There’s a moment halfway through Diane Ravitch’s 1977 book The Revisionists Revised when, pausing to praise the historian Selwyn K. Troen, Ravitch levels the most succinct critique of the Marxist / Critical Theory movement that I have ever read:
“Troen tries to understand the issues as they were understood at the time. He does not compromise his own sensibility, nor does he chide people of another era for lacking his values and knowledge. His work stands in contrast to that of radical historians, who offer moralistic condemnation instead of understanding, and hindsight instead of insight.”
Ravitch is not writing about the critical theorists, per se. The “radical historians” she’s talking about (and whom she’s referencing in the book title) are actually the predecessors to the modern critical theory movement in education. They are the first wave of Marxist (or neo-Marxist) ed writers of the late 1960s and early 70s, members of the “New Left”: Michael Katz, Colin Greer, Joel Spring, Walter Feinberg, and Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis. But she might as well be writing about all of their progeny, too, all of the critical theorists who have come since then and whose work is ascendent in education and in the broader American society.
Back when I was kayaking a lot, I remember being awed by the idea that men and women in the past — guys I knew who were in their 40s or 50s — had kayaked their way down the rivers that my friends and I, in our twenties, using modern equipment, and with the benefit of decades of knowledge, still considered complex and dangerous undertakings. Yet the old men of the past had run those huge rapids in fiberglass boats wearing wool sweaters and homemade splash tops. I would look up at the steep walls and look back at the steep whitewater just behind me, mentally and physically taxed, and I’d give a quick nod of respect for the guys who’d gone down first. Their means of solving those problems — the same lines they’d taken, the same reasoning they’d used — were still valid. They had been there before, and we were wise to have listened to what they said. Yes, we needed to discover the place for ourselves, and there was not only a thrill but a real sense of discovery and of uncertainty to running hard rivers — even if they’d been run before. Yet that thrill of doing it ourselves was always, for me, balanced against a great respect for the wisdom of the past, which was only heightened the more I tried to take on myself. There was great kinship with the old masters of the great rivers and creeks — those men who’d set their boats in the same waters and looked down on the same mountains of white water. We were in those moments connected across the years through this common pursuit.
That to me is the thrill of perennialism: you can use the past to understand the patterns and the best solutions to the present. However, the present is new and different enough that there still exists a great, important challenge in applying the lessons of the past to guide one’s future course.
Alright, I may be going off the deep end here, but I am driving at something.
It is the same thrill that I once found in reading old river accounts that I find now by reading old books. I had this experience to a large degree this week while reading this Ravitch book, just her second one, written in a very different era. It is really something to run across a whole book’s worth of insights in which someone has essentially answered the entire movement that today sometimes seems unanswerable. Specifically, I think that this book has taught me just how to respond to a particular line of Marxist / critical theory reasoning that seems both influential (in education and politics) yet deeply deceptive and even pernicious. I felt the same way about the conservative ed stuff (economic competitiveness, test prep, charter schools) during the Arne Duncan era: there’s something wrong here, I just can’t quite put my finger on it. Fortunately there was a ton of great pushback from a variety of influential thinkers and writers which helped draw out both the movements shortcomings and the places where it might have had a point. The difference now is that it sometimes seems like there’s no one in the ed community who really cares to critique critical theory. It’s as though because the educational establishment is so overwhelmingly liberal — aided by the life-during-wartime feel of the Trump era (a feeling I shared) — that nobody smart was really offering much in the way of smart conservative pushback. In fact, it often begins to feel as though there is no such thing.
I think that’s been bad for critical theory. What’s needed is some smart critique and some smart historical context to help shed light on the merits and demerits of the ideas that are shaping this movement. Too often though it does seem to me as though it’s still not respectable to offer much in the way of critique. Given the exigencies of the Trump era, that’s understandable, I suppose, but stumbling across a book that did so — and did so persuasively, dispassionately, and astutely — especially a book from so long ago, was deeply illuminating to me. What it did — and I think this is one the best uses of education (or self-education, in my case) — is to teach me how to respond to some of the classic, influential, hard-to-rebut (for me) arguments. This is how you do it — this is how you respond. Again, that’s not to say that I fully disagree with all of it, just that now I know how to respond: thesis and antithesis . . . that’s how you get beyond. That’s how you move to the next place, to the higher understanding . . . hopefully.
I kept having this flashback to The West Wing as I read Ravitch. In one episode, the fictional president is bothered that an old political rival is running for local school board; when asked how he beat this challenger, who is alluded to as a religious bigot, the president does not remember. “How’d you beat him?” asks an advisor. “I don’t remember.” Then at the end of the show, after dressing down a bigoted religious talk show host by skillfully demonstrating the inconsistencies of a literal interpretation of scripture, the president turns to his advisor.
