The Clare Spark Blog

July 9, 2015

Harvard’s advocacy of “simplicity” as remedy for failing schools

Leadershipfreak come-on

Leadershipfreak come-on

Education reform hasn’t changed much on the “Left” despite a few conservatives railing against “Common Core.” But Harvard’s Graduate School of Education (which I attended 1958-59), isn’t worried about the lamentable and fragmented state of public education, but is suggesting “simplicity” as the winning answer. Even Diane Ravitch, an advocate for teachers unions lately, is too hard for them:

[Ed, summer issue 2015, author Lory Hough:] Education isn’t easy. In fact, in its formal state, it’s probably one of the most complex, challenging things we do in our society, especially now, given the growing diversity of our student body and greater amounts of information students are expected to know. As Diane Ravitch wrote a few years ago in the Los Angeles Times, “There are no simple solutions, no miracle cures to those problems. Education is a slow, arduous process that requires the work of willing students, dedicated teachers, and supportive families, as well as a coherent curriculum.” Yet, does it always need to be so complex? [My emph. The opening salvo goes on to hold up Steve Jobs as role model.]

Yes, this paean to progressive clarity was published by one of the two most prestigious schools of graduate education in the country (the other being Columbia U.).  Here is a complete list of the headlines that top 21 multi-colored boxes (blue, green, turquoise, grey) in the article that lauds simple solutions to admittedly complex problems; they are listed in order of appearance:

“Be Kind”; “Start The High School Day Later”; “Teach Students To Ask Their Own Questions”; “Simplify The Financial Aid Form”; “Slow Down”; “Make Meetings More Useful”; “Use Checklists”; “Greet People Warmly”; “Let Students Move”; “Revamp The Open House”; Replace Timeout  With A Safe Place”; “Find Similarities”; “Use Texting To Keep College-Bound Students On Track”; “Help With Transportation”; “Include Dads”; “Install A Buddy Bench”; “Create Student Crews”; “Ask Outside Groups For Help”; “Use Personal Stories To Motivate Students”; “Make Space Flexible”.

A large box illustrated with a light bulb invites interactivity: “What simple ideas have you found that work? Link to this article on Facebook or Twitter and post your thoughts!”

I wish I could say that I am making all this up. For my prior blogs on Diane Ravitch and other writers on reform, see They are assuredly too complicated for most readers.

9/12/2012 West Chicago teachers' strike

9/12/2012 West Chicago teachers’ strike

May 26, 2013

Eva Moskowitz and the Charter School Movement

Eva Moskowitz

Eva Moskowitz

Last week I attended the first benefit gala for the Success Academy Charter schools initiated by Eva Moskowitz. My son Daniel S. Loeb was being honored, and Chris Christie, Governor of the State of New Jersey was the keynote speaker. Wall Street heavies and some major Republicans were present by the hundreds, as were many of the young principals of the various Charter Schools.

The Governor said flat out that if we did not rescue America’s public schools, the republic was finished, and I could not agree with him more. Christie, like many other activists on behalf of quality free education for all, sees the teachers unions as the chief obstacle to achieving this goal. Sadly, teachers unions have defended teachers, no matter how inept and unqualified, at the expense of learners in our country. Indeed, the teachers unions are major supporters of the Democratic Party, and numerous authors have identified the powerful wealthy Democrats (e.g. Mark Zuckerberg, Bill and Melinda Gates) who have poured wasted money into ed reform, for none of these billionaires will go up against the teachers unions or their defender Diane Ravitch. (For my blogs on Ravitch and Democratic Party reformers see Steve Brill’s book is mostly about Eva M. and worries that she will burn out. Brill, a Democrat, thinks that Randi Weingarten can be reformed!)

I find it very mysterious why the high priority given to free public education by Governor Christie and Dan Loeb (like Charles Sumner and other enlightened Americans who came before us), is not widely shared. One can understand why unqualified, underperforming teachers defend tenure and pensions, but how to account for the indifference of parents and grandparents, or of all citizens, many of whom complain about the great dumbing down of our culture and sense an irreversible decline of American leadership in the world?

A brief recollection: when I moved to Los Angeles in 1959, I taught chemistry and biology at Los Angeles High School. Noting that there were no after-school clubs like the one I enjoyed at Forest High School in Queens, New York, I proposed a Philosophy Club, with much student support (and LA High at the time was black, brown, Asian, and Jewish mostly). I was called “that commie Jew from the East” in one anonymous letter deposited in my mailbox, which appalled me as I was mostly apolitical at that time. I recall that my best student was a black boy in chemistry. I never thought that there was anything wrong with the brains of my “colored” students, either in Los Angeles or at Jamaica High School in Long Island where I had taught in the Spring semester of 1958. Eva Moskowitz’s charter schools in NYC have borne out my views that lazy teachers and inadequate expectations for performance of minority children, not racial differences in intelligence, are responsible for low graduation rates and poor student performance in inner city schools in America.

