The Clare Spark Blog

May 28, 2011

Diane Ravitch and the higher “moderation”

Diane Ravitch with Jon Stewart, March 2011

[Added 5-29-2011: As I write this, the UFT and the NAACP are attacking charter schools and supporting multiculturalism.] Diane Ravitch (often considered the most astute historian and critic of educational reform) is now an opponent of charter schools.   This is how she ends her history of conflict in education policy in New York City:

[Ravitch, The Great School Wars, New York City, 1805-1973: A History of the Public Schools as Battlefield of Social Change (Basic Books, 1974):] “While the language of school wars relates to educational issues, the underlying contest will continue to reflect fundamental value clashes among discordant ethnic, cultural, racial, and religious groups. And this very fact underlines the importance of comity in the politics of education—comity, that basic recognition of differences in values and interests and of the desirability of reconciling these differences peacefully which the school itself aims to teach. The effort to advance comity, in educational affairs and in the affairs of the larger society, has always been at the heart of public education. Whatever their failings, whatever their accomplishments, the public schools have been and will be inescapably involved in the American search for a viable definition of community” (p.404).

Ravitch is writing from the higher moderation and hence inflicting the double bind that has been the theme of this website.  Yes, we have “fundamental value clashes”, but properly managed by a professionally disinterested elite, comity and community are attainable goals despite “discordant ethnic, cultural, racial, and religious groups.” Left out of this volatile yet potentially cooperative crucible is “class” difference. Yet it is upper class delinquency that she frequently mentions earlier in the book as the source of substandard ghetto schools in the big cities. Nowhere does she mention the unbounded search for truth as the aim of public education, nor does she criticize the notion of race, for that would offend parties to the Grand Reconciliation of E Pluribus Unum that Ravitch is advocating to the reader of her “history.” Ravitch does not want to be another Captain Ahab or any other opponent of state-imposed harmony.** Ravitch is no daughter of Eve, eating the forbidden apple of the Tree of Knowledge. Moral relativism does not disturb her sleep. Or perhaps it does, for it is my impression that she understands the contradictions in her work, but has chosen to paper them over for reasons I cannot fathom. This is a very insightful writer, and what I say here should not diminish her positive contributions.

Do I exaggerate about her moderation? Here is one section of her Wikipedia entry: “ Vincent N. Parrillo, author of Diversity in America, wrote, “She, too, emphasized a common culture but one that incorporated the contributions of all racial and ethnic groups so that they can believe in their full membership in America’s past, present, and future. She envisioned elimination of allegiance to any specific racial and/or ethnic group, with emphasis instead on our common humanity, our shared national identity, and our individual accomplishments.”

But racial theory is the sworn enemy to common humanity, let alone individuality: ask any “diversity” advocate. In the olden days when Hitler’s racial state was on the march, there was a significant debate in the West regarding the very notion of “race.” Yes, there were obvious physical variations among “races”, but to attribute common mental and character traits that were passed down through the genes was considered either proto-Nazi or misguided Lamarckianism. Even “ethnicity” was seen as a misunderstanding of the ancients (especially Herodotus), who, according to Julian Huxley in We Europeans, used ethnos to refer solely to a particular population, with no implication of national character or any other type of “national identity.”

Such beliefs in a shared bond between members of a “race” or “ethnicity” can only be mystical, not grounded in empirical fact. Yet that does not stop the “historians” of racial or ethnic conflict from writing books and playing leading roles in the formulation of national, state, and local policy, as is the case with Dr. Ravitch, or her humanist predecessor Robert M. Hutchins, whom she cites favorably in the last chapter of her big book, and in passing in other synoptic works. (See Hutchins and his colleague Paul Hoffman illustrating Also

If such historians of education are going to do the work usually done by empiricist historians, then they should do history, not theology.** As a subsidiary issue, freedom in the classroom is at stake, namely the willingness of the teacher to encourage the full range of debate where controversial matters are concerned, even if the students do not reach an agreeable consensus or “compromise” (see “comity” one of Ravitch’s favorite words).

Ravitch wanted to bring “different” communities together, though her means remain utopian. Today, because of the alliance between radical intellectuals of the Left with militant cultural nationalists (an alliance burnished in the late 1960s, but echoing Leninism), the project of the Left and masochistic Left-liberals is no longer community control in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, but the political imperative to demonstrate that foreign and domestic policies of the U.S. government are outgrowths of some essential American project of imperialism, patriarchy, capitalism, ecocide, racism and so on as the New Americanists claim (e.g. William Spanos Jr.) against the prior notion of American exceptionalism (which had to do with advancement through merit, not hereditary status). Such are the wages of the moderate men, or, as I prefer to name them, the corporatist liberals. Instead of incorporating dissenters and other troublemakers to defuse their militancy through “inclusion,” they have yielded the field to America’s most determined enemies. And it is the latter who have rehabilitated the once discredited notion of “race.”

