and label those who do not share their views.
Public Education Association
New York City
To the Editor:
Diane Ravitch maintains there is a way to teach moral values effectively in our schools that avoids indoctrination and then she proceeds to indoctrinate us in that method.
It seems to me that the author’s suggestions about the source of morals and the method of teaching them are what the total educational enterprise has been trying to do since 1900 A.D. (After Dewey), and judging from the evidence of moral decay in our society, they (the schools) have been eminently successful.
Harold J. Dean
Board of Education
Diane Ravitch writes:
I do believe that Allen Graubard believes in free speech; I never doubted it. I am also convinced by his writing that what he calls his “highly politicized outlook” provides the ideological basis for a highly politicized schooling process. I could have mentioned the statement on page 248: “. . . If you are against the way the dominant institutions work, if you want social justice and a humane society, then you are political and your educational task is set.” Or on p. 260: “My firm view is that attempts at truly humanizing the public schools must run up against the fundamental social realities—the sickness of American society.” It was from p. 260 that I cited his statement that “many free-school people balk at the idea of what they call ‘politicizing.’” Or again, on pp. 269-70, where he writes: “Some people oppose the political perspective I have supported because, as noted earlier, they feel that partisan politics are inappropriate to free schools.”
The quotation in Mr. Graubard’s letter is taken from his book, where he reflects on his teaching of a two-session seminar for high-school students on the American bombing of Cambodia. Despite the fact that Mr. Graubard says that he personally gave “a sophisticated defense of the United States involvement in Indochina,” he also demonstrates from his account of the readings he offered and the statements he made that only one side in the conflict was right and was acting on behalf of humanity and oppressed peoples. He used an Orwell essay pointing up the analogy between the “Thieu-Ky interests” and “Franco, the generals, the fascists, the rich landowners and churchmen” of the Spanish civil war, and a Dwight Macdonald essay on people’s responsibility for war crimes (concentration camps and atom-bombing), which flowed naturally into a reading on My Lai. Mr. Graubard honestly believes that he presented both sides. Yet I don’t think that any student of that seminar was equipped with the critical tools to disagree, or provided with a classroom climate in which dissidence (in this instance, support for American policy in Indochina) would be seen as anything but an apology for fascists and warmongers. A teacher doesn’t have to hide his own views and effect a “phony methodological neutrality.” But he can say: “This is what I believe. I think I’m right, but I could be wrong.”
David Seeley might read A. S. Neill’s Summerhill for a substantiation of my point. Neill wrote, lor example: “My view is that a child is innately wise and realistic. If left to himself without adult suggestion of any kind, he will develop as far as he is capable of developing.” If Mr. Seeley would read any of the standard works on the development of parochial schooling (such as Vincent Peter Lannie’s Public Money and Parochial Education), he would learn that these schools were founded as a refuge from the dominant values of the public school. I should also point out to Mr. Seeley that when I wrote about the critics, I was referring to people who are generally regarded as significant critics of American education, like Christopher Jencks, Carl Bereiter, and James Coleman, and not, I fear, to Mr. Seeley; his concern about being “attacked and labeled” is entirely groundless. My point in its context, as was clear from the sentence immediately following (“True, schooling does not guarantee success, but lack of schooling does appear to guarantee lack of success”), was specifically directed at the gloom that followed on the heels of Jencks’s widely-discussed Inequality, which seconded many of the Coleman data on the limited effects of schooling.
Harold J. Dean seems to want the schools (and society) to return to the ostensibly halcyon days of 1900, when moral dictates were certain. Those were also the days when our society unblinkingly accepted legalized racism, imperialistic ventures, denial of suffrage to more than half the adult population, and grinding urban poverty (unrelieved by public welfare). I think a good case can be made that, for all our present troubles, our moral sensitivity as a society is higher today than it was in 1900, and it may be that we owe a greater debt of gratitude to John Dewey than we know.