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Diane Ravitch's "Left Back" is both a history and a polemic. As the subtitle suggest, Ravitch does not only cover the history of educational ideas over the past century, but the history of "failed" educational ideas. As other review rs suggest, Ravitch's book is a history of, and argument against, progressivism in education.
Most of this book centers around two recurring dualisms of 20th century educational theory: essentialism v. utilitarianism, and learning as transmission between teacher and student v. learning as natural student-led proces.
The debate between essentialists (like Bagley) and instrumentalists (like Dewey and Thorndike) was over whether educational learning was valuable in itself or whether its value derives from its utility. In Left Back, Ravitch demonstrates that the concept of justifying education in utilitarian terms (how useful it is to students' lives) may have been an interesting idea at one point, but, like many ideas, it was pushed too far. Not many people - even the eseentialists - would argue that education should not have utility to students lives, but the overselling of this idea by progressives resulted in everything from hastily done tracking (tailoring instruction to students' predicted 'station' in later life), to the stripping away of academic rigor (why take biology when one can take a class on how to grow plants?).
The debate between those who argued for teacher-led education versus those who argued for student-led education was an outgrowth of the previous debate. The 'student-led' advocates (William Kilpatrick, Carl Rogers) rediscovered and revamped the Rousseauian idea that the best education is a non-coercive process of letting the student explore what she likes, and fostering her creativity. By contrast, the 'teacher-led' advocates (Leon Kandel, Michael Demiashkevich), believed that learning was as often an artificial process that necessitated the teacher being a teacher, and that part of s good education was learning things beyond what one would learn on one's ow.
In each debate, the progressives (utilitarians, student-led believers) won the day, often in spite of public outcry against them. In fact, one ironic theme in Ravitch's book is that while the progressives constantly invoked the word "democratic" to support their various cure-alls, the movement was, at every turn, undemocratic. Progressives always saw themselves as superior to the clamor of "reactionary" parents (who audaciously wanted their kids to learn subject-matter), were constant enthusiasts of tracking students at an early age by their predicted 'stations' in life, and constantly spoke of "creating a new social order," rather than educating independently-thinking students.
The undoubted hero of the book is William Bagley (an education philosopher that may have been John Dewey's most serious rival that is unjustly all but unheard of today). For his part, Dewey is portrayed as an out of touch intellectual whose "innocence was [often] comical" [p. 207) Many will object to this characterization of an educational icon, but Ravitch is certainly not the first to suggest that Dewey was entirely too aloof to articulate a philosophy with any real clarity.
Some negative reviewers comment that Ravitch's characterization of the various progressive movements is an unfair and mistaken straw-man. While I have only read a handful of the plentiful original sources she cites, it is difficult to see how an author who quotes so frequently from primary sources can be said to have gotten them (many unambiguous in meaning) wrong. My thoughts are that this book is a fair portrayal of progressivism, and that the reviewers may be mad because Ravitch is not afraid to mix history and polemic.
All in all, this is a stunning work for anyone who wonders how we got here - social promotion, self-esteem movement, flexible standards - from "there." Ravitch may have mixed history with polemic, but the book is well-researched history and necessary polemic. Ravitch's conclusion:
"If there is a lesson to be learned from the river of ink that was spilled in the education disputes of the twentieth century, it is that anything in education that is labeled a "movement" should be avoided like the plague. What American education most needs is not more nostrums and enthusiasms but more attention to fundamental, time-tested truths." (p. 453)