For a related short blog, see

*[Ahab speaking in “The Quarter-Deck”:] “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.”

**After many chapters relating the internal contradictions of the evolving civil rights movement (e.g., color-blindness vs. color consciousness), Ravitch ends one of her essays with this appeal to “spirit”: “As a people, we are still far from that sense of common humanity to which the civil rights movement appealed. We may yet find that just such a spirit is required to advance a generous and broad sense of the needs and purposes of American society as a whole.” (See The Schools We Deserve, p.259.) This is a thoroughly idealistic conception that there is a “spirit” or any such entity as “American society as a whole.” Ravitch reminds me of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. who fretted about the fragmentation of America, wishing for unity even as material interests drive us apart. In another book, The Troubled Crusade, she writes that ” literacy” should be the aim of education, but does not spell out whether that skill should decode propaganda and false ideas. I gather that for Ravitch, literacy signifies that knowledge that advances “the public interest.” As a fan of Hutchins, she must ally herself with the Platonic Guardians–an antidemocratic and ultimately anti-intellectual position.


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  5. Your critique of Ravitch and the “double-bind” is dead-on as far as I can see. But are you implying a better alternative? Am I oversimplifying if I suggest that we either A) aim for comity and cultural unification of people who are diverse at the outset of public education, or, B) allow the chips to fall where they may, and presumably allow aspirations to “comity”–or even “community”–to slip away from us.

    B scares me more. It is the threat of faction, after all, that Madison and Hamilton articulated so clearly in the Federalist Papers.

    But all that said, I really can’t think of a better way. It seems like a losing game to me: isn’t that what a “double-bind” is?

    Comment by Casey — June 22, 2011 @ 2:25 pm | Reply

    • I don’t know what Casey means by diversity. But I do know that we sadly underestimate the capacity of children to learn. I refer you to the current controversy in NYC over charter schools, in which the AFT and the NAACP have sued the city because they can’t abide the competition. So I favor choice and competition, and also upping the standards in teaching all children. “Diversity” has come to signify difference among groups that makes “comity” impossible. I saw videos of black and brown parents defending their charter schools because they and their kids are so hungry for knowledge. It could break your heart.

      Comment by clarespark — June 22, 2011 @ 2:31 pm | Reply

      • Yes, “diversity” is a loose word at best, however we try to read it. It’s either racial/genetic or it has to do with differences in ideologies. For me, it’s a much more interesting & difficult problem if we take it as indicating the co-existence of multiple “cultures” within a (supposedly, or ideally, unified) community. Today, of course, this often appears in the “race, class, gender” curriculum (“multiculturalism”) that is replacing History as we once knew it, and I think that we’re all so sensitive about those issues–either for or against–that it’s difficult to process the “problem,” or double-bind, that we’re trying to figure out.

        So Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10: “A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.” Aside for the laughable possibility that a faction might clamor for paper money, it’s these kinds of “incongruencies” within the Union that threaten to end it. Skin color is obviously incidental–but the differences in culture associated with “Black/White/Red” really exist, and are significant.

        One response is to teach one narrative (probably the European, I suppose?) to all “peoples” in an effort to create a unified crew. In fact, did you ever consider the chapter where Melville describes the whale’s vision as producing two separate images? That’s it!–that’s this poly-logism (Mises called it), and the multiculturalism that follows. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

        The multiculturalists seem to think that we can teach multiple narratives at once, and somehow not lose the Union. But then the obvious question is: what unifies “us?”

        Comment by Casey — June 23, 2011 @ 11:02 pm

  6. I have only just come across your blog and recognize that I will have to spend much time absorbing what you discuss in your posts (something that I look forward to,) but my first thoughts in reading your About page, I wondered what your thoughts on Ruth Benedict were, especially since you discuss cultural anthropology and all the uses and manipulations that have become multiculturalism. I have a degree in anthropology (I was only an average student) and while I love the subject, have long been disturbed by undercurrents moving through the various interpretations of cultural anthropology, namely in how multiculturalism has led to the utter chaos in our society, rather than growth and peace. It appears your blog is attempting to address the same and I look forward to spending time reading it.

    Comment by Sharon Ferguson — May 30, 2011 @ 2:58 pm | Reply

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