Here is how Wikipedia describes the pioneering efforts of Eva Moskowitz:

And here are the objectives of Moskowitz’s “lesson plan” in a booklet handed out to all attendees of this inspirational gala on May 22, 2013:

[Item:] Make schools magical places—warm, colorful, joyous—where the curriculum is rigorous, the pace is fast, the bar is high, and boredom is banished.

[Item:] Inspire kids to read, to write, to imagine, to build, to invent, to work, to think. [Eva told me once that early on, students read poems and extract the message of the poem: could anything be better than reading comprehension, including understanding the subtext and messages of great literature?]

[Item:] Invest in excellent teaching, with support and coaching and an unprecedented commitment to professional development.

[Item:] Introduce children to the creative disciplines and elations of art.

[Item:] Enlist parents as partners in schooling and as advocates for education reform.

[Item:] Teach chess and daily discovery-based science, so that scholars grow up to find better ways forward.

[Item:] Give every child access to great public schools and provide every family with great educational choices.

[Item:] Empower a generation of children to achieve their dreams.

[Item:] Transform a nation at risk to a nation of hope and opportunity.

[Item:] Change public education—for good.

In New York State testing, this is how Success Academy Charter Schools have performed: 96% passed 2012 NYS Math Exam; 88% passed 2012 English Exam; 100% passed 2011 Science Exam. In Math, English, and Science, Eva’s schools were beaten only by Anderson, “the most selective Gifted and Talented public school in NYC.”

For more sources on this subject, see the following references: ( A Trotskyist organization attacks Eva Moskowitz and her project.)

Success Academy

May 3, 2012

Index to blogs on education reform

ad for Spinoza toy

This series of blogs not only reviews  recent work on the reform of our education system, but points out disagreements in what is wrongly considered to be a unified establishment. Some of the blogs also insist upon the materialist epistemology of the Constitution. Culture warriors take note! (Read this one first) (my correspondence with Ravitch, contrasting Ravitch with Gary Nash) (retitled Diane Ravitch and the higher moderation) (A review of Terry M. Moe’s new book) (On the great dumbing down) (On Common Core curriculum)

Arne Duncan and Obama at play

August 31, 2011

Review: Steven Brill’s Class Warfare

Eva Moskowitz and Joel Klein

Steven Brill, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix American Schools. New York. Simon and Schuster, 2011. $28. 441 pages.

[Added, 3-16-12: thanks to Larry Sand for this reference: It is about Milton Friedman’s campaign for school choice.]

I have spent many days reading Brill’s book, and my free copy (sent to his followers by education reformer Whitney Tilson) is heavily dog-eared, annotated with objections, and exclamation points. Since it purports to be an inside account of attempts “to fix America’s schools” that will appeal to those interested in the interactions between bureaucrats, government or union officials, and other technocrats operating within the Democratic Party, this review will focus on the major message of Brill’s efforts. I should also preface the review by saying that Brill’s attempt at moderation, along with his careful distancing from [union-busting] conservatives, may be a ploy, for he is appealing to union-loving liberals, including teachers, to reform themselves to the point that accountability and a meritocracy may be furthered by his revelations of shocking behavior all around, shocking at least to those not familiar with the education wars in their latest manifestation: the teachers’ unions offensive against the charter school movement.

The headline for my readers is this: there is a hard-fought battle within the Democratic Party (along with Republican moderates such as Rupert Murdoch and Jeb Bush) going on, regarding the failure of American public education. Powerful Democrats, egged on ostensibly by our education president, Barack Obama, and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, are outraged that students in developed countries are way ahead of American students when tested for proficiency in science and math. Several liberal foundations, most famously the Bill and Melinda Gates and Eli Broad Foundations, along with hedge fund managers such as Whitney Tilson, have been attempting to impose a business model upon the profession of education. That is, they would like the 3.2 million schoolteachers, K-12, to be measured for their performance, and held to high standards. Brill, in conversation with Diane Ravitch, described their objectives as accountability and meritocracy, as opposed to the current heavily unionized profession that protects teachers’ jobs, not student learning.

There is a heated interchange on C-SPAN Books, August 1, 2011 (linked here:, in which the redoubtable Ravitch, in her own words an ex-conservative (!)* attempts to diminish Brill’s heroes, such as charter school founders, e.g. Eva Moskowitz, whose remarkable Harlem Success charter network has demonstrated that minority children can, through a well-thought out set of strategies (for instance, learning to discern the main message of a text), ace tests that their public school competitors fail; indeed her remarkable accomplishments and tenacity fill out his book. But Brill, as his long book ends, worries that Moskowitz’s rigorous demands on teachers and students alike will cause her [and her victims] to burn out. That leads him to suggest that 1. teachers in K-12 schools get higher pay, but 2. that they also sign on to no more than five or ten year careers, for he can’t imagine either Moskowitz or her teachers making a lengthy career of teaching school, virtually defying the low expectations that prior educators have had for blacks and Latinos in such neighborhoods as Harlem and environs.