“Toby,” he says. “That’s how I beat him.”
To this day, Diane Ravitch is a controversial figure in education. She has gone in and out of favor over the last 40 years, serving as Undersecretary of Education under the first President Bush, advocating for national standards, then for the No Child Left Behind act, then famously changing her mind, turning against NCLB, and breaking with the conservative ed movement. She spoke at my ed school graduation in 2010 and gave an electrifying speech encouraging us to “distrust data” (a heretical statement then; I wish I could find this talk now). Now in her 80s, she is still productive, still writing books, still blogging daily. She has become a no-holds-barred advocate for public education against the forces of privatization, allied very much with the political liberals against the reforms of the Bush, Obama, and Trump years. That in itself is interesting because back in 1977 (and certainly into the next 25 years, she was writing in a more “conservative” vein.
To be honest, I do not read her modern work anymore. Five years ago, she descended into repetitiveness, over and over attacking the same foes using the same arguments, the big tech firms and the privatizers, the “billionaire boys club” as she put it. I appreciate it, I find it valid, but I’ve heard it by now.
But back in 1977 — responding to the emerging trend that today seems ever-present — she was at the top of her game, taking on a movement that nobody wanted to or knew how to. And as I read her book, I kept thinking about that West Wing episode: This is how you beat them. (Or at least understand them and move beyond them.)
Once again, the “them” she is talking about are the Marxist or neo-Marxist historians writing in the late 1960s and early 70s. Ravitch contrasts the Marxists (the “radicals” as she calls them) with the liberal revisionists writing in the education in the 60s — Larry Cremin and Bernard Bailyn. Both groups were engaged in reevaluating the formative years of the Progressive era, times when the American school system was largely developed into its present form. We continue to live with its effects today. This era was considered untouchable for sometime, according to Ravitch, because its noble progressive ideals were largely shared and held sacred by most educational historians. This alone seemed fascinating: Living 45 years later, it seems unusual to regard the Progressive era in this way, which is only a testament, I think, to the power of the revisionists Ravitch describes.
Either way, Cremin and Bailyn, according to Ravitch, were engaged in a liberal inquiry that sought to understand the past not as a triumphant rise from darkness and ignorance to light and wisdom (as embodied in the celebratory histories of the period, such as the writings of Elwood Clubberly), but as a complex, seminal period in education that needs to be more carefully understood. The liberal revisionists questioned the notion that public schools were an uncritical success at solving a variety of social and political problems. Both historians in this tradition sought to widen the study of the period by broadening the definition of educating institutions beyond schools. I wrote about this in my blog the other week about Cremin — an approach that both I find today and found Ravtich, in 1977, insightful and liberating. Ravitch does address several valid critiques of this approach, but by and large she admires it as one that gets closest to the truth and which opens promising new veins for subsequent inquiry. Having read three books by Cremin now (with Bailyn’s major work on my shelf), I largely agree.
Here’s where the book gets interesting. Ravitch then compares the liberal approach with that of the “radical” historians, whose work, in contrast to the approach of the liberals (which complicates our understanding of the past in trying to arrive at a more nuanced understanding) merely inverts the optimism of Clubberly and the like into the cynicism of the present. Radical historians, she writes, “sought to expose and rebut the pietistic, patriotic spirit of the older historiography, but in doing so they are at least as absorbed in institutional history as the older historians and just as likely to view history as a morality tale, which” — in contrast to the earlier view of history “as the public school beneficently realizing itself over time” — “from the radical perspective, reveals the baleful influence of the public school realizing itself over time” (30). Zing!
This is where I started to sit up. Ravitch’s critique feels incredibly modern. I am thinking here about the parallels to today, both within educational history but even within the broader debate around American history. It’s hard not to think about efforts like the NYT’s 1619 Project as examples of just this sort of radical revisionism: the mirror opposite of the narrow patriotic “Great Men” approach (in itself largely a straw man argument), it is just as moralistic but in the opposing direction. This, I am starting to understand, is a critical tenet of critical theory: the idealistic normative vision of the world. There is nothing wrong with desiring a better world (in fact we all do), but moralism gets in the way of observing reality says Ravitch. I agree.
