Former Assistant Secretary of Education Ravitch (The Troubled Crusade, 1983) recounts a dispiriting record of pitched debates and failed reform attempts in the American educational system over the last century.
At the turn of the 20th century, an influx of immigrants and the transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy compelled a reevaluation of school standards, curriculum, and methods. Two opposing approaches arose on how to deal with the situation. Advocates of liberal education, such as Harvard’s Charles W. Eliot, proposed that all students should pursue an academic curriculum. On the other hand, the progressive education movement called for alternatives for non-college-bound students. Inspired by John Dewey, it sought to transform education into both a science and a lever for social reform. But undemanding vocational, industrial, and general programs designed by Dewey’s disciples, Ravitch contends, impaired the prospects of the poor, immigrants, and racial minority groups. An epidemic of educational fads followed—vo-tech schools, IQ testing, child-centered schools, life adjustment, open education, community schools, multiculturalism, the self-esteem movement, even “frontier thinkers” who briefly saw in the Soviet Union an antidote to the competition and striving that underlay both American capitalism and education. Only in conclusion does Ravitch acknowledge that progressive education made valuable contributions in emphasizing children’s motivations and understanding. But with impeccable scholarship and withering logic she demonstrates how, under the influence of this movement, schools lost their focus on their primary teaching mission when asked to solve more social problems than they could handle. In perhaps the greatest irony, progressive educators, claiming the mantle of scientific reasoning, pushed theories related to children’s ability to learn that could seldom be proven definitively.
An incisive examination of failed utopian schemes in the classroom.