There are theoretical and practical problems with Brill’s general approach. 1. He can’t make up his mind as to whether teachers are professionals or workers, to be lumped in with firemen, policemen, and other state sector employees. Yet on the C-SPAN dialogue with Ravitch, he wants teachers to be professionals, like other pros, measured for their performance. In my view, teachers should see themselves as middle management, dependent on social forces and institutions that attempt to dictate their methods and aims, sometimes ambiguously, so that they may be left to drift in a sea of uncertainty, hence unable either to help students learn or to please their supervisors. In a country like ours, filled with religious, sectional, and other long-standing conflicts, there is no curriculum that will please everybody.  Like other social democratic band-aid measures, the entire enterprise of education reform fails to examine the big picture that puts teachers in double binds: are they to prepare their students for a life of independent, critical citizenship, or for conformity to unknowable or shifting “standards” for the sake of “social cohesion”? Should there even be a federal Department of Education, or should all education be locally managed, with major funding derived from property taxes? If teachers are a profession, should they not be relatively autonomous in their classrooms, or are they to be cogs in a vast machine constructed by non-professionals?

And 2. Brill actually has a fantasy that Randi Weingarten, hitherto a reform-resistant teachers union leader and stalwart, should be appointed chancellor of the NYC school system, for, as an astute operator, she is most likely to be able to raise up the mediocre (or sub-mediocre?) majority of current teachers to heights that would please the Big Money education reformers, saving American progress in science and technology. Meanwhile, although Brill has demonstrated ad nauseum the intransigence of the union establishment,  he trashes Republicans such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker or “so-called right to work states” that defy Big Labor.  Given the hostile “interview” conducted by Ravitch for C-SPAN, it is hard to follow Brill’s logic of one big happy family, redeemed by such as himself, a non-teacher who has latched onto a scandal that can have no solution, given the premises of Big Government, its beneficiaries, and its electoral base.

By the end of their 59 minute sparring match on C-SPAN, Brill and Ravitch had come to an amicable ending, as Ravitch called for “collaboration” as opposed to competition [between charters and traditional public schools].  Such are the ways of “moderates.” There is no easy fix to the education problem. Both Brill and Ravitch adhere to a management-labor model of class warfare. Is it not time to leave this model behind as a relic of an earlier period of industrialization? Might not teachers look to new forms of solidarity? But that would mean a massive change of consciousness, and the relinquishing of such elite-driven intiatives as multiculturalism. The curriculum is everything. If Eva Moskowitz’s students can learn to decipher textual messages, study science in the earliest grades, along with chess (!), what might our youngsters accomplish with the encouragement of a student-focused teaching culture?

[Added 9-3-2011:] Larry Sand, education writer (see and founder of the Facebook group California Teachers Empowerment Network, has written this statement to suggest new directions for teachers dissatisfied with the unions: ” If teachers want to be thought of as professionals, they should resign from their union and convince as many of their colleagues as possible to join them. They should do everything in their power to eliminate collective bargaining, fight for an accountability system that would include teachers and administrators, fight for performance pay and fight to eliminate tenure and seniority. Teachers will lose some of their perks – notably all the safety nets that unions have provided for them, but they will gain a professional status that could rival that of doctors. They will have a chance to make a lot more money than they do now. Additionally, they will know that they are part of a system that is about educating children, not a jobs program for those who at this point graduate on average at the bottom of their college class. They will know that if they are good and layoffs are necessary, they will keep their jobs even if they have less seniority than a less effective colleague. They will have much more say in how their schools are run because they won’t have a one-size-fits-all bloated district-union contract monitoring their every move.”

*Ravitch may have been, in her own mind, a conservative Democrat, but she always floated above the fray, crafting a career that was just critical enough to qualify herself as an objective, analytical scholar. See my blog on her “higher moderation” here:

August 4, 2011

Carnegie Corp. and “the Negro problem”

Gunnar Myrdal and family, 1938

Diane Ravitch and other education historians frequently cite Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma as a landmark publication in the history of American reform, but they do not describe the fundor Carnegie Corporation’s explicitly anti-communist project. As with other social democratic initiatives, social cohesion, not structural reform and/or the search for truth, was the explicit aim of the massive Carnegie project.  In this blog, I excerpt a key passage in my published article on the subject, with some revisions. See Clare L. Spark, “Race, Caste, or Class? The Bunche-Myrdal Dispute Over An American Dilemma,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, Vol.14, No.2  (March 2001): 465-511. The reason for this post is not to support Bunche’s 1930s leftist strategies as my own today, but to emphasize that social democrats are and were anticommunists, and should never be conflated with revolutionary socialists. True, they are and were protofascist statists with an aristocratic mind-set, but there are degrees of statism, and we still have more than one political party.