Even more importantly, for Ravitch, these radical historians represent a “rejection of liberal values and liberal society” because they see efforts of past reformers (who sought incremental progress through persuasion and compromise) as not only inadequate, but as representing — at least in the form of public education — a deliberate effort to create “undemocratic instruments of manipulation and social control” (31). Ravitch writes, “The radical indictment, in sum, is that American schools have been oppressive, not liberating, and that they were intended to be oppressive by those liberal reformers who developed them”( 31).
This was fascinating to read for me because I see this notion — this purposeful intent on the part of the elite classes to design oppressive systems — as an idea that’s still deeply influential. More than that, it’s seen as cutting edge. The Marxist critique — as filtered through the neo-Marxism of critical theory — is alive and well today, and I see the evidence for what Ravitch is describing everywhere. The assertion is that elites control things and deliberately set in motion systems that ostensibly seek to liberate but actually only reinforce their power. Then the managers (or the public educators, if we’re talking about education) perpetuate the unjust system without realizing what they’re doing — because they possess a false consciousness that leads them to believe they’re doing something noble. The common people, particularly those the system doesn’t work for, buy into it, either because they have no choice or because they, too, have a false consciousness. You see evidence of this Marxist formula everywhere today: both the narrow focus on schools, and in the language of intentional oppression/false consciousness. You see evidence of the narrowness in the strenuous debates about which books should be in the curriculum (from the stridency of which you’d think that it was only in school books that students learned about the world); you see evidence of the Marxist language in all of the claims that schools “perpetuate,” or that they “replicate.”
Ravitch identifies six common assertions in the radicals’ work. These, also, feel incredibly modern:
- The upper classes used schools to control the working classes
- The schools were used as “middle class morality campaigns”
- Schools were intended to “stamp out cultural diversity”
- Meaningful social mobility through education was always a fable
- Bureaucracy was chosen as a structure specifically to perpetuate stratification
- Schools were designed to serve the needs of capitalism
She then identifies three analytical devices used by these thinkers:
- Social and economic determinism, in which all conclusions about a person are attributed to the “assumed imperatives of social class.”
- “The assumption that there exists a one-to-one correspondence between the ultimate effect of a policy and the intentions of its creators” (41).
- That a structure of an organization determines its purposes
Ravitch raises concerns about each device:
Social and economic deterministic thinking — the notion that all people of a social or economic group think and act alike — can lead to a “fallacious reductionism about causes and effects” and — even worse — can become “a substitute for rigorous investigation of the complex political and societal sources of change” (41). Her point here is well-taken — not all teachers feel the same way about educational issues, nor do all middle class parents (even within the same geographic area). Historians must be attuned to these differences, rather than practicing crude determinism.
The second device she cites above, the one-to-one correspondence analysis, seems to me like the main technique I see in a lot of critical theory understanding of education and of history. It’s really the technique that offers the lynchpin in the notion of deliberate, conscious design behind apparently oppressive institutions. It’s the backwards idea that says, because a policy proved to have a negative or incomplete effect, that was the intention of creators. I once knew someone who used to cite the concept of Occam’s Razor to justify essentially this same insight: that American public schools are set up to do exactly what they are intended to do (which this person essentially felt aligned with the six characteristics Ravitch notes above).
It’s perhaps here, responding to this analytic technique, that Ravitch is at her most penetrating. Her reservations are worth noting:
“If a nineteenth-century reformer expressed the hope that a proposed school would diminish crime or class hostility, then this statement can be taken as “evidence” that the reformer was not really interested in promoting equality or individual mobility, even though he may have proclaimed those concerns on other occasions; furthermore, the historian infers from such statements that the “function” of the school matched the sponsor’s proclaimed purpose and therefore could not have promoted equality or individual mobility” (44).
This is a circular argument:
“This is a self-reversing and closed argument: Bad intentions lead to bad outcomes, and bad outcomes reveal bad intentions. Because of these assumptions, it becomes unnecessary to demonstrate the link between intentions and outcomes” (44).
An example Ravitch cites is the claim by radical historians that businessmen brought about the Brown v. Board decision to grow capitalism, not to protect equality, citing several isolated quotes at the time from businessmen. “The problem with such vaulting inferences,” Ravitch writes, “ is that they can neither be proved nor disproved, merely asserted” (45). She writes:
“This technique of arguing about people’s hidden motives — or more fallacious yet, the hidden motives of American society — fails to recognize that the consequences of a particular action cannot always be entirely controlled or fully anticipated.”
Ravitch notes that speculating about motives is much easier to do than the patient inquiry of liberal inquiry, and also that reformers often express contradictory opinions, have complex thoughts, or even change their minds in important ways. Even then, it’s hard to measure the effects of a reformers views on an institution he helped create. She writes, “A decent respect for the complexity of causation will make the historian reluctant to claim that the activities of an institution in the mid-twentieth century were directly determined by the ideas of a man who was influential in 1850” (46).
