Death and Life…

| May 19, 2010
I’d like to formally kick off a series of “book reviews of books I’ve only just begun to read.” Recently I’ve been finding that the responses and questions I have at first blush are more interesting than those that I have after a book has worn me down a bit. So rather than “review” what has already begun to settle, I propose a new form: the book speculation.
No doubt it would be fitting to begin with How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, which I–irony be damned–am in the throes of reading. But that will have to wait. There are no rules, yet, for this new form, other than this: strike while the thought is unduly fresh. Hence, the book to speculate on is the one in front of me. And that happens to be The Death and Life of the Great American School System, by Diane Ravitch.
I cracked the cover primarily because I was curious what a popular book on education looks like. It was a question of style. All the more pressing for the ambivalence I felt about the appropriation of—or “nod” to—the title of Jane Jacobs’ seminal work. Somehow in Jane Jacobs’ hands it seemed less sensationalistic, counterbalancing, as she did, the sheer provocation of it with such close observation of the pedestrian. We shall see. The point being that I was curious how she would go about the undertaking.
But I digress. The thought that grabbed my attention in the first few pages had to do, surprisingly enough, with confessions…
I already knew, of course, that I would run into a frustration over her conservatism around “faddish” notions like multiculturalism. Give her a timeless, politically “neutral” curriculum any day. So imagine my surprise when she begins by arguing that she has changed her mind on her backing of recent, initially conservatively driven initiatives, around accountability and school choice.
Surely it could not be this kind of book ahead of us? A confessional? A realignment of fidelity? I immediately began to think that one should be suspicious of such easy confessions. In the public domain the mea culpa may serve to relieve pressure when public determination of guilt is massive and hostile. But one could hardly expect that scenario here. Where was the crime?
The more obvious answer would be that she simple reassessed the situation. Thus, to her credit, she did not persist in an error as a weaker person and thinker might. Along these lines, she quotes the response attributed to John Maynard Keynes upon being called out for changing his stance on an issue: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
Gleefully smug. The best defense against the charge of flip-flopping is not to defend it at all, but to embrace it and mount the counter accusation of provincial, bloody-minded persistence. Take the high ground. The beauty of this is that it also clears one’s name: it was not I but the facts that changed.
And this, indeed, appears to be Ravitch’s strategy. What we see is that the real leverage of an unforced confession is that one reinforces a more essential truth. In fact Ravitch’s beef with the conservative agenda is that it turns out to not be conservative enough, failing to carry through on a commitment to true standards. In other words, she allows herself to reaffirm what she has always stood for, an historic approach free from faddishness. (A catch-all term, apparently, for anything that doesn’t submit to the progressive vision of a neutral history.) Good old-fashioned education.
Her mistake, according to her, was to get swept up in what turned out to be a fad itself. Thus the confession allows her to re-articulate her fundamental stance towards education.
Such a person turns out to be more flexible than the hypothetical accuser, unable to change course. But also, interestingly enough, more properly steadfast as well. One can maintain a consistent relation to principle (it is the facts that were truly in error) while the single-note partisan accuser turns out to be unmoored, floating on the tides of the moment.
A perfect style for someone committed to the importance of the transmission of a standard content in the form of curriculum, and to a notion of history that needs to be protected from the faddish political forces that would distort it.
As I read, this serves as a sort of stylistic note, a way to recognize a point of view that otherwise slips quietly to the background,  due to a relentlessly  unflappable and sensible tone. Even her suggestion that her warnings might be too late barely breaks a sweat.
Which actually makes for something of a refreshing read….