[From my article:] The record suggests that Bunche was hired for the Carnegie study because as a leading black intellectual in command of the existing literature and research, he criticized anti-white black nationalist tendencies that would undermine the coming war effort; moreover Bunche’s participation at a high level made the project look inclusive and objective. These points are obvious, but more, as an experienced scholar-activist, he could draw clear boundaries between safe (co-optable) and potentially disruptive protest movements, a feat perhaps not within the competence of establishment social scientists, themselves removed from 1930s radical organizations with their shifting modes and memberships. This latter objective is explicitly spelled out in a letter from Louis Wirth to Samuel Stouffer, 31 August 1940, that illuminates the objectives of the Carnegie-Myrdal Study.[i]

Samuel Stouffer

Louis Wirth was very favorable to Bunche’s Ideologies memorandum, but his suggestions for revision were politically motivated, and are worth further quoting:

[Wirth:]”…4. I think the classification of ideologies needs more intensive work. The two major lines of thought explicitly recognized are (1) accommodation, (2) escapism. But actually the materials fall into at least three categories (1) accommodation (2) escapism (3) militancy. Surely, although some of the revolutionary ideologies are in part escapist, utopian and futile, still, they are activist and radically and militantly so. This needs stressing and is the major shortcoming of the organization of the materials as it now stands. Also, I think it might be well to distinguish between the ideologies that accept the fundamental premises upon which the present order rests and those that reject or transcend these premises. This amounts virtually to saying that a distinction should be made between caste-bound ideologies and those that repudiate caste. Likewise, a distinction should be made between those ideologies that accept the general socio-economic order and those that reject it (liberal democratic, capitalist, Christian, nationalism vs. a fascist or communist, or socialist internationalism). 5. In the concluding chapter the dominant trends might be emphasized: Whither are we going? This is a question that is fairly studiously avoided. 6. Finally the  compatibility or incompatibility of the different ideologies should be brought out. Which ones are in conflict with one another and which mutually reinforce one another? For any formulation of General Policy with reference to the Negro in America, which I assume is one of the ultimate objectives of the Carnegie-Myrdal Study, this demand is crucial.”

Wirth’s juxtaposition of “Christian” with (U.S.) “nationalism” as a counterpoint to the various “internationalist” ideologies he lists requires some examination: perhaps it reflected the German-Jewish immigrant’s obeisance to assimilation. I wonder if Wirth, a prominent urban sociologist, associated Jews with the Left. He might have been surprised by Bunche’s sharp attack on antisemitism in black nationalist organizations, recognizing that Bunche was writing from the Left.  Bunche had synopsized his article from the Journal of Negro Education, July 1939, in his memorandum “The Programs, Ideologies, Tactics And Achievements of Negro Betterment and Interracial Organizations,” Book #4 (765-770). In his “General Critique of Negro Organizations” Bunche criticized race consciousness and inwardness of the sort preached by Marcus Garvey and Carter Woodson.[ii]  Race pride was the black man’s burden: for the nationalists, white allies must think of the problem as Negroes think of them, or be rejected. Bunche objected,and then brought up the folly of “Negro anti-Semitism.”

Ralph Bunche, radical

[Bunche:] As long as the Negro is black and the white man harbors prejudice, what has the Negro to do with class or caste, with capitalism, imperialism, fascism, communism, or any other “ism?” (767) [The organizations, black, white, or mixed, share these characteristics:] “(1) adherence to policies of escape, based upon racialism and nationalism; (2) lack of mass support among Negroes, and mass appeal; (3) dependence upon white benefactors for finance; (4) reluctance to encourage the development of working class psychology among Negroes and avoidance of class interpretations; (5) tendency directly or indirectly, to take the main ideological cues from white sympathizers; (6) lack of a coherent, constructive program; (7) lack of broad social perspective and the ability to relate the problems of the Negro to the main social currents and forces of the American society; and (8) pursuit of policies of immediate relief and petty opportunism (767-68).

[Bunche, cont.] It is not surprising that the narrowly racial conceptions of the Negro have caused him to be seduced by anti-Semitism. He thinks only in terms of jobs for Negroes, business for Negroes, Negro landlords, bankers and employers, and vents his emotional spleen on the Jewish shopkeeper in the Negro neighborhood, who exploits the black trade quite as enthusiastically as would the black shopkeeper. The Negro anti-Semite does not reason, nor does it matter, that all Jews are neither shopkeepers nor prejudiced. It is sufficient that the Jew makes profit from a store in a Negro section that Negroes ought to work in, or that a Jewish professor holds a position at a Negro university that a Negro, if even a less competent one, should occupy. Such bigoted attitudes are deliberately nurtured by the self-seeking, sensitive Negro middle-class–the business and professional groups, who seek an economic base for their middle-class aspirations.

In view of the obvious implications for the Negro of this sort of blind, suicidal emotionalism, the certain truth that racial generalizations and prejudices are luxuries which the Negro can ill-afford, it is a bitter indictment of Negro organizations that none has been rational or bold enough to wage a vigorous campaign against Negro anti-Semitism. [No Negro organization is fighting fascism, comparing] fundamental racial and totalitarian dogmas, versus democracy, imperfect as it has been for minority groups (769).

Bunche then quoted Mein Kampf: “all that is not race in this world is trash.” (770) Writing with maximum urgency, he argued that nationalist politics must be abandoned; blacks should forge alliances with  progressive groups…developing the American society with a lush economic and political democracy in which there will be real opportunity and real life for all citizens (772).…facing facts and facts alone (773).” Without the broad view and social analysis he advocated, Bunche predicted that Negroes would be herded into ghettoes and concentration camps (770). In another publication, he recommended that Negroes and Jews should cooperate through their organizations to solve their common problems. [iii]

i. See inserted feedback on Ideologies volume (Bound volume, Bunche Papers, Box 80). Compare Charles Henry, RB, 104.