Ravitch gives a pretty enlightening example, citing the litany of progressive reforms instituted in New York City’s schools in the early 20th Century: classes for blind and deaf students, evening recreation for teens, medical inspections, libraries in schools, etc. Radical historians would see these efforts in a deeply cynical fashion — merely as evidence of the elite reformers’ desire to raise their own power and their control over the city’s children. But Ravitch counters that with a number of specific examples from the time period (she wrote a whole book on the New York school debates of the 20th Century). The notion that these reforms were consciously designed to exert class control, through the hidden (perhaps even to themselves) motives of reformers seems just what it is: simplistic and silly.
Once again, even though Ravitch is writing about the Marxist reservations of the late 1960s, it’s hard not to think of the present day. Critical theory, it seems to me, has picked up these same analytic tools, particularly the second one, the speculation about people’s motives. It’s hard not to think here of the search through the past for thoughts or beliefs on the part of previous reformers in order to find the evidence that a policymaker, politician, or even a (then) liberal reformer had hidden, evil or discriminatory motives in the creation of policies that turned out to be less than wholly egalitarian or leveling. Or you often hear the related critique today — really a variation of the first device Ravitch notes (social and economic — or in this case, race-based) determinism: that a reformer created policies that reflected the biases (conscious or unconscious) of his particular identity and did so only to preserve power.
Ravitch’s responses above seem to me particularly insightful in responding to this sort of Marxist analysis. Her rejoiners: that intellectuals and historians should seek to understand context, nuance and complexity and to support their analysis with careful evidence — make the Marxist or critical theorist assertions expose themselves pretty quickly as just what they are: sometimes insightful, but too often mere speculation and moralizing clothed in the outward appearance of critical thinking. It’s as though Ravitch is offering a far more grown-up, patient, precise approach, holding it up alongside the radical approach to show just how great are its shortcomings. It’s the same reservation I had about Henry Giroux’s work, which I wrote about previously: it just felt like a kind of moralizing protest, all done without an honest vision of what society he himself actually wanted, and often without a care to slow down and look carefully at whether he was really understanding what he criticized.
Ravitch reminds us that the idea that schools were deliberately designed to do just what their critics perceive as their worst effects is a fiction. That’s a crudely reductionist way of seeing things. It’s not even the simplest explanation for understanding present conditions. The simplest explanation is that complex social problems are challenging to ameliorate; it’s hard to know the right way to solve them, and it’s hard to know or even to understand the effect of any substantial policy on the problems its trying to solve (often it’s hard to know until much later). That’s the answer. Context matters. Evidence matters. Understanding policy creators is important, but you must understand them carefully, not through crude determinism or through the lens of moralistic hindsight.
Ravitch has a wonderful, almost humorous response at one point. If schools were such great instruments of social control, and if their creators were so aware of this, then surely “Southern whites would have rushed to create school systems for newly freed blacks in order to control and indoctrinate them” (65). Instead, “the schooling of blacks was imposed on a reluctant and hostile white South by the might of the federal government and the zeal of Northern idealists” (65). Ravitch makes a number of other points in this vein, as well. Look carefully at the history, understand the past as it understood itself, and slippery historical analysis falls apart pretty quickly.
Intellectuals complicate, not simplify, our understandings in pursuit of truth. Historians look at the past’s broad trends and movements, yes, but they also look carefully, in a nuanced, patient fashion. It’s the grown up, adult approach to understanding complex institutions like schools. And beside that, a lot of the Marxist and critical theory stuff looks like just what it is: valuable in getting us to reconsider the past, but too often little more than a first step of unsubstantiated assertion.
That’s it — that’s how you beat them.
But there’s something else here, too, something deeper to me. That Diane Ravitch of 1977 was responding to a kind of radical critique of public education from the left made me think of the Diane Ravitch of 2010, responding to a kind of radical critique of public education from the right. In her book The Life and Death of the Great American Schools System, 33 years after she so capably responded to the radical historians, she wrote a passage that is particularly noteworthy for its use of the term “conservative”:
“The more uneasy I grew with the agenda of choice and accountability, the more I realized that I am too ‘conservative’ to embrace an agenda whose end result is entirely speculative and uncertain. The effort to upend American public education and replace it with something market-based began to feel too radical for me . . . Paradoxically, it was my basic conservatism about values, traditions, communities, and institutions that made me back away from what once was considered the conservative agenda . . .”
I respect this approach immensely. And I must say, I share it.