In January 2010, I emailed Diane Ravitch after viewing a video of one of her talks preceding the release of her now often mentioned book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, that signaled some significant changes in her views on education and education reform. My email was an apology.
I confessed to Diane that I had been a Ravitch detractor for much of my career, based primarily on my view that she was an essentialist who promoted a narrow view of literacy-specifically that students must be raised on the Great Books*. But the Diane Ravitch I heard in the video and eventually read in the new book (and her subsequent prolific life as a public intellectual and frequent voice on twitter) was the personification of the academic, the scholar, the expert that I admire because she was very publicly stepping back from her ideology and reforming her views based on evidence despite the need to change her mind.
As a scholar and a writer, I have always been struck by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Speak what you think today in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today”(“Self-Reliance,” 1841) because life and our knowledge of the world is either always evolving or dead.
Now, in a much more public way, I am writing in part to Diane Ravitch and more fully to the corporate and ruling elite driving the education reform debate in order to make yet another confession, this time about my stance on required reading lists and the Great Books/canon debate: I am now considering the need for all people to read the classics, specifically classical and classic drama, and I am moved in this direction due to the complete and utter failure of leadership in our democracy.
Consider Oedipus, both the man and the narrative of the Greek drama.
Oedipus reveals to us a man of skill and expertise who not only rises to supreme power but also believes he deserves that role. Then, and most poignantly, Oedipus exposes that even among the elite, hubris (what classically we refer to as “pride,” but in our contemporary diction is best captured by “arrogance”) trumps all merit in a person, especially in a leader.
Oedipus suffers the tragedy of killing his father and marrying his mother despite having been told that both would occur. Oedipus is not just a myth or mere fiction, however, since we can see again and again how leaders fail us by remaining loyal to their own ideologies despite the evidence to the contrary.
It is a difficult thing to change ones mind from a position of authority, but judicious and measured positions that are guided by careful considerations of the evidence are what serve any leader and culture best.
George Orwell is credited with this sentiment: “Every generation believes itself to be more intelligent than the one before it and wiser than the one following.” And it speaks directly to the history of education reform as well as the current discourse about education reform personified by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Bill Gates.
Within the context of reforming No Child Left Behind, Duncan and Gates-along with many other voices echoing their claims-are advocating education reform (suggesting change) that simply perpetuates the exact paradigm that has been used in education for over a century, but intensified over the past thirty years: Identify high standards, test students against those standards, and then hold educators accountable for those tests.
Duncan, speaking on September 24, 2009, about the reauthorization of NCLB, made this claim:
” Until states develop better assessments—which we will support and fund through Race to the Top—we must rely on standardized tests to monitor progress—but this is an important area for reform and an important conversation to have. . . . We’re still waiting for a testing and accountability system that accurately and fairly measures student growth and uses data to drive instruction and teacher evaluation. . . .Let us build a law that demands real accountability tied to growth and gain both in the individual classroom and in the entire school—rather than utopian goals—a law that encourages educators to work with children at every level, the gifted and the struggling—and not just the tiny percent near the middle who can be lifted over mediocre bar of proficiency with minimal effort. That’s not education. That’s game playing tied to bad tests with the wrong goals.”
The problem, according to Duncan, is not the traditional culture of testing, but that we have yet to find the right tests. Now, before we accept Duncan as an authority on assessment and accountability, we should have some idea of his credibility, his expertise. The claims above are couched in a key comment about test data in the speech: “Recent international tests in math and science show our students trail their peers in other countries. For 15-year-olds in math, the United States ranks 31st.”
And here is the rub-We are supposed to believe that the Obama/Duncan administration is somehow uniquely qualified to create a better standards/testing/accountability system but that Duncan himself cannot parse accurately test data (and this is the same dynamic we witnessed with Secretary Spellings under the Bush administration).
PISA data exposes the powerful influence of poverty on populations of students among countries, not the strengths or weaknesses of the education systems in those countries.
Currently, then, in our democracy that claims a commitment to universal public education as essential for the freedom we also claim to cherish, we are faced not with a power-drunk king-no Oedipus, Macbeth, or Lear-but with self-appointed experts blinded by their confusing their privilege with merit.
Duncan and Gates may never admit this-and may not be able to acknowledge it-but they believe the U.S. to be a meritocracy and they trust that their success (built in no small part on a narrow education system and the exact sort of testing that supported their success) is proof that they deserve their status as elite.
Their hubris is one of cultural narrative: They are the personification of the rugged individual that our free market/democracy rewards with wealth and status.
And here is where I am now willing to concede in part to Diane Ravitch’s faith in the Great Books. Our leaders should be required to read classical and classic drama, specifically the tragedies. I concede this not because I believe they will learn from those timeless stories (that of course is the great irony in all of this), but because it allows us to say, “We told you so.”
I will end with one caveat to my newfound faith in the Great Books.
For the public at large, I want to emphasize that since we are not pawns under kings blinded by their own hubris and we are willing accomplices in the power that leaders such as Duncan and Gates enjoy, I recommend more contemporary reading for the voting public: Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.
Gladwell weaves several real-world narratives into his work of nonfiction that offers to contemporary readers a new vision of merit, placing the success of Gates, for example, within the context of his privilege:
“My wish with Outliers is that it makes us understand how much of a group project success is. When outliers become outliers it is not just because of their own efforts. It’s because of the contributions of lots of different people and lots of different circumstances—and that means that we, as a society, have more control about who succeeds—and how many of us succeed—than we think. That’s an amazingly hopeful and uplifting idea.”
Many people work hard while standing on the coincidences of their privilege, and we should praise that hard work without ignoring the privilege.
A few rare people rise above the burdens of their lives-burdens not of their making-and we certainly should praise and even honor those people, but we must step back from our faith in rugged individualism and belief that our society is a meritocracy and not normalize the exceptional.
Much in human history is valuable and should inform us, especially in our pursuit of universal public education that fulfills the promise it offers, and much will come after us, exposing now as flawed and misguided.
Leaders and followers alike, then, must heed the warnings about the folly of hubris and pursue a life of knowledge tempered by humility.
* Diane Ravitch is not an advocate of the Great Books (although I always assumed so), but is better characterized as “a proponent of ‘good books,’ stuff that bears re-reading over time.” It is likely that she and I would debate a bit about if and how to define “good books.”