11. See Ideologies memo, p.11. Compare RJB to Mrs. A. L. Spaulding, n.d. ca 1935, Bunche Papers, Box 1, commenting on her plan for an Exposition: “Primarily I presume it would be your desire not to portray the
Negro as a separate and distinct group in the American society which has made some progress under adversity but rather to exhibit the fact that the American Negro has been an integral and contributing factor in the development of the peculiarly American civilization. That would free the plan from the stigma of furthering separatism, for which it might properly be criticized from some sources.”

111. Brian Urquhart Papers, UCLA, Box 1, mimeo of Bunche’s Forward to Wedlock’s “Anti-Semitism in the Negro Press,” dated 12/11/41.

August 3, 2011

Jobs program for education reformers, or, the New Prometheus

Lawrence A. Cremin

It is a terrific shock to move away from a close reading of The Federalist (with its nod to popular sovereignty and the age of Reason in the service of human material betterment) to anything written by such education historians as Diane Ravitch or her distinguished colleague Lawrence A. Cremin (1925-1990). Here is how Professor Cremin ended his Inglis and Burton Lectures at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, March 1989:

[Cremin, Popular Education and its Discontents, p.123-25:] “More than ever before in our history, we need systematic, dependable knowledge about teaching and learning in school and non-school contexts, concerning elementary and advanced subject matter, and with respect to the extraordinary range of racial, religious, and ethnic groups that constitute the American people. We need basic research, applied research, and policy research from a variety of disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives; we need to know much more than we now know about how to put the results of that research into the hands of practitioners during their initial training and throughout their careers; and we need to learn how to draw practitioners far more closely into the conduct of that research than we have in the past. In short, we can no longer proceed on the time-honored assumption that some youngsters will inevitably fail in school and that some adults will inevitably remain illiterate and ignorant.* Yet we face the stark fact that while the Department of Defense has a research budget that represents some 12% of its total budget, the Department of Education has a research budget that represents just under 2% of its total budget. Until this situation is changed markedly, it is sheer nonsense to talk about excellence in American education. Ultimately, I believe the sponsorship of educational research on a large-scale and enduring basis must become a prime responsibility of the federal government.

In the end, we must place our education programs on a sufficiently solid basis of tested knowledge so that educational opportunity for all people becomes a genuine opportunity to master the knowledge and skills and to learn the values, attitudes, and sensibilities that will enable them to live happily and productively in the modern world. What is at stake is our vision of the kinds of human beings we would hope Americans to be in the last years of the twentieth and the first years of the twenty-first centuries, and of the kinds of education that will help bring these human beings into existence. John Dewey liked to define the aim of education as growth, and when he was asked growth toward what, he liked to reply, growth leading to more growth. That was his way of saying that education is subordinate to no end beyond itself, that the aim of education is not merely to make parents, or citizens [!], or workers, or indeed to surpass the Russians or the Japanese, but ultimately to make human beings who will live life to the fullest, who will continue to add to the quality and meaning of their experience and to their ability to direct that experience, and who will participate actively with their fellow human beings in the building of a good society. To create such an education will be no small task in the years ahead, but there is no more important political contribution to be made to the health and vitality of the American democracy and of the world community of which the United States is part.” [end Cremin lecture]

[My comments:] Mind you, both Cremin and Ravitch continually complain that Americans have millennial expectations of their public schools, expecting them to compensate for problems not of their making, such as poverty, unequal housing, and racism:  he left that part out of his (millennial) concluding remarks. Note too how completely Cremin has discarded American Exceptionalism as understood in the debates over ratifying the Constitution, with their emphasis on a citizenry prepared to rationally deliberate upon the great questions facing the uniquely constituted republic. But in Cremin’s dream, we are to be both part of a “world community” and members of a racial, religious, or ethnic group—diverse in our groupiness, and yet pursuing happiness and meaning in our particular, if unspecified, individual ways. “Research” conducted with diverse methods and perspectives, yet mystically harmonized by the Department of Education-approved pioneers, can light the way to the great, enduring fulfillment.

