Commentary Magazine

The Revisionists Revised, by Diane Ravitch

Education & Equality

The Revisionists Revised: A Critique of the Radical Attack on the Schools.
by Diane Ravitch.
Basic Books. 173 pp. $8.95.

The late 1960′s and early 1970′s produced an extraordinary outpouring of radical scholarship devoted to attacking not only American social and political institutions but also America’s understanding of itself. Inasmuch as that self-understanding had been forged largely by the liberal tradition, the radical assault was aimed above all at liberalism, which appeared surprisingly unable or unwilling to defend itself. One area of scholarship in which such anti-liberal revisionism has been particularly influential is the study of the American public school. Here radicals have argued that, far from being democratic agencies of social mobility and cultural diversity, the schools have in fact been coercive and regressive institutions, designed to reinforce the racial and class biases of American society.

In the preface to The Revisionists Revised, Diane Ravitch laments the long silence of liberal scholars in the face of the challenge posed by the educational radicals. Her book is an attempt to refute the radical critique of the schools and in so doing to reaffirm the liberal view of American educational history. The targets of Mrs. Ravitch’s counterattack range from Marxist economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis to anarchist Joel Spring, and include such other scholars as Michael B. Katz, Clarence Karier, Colin Greer, and Walter Feinberg. These authors do differ among themselves on some important particulars, and Mrs. Ravitch devotes one lengthy chapter to a series of brief individualized treatments of the radical critics in which she distinguishes among their basic approaches and skillfully points up deficiencies in their use of historical or sociological evidence. But the greater part of The Revisionists Revised consists of a more general argument directed against the common outlook essentially shared by the radicals.

Mrs. Ravitch broadly summarizes the radical perspective and its contrast with the liberal viewpoint:

Where liberals had argued that the spread of public schooling was social progress, radicals saw the public school as a weapon of social control and indoctrination; where liberals had maintained that reforms like compulsory schooling freed children from oppressive workplaces, radicals saw compulsory schooling as an expansion of the coercive power of the state; where liberals believed in the power of schooling to liberate people from their social origins, the radicals perceived the school as a social sorting device which undergirds an unjust, exploitative class system; where liberals considered the school to be an integral part of democratic society, radicals viewed it as a mechanism by which one group (an elite) exploits and manipulates another (the masses or the workers or the minorities or “the community”); where liberals had worked to insure that individual merit would be rewarded without regard to race or religion or other ascriptive factors, radicals described the outcome of this effort as meritocracy, hierarchy, and bureaucracy.

Disputing the radicals’ reading of the historical record, Mrs. Ravitch concludes that schooling was not imposed by elites upon blacks or ethnic minorities against their will, but was eagerly sought by the minorities themselves. Next, she demonstrates that American society has been characterized by a high degree of upward social mobility, and she argues that schooling has been and remains today a major vehicle of social advancement toward greater economic opportunity.

Despite her impressive marshaling of evidence, however, it is unlikely that Mrs. Ravitch will convince those who view America through a radical lens. American public schools not surprisingly reflect the values prevalent in American society as a whole, and those who oppose those values will continue to deplore their transmission through our educational institutions. For most other readers, Mrs. Ravitch’s book is likely to provide primarily a confirmation of what they feel they already know from their own experience and observation—namely, that scholastic success is possible for all those who have the talent and the desire to achieve it, and that it is most often the road to occupational and economic success as well. That a host of influential scholarly works could be based upon the denial or obfuscation of these obvious facts is a sign of how thoroughly American academic and intellectual life was transformed by the mood of the 1960′s.

In many respects that mood now seems to have largely faded from the American scene, and yet its effects continue to be very much present. Although the radical tide is ebbing, liberalism remains in disarray and on the defensive. This persisting defensiveness is evident even in The Revisionists Revised, where a certain apologetic tone creeps in at some critical places.

For the most part, it is true, Mrs. Ravitch presents a spirited counterattack against the radicals. In a number of passages, she recognizes the fundamental hostility of the radicals to the liberal principles she supports, noting their “thorough rejection of liberal values and liberal society.” Yet elsewhere she seems implicitly to accept the notion that the goals of the radicals do not essentially differ from those of liberals—that radicals are merely more impatient with the pace of social change, less fastidious about the means used to attain it, and less willing to compromise their ideals for the sake of taking the practical steps necessary to begin achieving them through the political process.

This ambivalence on Mrs. Ravitch’s part reflects the generally twofold nature of the radical attack on American liberalism. Radicals typically concentrate most of their rhetorical firepower on the failure of liberalism fully to realize in practice its own ideals and principles. (This, of course, is a charge to which any dominant political tradition will be vulnerable. And it is one to which American liberalism has been particularly vulnerable because of the one enormous failing on America’s historical record—its past mistreatment of its black population.) Yet it is frequently the case that the radicals themselves repudiate the very principles that they accuse liberalism of failing to live up to. Take, for example, the principle of equality of opportunity. Although radicals attack liberal society for failing to provide genuine equality of opportunity (and hence adequate social mobility), most of them in fact reject the ideal of equal opportunity in favor of the very different principle of equality of results.

Mrs. Ravitch is aware of the centrality of this issue, and she devotes the final portion of her chapter on “Education and Social Mobility” to a concentrated discussion of it. It is precisely here, however, that her argument is at its weakest. Rather than sharply drawing the opposition between equality of opportunity and equality of results, she asserts that liberal social policy properly combines these two concepts, and wrongly identifies government social programs and the progressive income tax as policies founded on the principle of equality of results. She then goes on to suggest that modern liberal democracy demands a delicate balancing of equality (of results) with liberty and efficiency, thereby implying that the radicals’ error on this fundamental issue is merely a matter of degree: they are willing to sacrifice too much in the way of liberty and efficiency for the sake of equality.

But this way of defining the opposition between liberals and radicals is bound to leave liberals always on the defensive. For it allows radical egalitarians to occupy without a fight the high moral ground of justice (under the banner of equality of results). Efficiency, despite its undeniable practical force, is a principle that only an economist can love; and liberty, for all its moral nobility, is unlikely to be able to hold the field for long if it is perceived as being in opposition to justice. Thus, if liberalism is to regain its moral self-respect, it must unequivocally reject the radical principle of equality of results and reaffirm the notion of justice implicit in the liberal principle of equality of opportunity. That is, it must unashamedly defend the idea of merit, which holds that those individuals who perform with greater talent and greater effort justly deserve greater—i.e., unequal—rewards. For unless they are ready to stand by their own principle of justice, even liberals as intelligent and as spirited as Diane Ravitch will find it hard to restore to liberalism its former good conscience.

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