Jane Jacobs and Diane Ravitch

Astute readers of Jane Jacobs‘ classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities recognize from its first page that Ms. Jacobs was an extremely subtle observer of the phenomena that interested her–the street life of New York City, and more specifically, the activities of her neighbors on her lovely block along Hudson Street in Greenwich Village. Ms. Jacobs was able to recognize patterns in the day-to-day activities of the residents of New York City (and Philadelphia as well, to wit Rittenhouse Square, which is a neighborhood very similar to the Village) that most other people, particularly her principal foe, New York City “master builder” Robert Moses, simply could not or would not. Her powers of perception, and her gift for composing lucid prose that dealt with complex issues, have made The Death and Life of Great American Cities a staple of urban planning curricula at the college level. Robert Caro has apparently said that the book was the strongest influence on his masterful biography of Moses, The Power Broker.

Diane Ravitch opens her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System by announcing that its title is an homage to Jane Jacobs and her magisterial assessment of the life of cities. That’s clearly the case, but there’s much more to this book–and what it says about Diane Ravitch the historian and author. Like Jane Jacobs, Dr. Ravitch possesses exquisitely subtle powers of observation and perception. Her bailiwick, however, is public education. While it is true that Robert Moses was the leader of a large bureaucracy, he clearly enjoyed the limelight, which made him a focal point for Jane Jacobs, a clearly identifiable opponent. Educational “reform” is a dense and tangled forest of persons, bureaucracies, institutions, and foundations (not to mention motivations), many of whom operate surreptitiously. Sorting out the strands of this web–something for which many busy teachers have no time, if no patience as well (I certainly don’t)–takes real dedication and talent, something Diane Ravitch, the reader will observe from the first page of her book, possesses in ample measure. As a prose stylist, she surpasses Ms. Jacobs, which is no mean feat.

In any case, this book addresses the tendency of education scholarship, theory, and practice, to cycle through various fads. While these generally range from the silly to the occasionally deleterious, it is our current state of “reform” faddism, led by “reformers” like Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Arne Duncan, and the man who succeeded Mr. Duncan as United States Secretary of Education (after antagonizing parents and teachers across New York State), John King, Jr., that this book exposes and analyzes. The corporate foundations–Bill and Melinda Gates, The Walton (i.e Wal-Mart) Family Foundation, The Broad Foundation and their ilk–that abet the various enterprises that this group of functionaries oversees suggests what the real project here is: privatizing public education so that “educational entrepreneurs” can capitalize on it. It’s no coincidence that various hedge fund billionaires–you know, those self-proclaimed geniuses who were culpable in almost driving the world economy off a cliff in 2008–have jumped on this particular bandwagon. Dr. Ravitch has followed these trends closely, knows the players–in some cases personally–and sorts them out for her reader.

What makes this book particularly compelling is the fact that Dr. Ravitch, who served in the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, was a proponent of George W. Bush’s signature, and dubious, education legislation, “No Child Left Behind.” One of the most compelling moments in her narrative occurs when she realizes that No Child Left Behind is doomed to failure, and that she has bet on the wrong horse. Indeed, she repudiates this piece of dismal legislation in a few economical but well-sourced sentences.

As that great subverter Nietzsche wrote, “a very popular error–having the courage of one’s convictions: Rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions.” Diane Ravitch demonstrates such courage here, and I have to imagine that it was neither fun nor easy to excoriate one’s former positions before the public as she does in this book. What makes Dr. Ravitch a paragon of scholarly disinterest and integrity is her willingness to follow the evidence. She does so here, and distills it into highly readable (I envy her ability to pack so much information into a single declarative sentence) account of these reformers and their failed ideas.

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