For a more recent statement advancing the same agenda, see

*This is a very odd statement coming from Cremin, as the notion of universal education had been promoted for centuries. Both he and Ravitch were heavily influenced by Robert M. Hutchins, an originator of socially responsible capitalism (see chapter 9 of Hunting Captain Ahab or this excerpt on the website:, and who was in turn inspired by Comenius (1592-1670) (, the influential advocate of the universal education that would ‘perfect human nature.’ In Hutchins’s The Learning Society (1968), he defines the purpose of education in terms that Cremin and Ravitch would understand: “…education leads to understanding; it has no more ‘practical’ aim. It does not have as its object the ‘production’ of Christians, democrats, Communists, workers, citizens, Frenchmen, or businessmen. It is interested in the development of human beings through the development of their minds. Its aim is not manpower, but manhood.” (vii). And yet, further on, Hutchins suggests that the experiment with universal education in the Soviet Union should be applied to “Bantus of Africa or even among the Negroes of of Harlem or Mississippi.” Moreover, he has hopes for the Communist Chinese experiment. (14) [end, Hutchins excerpts] This is confusing, because Hutchins has in mind a liberal education that will free the mind of everyone from a modernity that is one-sidedly technical and obsessed with engineering, science, and  economics. He writes like a 1960s radical (he actually quotes Jacques Ellul, and echoes Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man), as a New Leftist or even a New Age mystic. Hence, the new Prometheans are the education reformers who free mankind from slavery to technique/technics! Imagine that. When you return the secret of fire to the gods, what have you got left in your new freedom? Certainly not the Enlightenment that inspired The Federalist.

It is but a short step from Hutchins’ spiritualized, defanged modernity to the ethical state favored by Italian Fascists and their progressive sympathizers in the U.S. Richard Crossman was correct in his Plato Today to propose that Platonic philosopher kings would be at home in the totalitarian societies of the 1930s.

July 17, 2011

Literary criticism, Ravitch variant

John Martin’s Satan in Council, the engraving owned by Melville

[Before you read this, see, retitled “Diane Ravitch and the higher moderation.”]

Here is a quote from Diane Ravitch’s The Language Police (Knopf, 2003). She writes “Most state standards say that literature is to be read by students for a social or political message, as though every poem or novel is meant to be a social or political commentary rather than an expression of the writer’s emotional, spiritual, or aesthetic concerns…The study of literature as knowledge and as art is either missing from the standards or has been supplanted by utilitarian concerns.” (p.124)

Such statements make me tear my hair. Every author, no matter the subject matter, is situated in some particular relationship with the dominant cultural and political trends of a specific historical context; they may affirm or reject dominant values, but they do not stand above the fray, with the affected neutrality of state-appointed mediators. If a writer’s book or poem is heavily influenced by a previous author from a different period, as, say, Melville was responding to Milton’s Paradise Lost in Moby-Dick, it is not because of aesthetics alone, but because a certain unresolved philosophical issue remains current and problematic to Melville. In his case, it was the matter of moral accountability and the limits of human agency: were his actions predestined or chosen freely? The question of moral action could not have been more relevant to the period of composition for Moby-Dick: the slavery question was already dividing the Republic, along with Melville’s own family as the decades wore on. And then there is the issue of patronage, irrelevant to Ravitch’s declaration of war against extra-aesthetic or extra-“literary” readings. In the case of Melville, writing his Supplement to Battle-Pieces during the intial year of Reconstruction, patronage was everything, for his support group was entirely conservative Democratic (though a very few of his relatives stood with the Radical Republicans like Sumner and Stevens, but the sprinkling of “radicals” did not affect his pocketbook; see

Ravitch is complaining about bowdlerization and abridgment as perpetrated by “puritan” “perfectionists” of both Left and Right, and I am with her as she complains about pervasive censorship in textbooks and speech codes. But to throw in this plea for literariness is reactionary, but it does line her up with the moderates I dissected here: So, in spite of her oeuvre standing athwart the general protocols of moderate progressives,* Ravitch is revealed as an organic conservative, unwilling to open literary texts to students, not matter  how much she may complain about the language police,  heading her chapters with epigraphs from George Orwell and Ray Bradbury. She has her own axe to grind, and it doesn’t serve young readers, though she would like to introduce them to our “common humanity,” speaking to us today across the vast reaches of “time and space.”

What are the implications for teachers of English or any other language that delves into the literary inheritance? It is impossible to teach literature as an artifact plucked from history and held up to scrutiny in the classroom, wiped clean of its historical referents. Teachers at every level need to be well-grounded in the humanities, with an understanding of competing ideologies at the time of the artwork’s production. It is hard to find such persons today, for the Left has captured the relevant terrain.  Will classical liberals meet that challenge and develop their own objective, courageously analytic approach to the teaching of our literary and cultural heritage? Or will it abandon the field to censors from the Left, Right, or Middle? How will they teach Milton’s Paradise Lost, if at all, for it remains one of the seminal texts of modernity. For most of the 20th century, Melville’s annotations to Book IX, approving of some of Satan’s arguments in the seduction of Eve, remained sequestered from scholarly and public eyes. These lines had to do with the accountability of rulers to the ruled, as viewed by a radical puritan, as Milton undoubtedly was. (See; some of Melville’s annotations to Paradise Lost are described at the bottom of the blog.)

Now teaching kids about that controversy would be a blow for artists and everyone else.

*Compare to this statement on p.163: ” The schools should be the great agencies of social and intellectual equality. This they cannot be unless they can give all children access to great literature and teach them the joy of reading. Reading is the key to future success; it builds vocabulary, it enriches the imagination, it opens new worlds. …What literature offers is a common denominator for understanding human experience; it allows human beings to recognize one another across time and space.” These are the banalities of the progressive movement: the religion of humanity (a kind of leveling and internationalism) has removed the stark differences of people in societies that do not allow dissent or the development of individual rights with those democratic republics that do encourage individuation, innovation, and critical thought. Although Ravitch is hostile to Gary Nash’s notion of European, Amerindian and African convergence in colonial America, she has her own version of community. It is a distinction without a difference.

June 23, 2011

The U.S. History establishment: divided and failing

Gary Nash, my teacher in colonial history at UCLA

This blog continues my survey of the U.S. history curriculum as taught in both public and private schools. Professor Diane Ravitch has given me permission to quote her correspondence with me today, June 23, 2011. Also included are statements on recent testing in U.S. history conducted by the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress, or National Assessment Governing Board). These materials are followed with some comments of my own.

[My first email to DR:] Dear Prof. Ravitch, I have just been reading a publication for which you were “principal writer”, publ. 1990 and copyrighted by the California Department of Education. I also have been studying a 1994 curriculum developed by the NAEP, reflective of the Gary Nash-Joyce Appleby efforts in establishing national history standards.
I am wondering if either of these publications is representative of your current thinking about curriculum K-12? It is not irrelevant that I received my Ph.D. in history at UCLA and am acquainted with both professors Nash and Appleby and know first-hand how they think about U.S. history and politics in general. I do know that the multicultural curriculum was strenuously opposed in the 1990s by conservatives, but it appears to have prevailed, if History News Network is any indication. (They are currently lamenting low scores in the NAEP tests.)
Also, since I see Revel’s _How Democracies Perish_ in the 1990 bibliography and was amazed, I am wondering if that was your idea, and if not, who put it there? (I admit that I greatly enjoyed that book.)
Thanks in advance for any response. I have now read four of your books and have learned a great deal about education reform. In my young adulthood I was a science teacher at the high school level, and was warned when I was at Harvard (Gr. School of Ed.) to be prepared to trash Arthur Bestor! [Bestor was a sharp critic of progressive education. CS] They offered me a second fellowship, this time in guidance, possibly because I fit their child-needs-centered aspirations for the schools. [end first email to Diane Ravitch]

[Ravitch response:] “I was not a member of the National Assessment Governing Board when the US history framework was adopted. I never liked that “3 worlds converge” theme as the opening of US history yet there it was in the NAEP framework. [See].

[In a follow-up letter, I asked Prof. Ravitch if she referred to this convergence model, that I characterized as “vintage Gary Nash” (with whom I had studied at UCLA). Her response: “It was vintage Gary Nash. The three worlds are: Amerindian, Africa and Europe. Traditional histories had started in Europe, looking at the ideas that informed the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Founders.” (My emphasis)]

Gary Nash's famous book, cover art

[First Ravitch email, continued:] As a member of the CA framework committee, I tried hard to strike a balance between demands for representation of every imaginable group and a coherent recapitulation of the evolution of American society. It was my contention that the US has a multicultural common culture. I had a large part in making sure that the world history was well-balanced and that students paid attention to human rights abuses in totalitarian countries. I probably did add that Revel book though frankly I don’t remember anymore. I was always very keen on the story of democracy as the unifying theme of US history. I think the CA framework has stood up well over the years.”
What follows is the results of recent testing in history, as conducted by the NAGB:  NAGB report (

The history assessment, a mix of multiple choice and constructed-response questions, was administered by the National Center for Education Statistics to nationally representative samples of public and private school students, including 7,000 fourth graders, 11,800 eighth graders and 12,400 twelfth graders.
Questions were designed to measure students’ knowledge and analytical skills in U.S. history in the context of four historical themes: democracy, including basic principles and core values developed from the American Revolution through the present; culture, focusing on how different racial, ethnic and religious groups interacted and the traditions that resulted; technology, focusing on the transformation of America’s economy from rural frontier to industrial superpower and its impact on society, ideas and the environment; and world role, the movement of America from isolationism to worldwide responsibility.

At grade 4, students who scored at or above the Basic level (73 percent) were likely to be able to interpret a map about the Colonial economy; students scoring at or above Proficient (20 percent) were likely to be able to understand that canals increased trade among states; students scoring at Advanced (2 percent) were likely to be able to explain how machines and factories changed work.

At grade 8, the 69 percent of students scoring at or above Basic were likely to be able to identify a result of Native American-European interaction; the 17 percent at or above Proficient were likely to be able to identify a domestic impact of war; the 1 percent at Advanced were likely to be able to explain two differences between plantations and small farms in the antebellum South.

At grade 12, the 45 percent of students scoring at or above Basic were likely to be able to understand the context of a women’s movement document. The 12 percent who scored at or above Proficient were likely to be able to understand Missouri statehood in the context of sectionalism; and the 1 percent who scored at Advanced were likely to be able to evaluate Civil War arguments. [End, excerpt from NAEB report]

Here is what Diane Ravitch had to say about the NAEP findings in her press release on their website:

“I have been advocating for better history curricula and instruction for the past 25 years. So when I first saw the upward movement in some of the NAEP scores in U.S. history, I felt excited and gratified.

But when I took a closer look at the patterns and the sample questions, I saw less reason for joy.The improvement in fourth-grade U.S. history is concentrated among the lowest-scoring groups, which is good news. But I suspect that the gains reflect an improvement in reading skills, not an improvement in knowledge of history. Fewer than half of the students at this grade level have had more than two hours a week devoted to social studies, which may or may not mean history. More likely, they have learned about a few iconic figures and major holidays. When fourth-grade students were asked to identify a photograph of Abraham Lincoln and give two reasons why he was important in American history, only 9 percent were able to do so. I suspect that many children recognized Lincoln but were not too sure about why he was important.

When children in this grade were asked the meaning of President Kennedy’s famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” about one-half correctly responded that it meant you should “use your skills to help the United States.” I am willing to bet that many more than half the fourth-graders have no idea who President Kennedy was, but about half were able to deduce the correct response by being able to read the question and the possible answers. Similarly, 43 percent of fourth graders correctly answered a multiple-choice question about a quote from Aung San Suu Kyi, the human rights leader in Myanmar. This probably happened not because the students had any idea who she was, but because the answer was contained in the question and the students could read well enough to figure it out.

It should concern us all that twelfth-graders’ knowledge of history has barely changed since 2001. This is found across almost every group that was sampled, including low-performing students, high-performing students, and those in the middle ranges. White high school seniors saw a score gain from 2001 to 2006, but not from 2006 to 2010. Among every other demographic group, average scores have been virtually flat over the past nine years.

History should inform our political decision-making and intelligence. In 2010, seniors were asked about the Brown decision of 1954, which is very likely the most important decision made by the U.S Supreme Court in the past seven decades. Students were given an excerpt including the phrase, “We conclude that in the field of public education separate but equal has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” NAEP asked, “What social problem was Brown v. Board of Education supposed to correct?” The answer was right in front of them, yet only 2 percent of the students in the sample were able to give a complete answer, and another 26 percent offered only a partial answer. The rest gave an inappropriate response or didn’t answer. This is alarming. Bear in mind that virtually every student takes American history, usually in the eleventh grade.

It’s worth noting that of the seven school subjects tested by NAEP, history has the smallest proportion of students who score Proficient or above in the most recent results available. Among twelfth graders, for example, only 12 percent reach Proficient in U.S. history, compared to 21 percent in science, 24 percent in both civics and writing, 25 percent in geography, 26 percent in mathematics, and 38 percent in reading. As the report explains, Proficient on NAEP means “solid academic performance … [that] demonstrates competency over challenging subject matter.” It expresses the Governing Board’s judgment of what students should know and be able to do in a particular subject and grade, not the current weak averages for grade level performance.

Why does history matter? All of these students will be voters in a year, and almost 40 percent were already eligible to vote when they took the assessment. They will be making decisions in the voting booth that influence our lives. They should be well informed and capable of weighing the contending claims of candidates, especially when the candidates rest their arguments on historical precedent.

The results of this assessment tell us that we as a nation must pay more attention to the teaching of U.S. history. We should make sure that there is time for it in the school day, that those who teach it have a strong history education, that there is time for students to write research papers and to use primary source documents and documentaries, and that schools have the resources they need to engage students in this important study.” [end Ravitch press release]

[My comments on all the above:] In a recent blog on several of Diane Ravitch’s books, I criticized her for putting community cohesion above the search for truth. I honestly do not know where to locate her on the political spectrum other than in the moderate center, for though she is highly critical of the New Left and of black nationalism in The Troubled Crusade (as she was above in her rejection of Gary Nash’s formulation of early colonial history), she does not take her critique to its logical conclusion. In other words, she should be defending the Enlightenment without conceding any value to cultural nationalism. Ravitch is a hard-working historian and her detailed accounts of education history are very useful to me. But as is evident from her continued attempt to reconcile a “common culture” and “multiculturalism,” in a search for “balance,” she betrays the rationalism that she also defends. See, retitled “Diane Ravitch and the Higher Moderation.”

To conclude with some of my own observations on the state-mandated California history curriculum as devised and published in 1990: The thorny historical problems that are presented from kindergarten through the twelfth grade are nowhere accompanied by the understanding of basic economics that would lift the study of U.S. history above the level of “culture”. (It is beyond the scope of this blog to mention the need for basic science as well.) Economics does not enter the curriculum until the second semester of the twelfth grade! Nor is it clear why history and social studies should be joined at the hips, unless it is indeed the objective of the curriculum is to privilege duties to the “community” over an agreed upon set of facts. And undisputed facts are the necessary basis of “rights.” If not, our entire legal system would collapse. Again, I believe that Diane Ravitch is sincere in her advocacy of human rights, but she has, in my view, caved in to the very forces she has criticized so eloquently in the past; e.g. militant black nationalism and/or “The Language Police.”

As Ravitch shows in her press release (reproduced above), her model for community obligation is John Kennedy’s famous inaugural address, in which he passionately reminded a national audience that they owed something (not specified) to their country. For a different model of liberal nationalism, see Charles Sumner’s writings on limited government and the need for a popular education of the highest quality. (See See also, especially the asterisk explaining “cultural syncretism.”

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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