February 27, 2007

Of Diane Ravitch and presentism

In an amended entry earlier today, I noted my being a Michael Katz student and somehow still not having fits at the sight of Diane Ravitch's name. (As far as I'm aware, Michael doesn't, either.) That doesn't mean that I agree with her substantive scholarship, and I'll repeat here a 2004 contribution I made to the H-Education e-mail list on H-Net. While its intended topic is the historiographical concept of presentism and not Ravitch's Left Back, I do make my views of the book clear:


I've just read Derrick Aldridge's commentary in the December 2003 Educational Research, and in it he describes how he's wrestled with the issue of presentism after being warned about it at a conference. What he describes afterward (on pp. 27-29) is a plausible professional approach, but I'm becoming more and more dissatisfied with the term itself. Ravitch used the label many years ago to criticize what she called revisionist historians [Katz among them], and John Rury then pasted the same label on Ravitch's book Left Back.

I think we should ban the term presentist from our vocabulary as a red herring, full of sound and professional jargon and signifying nothing of substance. Good history has the same characteristics, whether it's making an argument about the development of educational policy in the late 20th century or witchcraft trials of the late 17th, and I challenge anyone to show me differently. Yet presentism is one of the chief bogeymen of historiography. This is especially true with educational history, where we're often caught between educationists who want everything to be immediately relevant and our colleagues in regular history departments who can be skeptical of our subfield.

So what does the term presentist refer to? Most historians would define presentism to include taking events and materials out of context, stretching the interpretation with an eye to the modern implications of the argument. It is a close cousin to teleology, and its red flag sits at our disk right next to the warning flags ready to be waved at the first sign of Whiggish history or the myth of the Golden Age. Maybe an example will illustrate my discomfort. Take John Rury's lambaste of Left Back:

[I]t is largely a history without context, and one that telescopes past ideas about education into a single-minded concern about educational standards, one of Ravitch's pet peeves in current debates about educational policy. In this work we find a classic example of history turned to the purpose of supporting a political agenda.

But that larger description hides more substantive concerns of Rury's: Ravitch's oversimplification of Progressive advocates, the limiting scope of her mini-biographies, the focus on just a few locations, the inconsistency between her critique of Teachers College as an institution and her hagiography of William Bagley (a Teachers College faculty member), the misleading use of a statistic about Kilpatrick's teaching, the exaggeration of evidence about classroom instructional practices in the 20th century, and the inconsistency between her championing disciplinary approaches early in the 20th century and then ignoring the professional judgment of historians in the war over the history standards.

Now, I could add some additional criticisms after wading through the book last year. She acknowledges in the prefatory matter that there was no Golden Age of education (p. 13), and then proceeds to describe the justifiable pride of earlier ages on pp. 19, 21, 25, 30, and 89 (and probably elsewhere). She describes the Committee of Ten report as the first to make curriculum recommendations on secondary education to the country (p. 42), ignoring the legacy of the Yale Report earlier in the 19th century. She claims that the book focuses on the curriculum, but she has a large chunk of material on the reading methods wars in the last few decades. She complete[ly] ignores David Labaree's work on high schools, and while she notes Tyack and Kliebard's work, they appeared to have no influence on the book (either shaping it actively or as serious arguments to counter). The margins of my copy is filled with specific comments, and I found it as frustrating a read as I expect John Rury did, from his review.

And yet I am reluctant to slap a label on it. It is frustrating in part because of the sloppiness of the historical argument and the handling of evidence. But it is also frustrating because I can see the construction of a popularly-appealing book. She mixes detail inside each chapter and the patina of careful history with overblown rhetoric at the beginning and end of most chapters. But that's my fear that many readers will pay more attention to the rhetoric than to the rest of the book.

The problem with Left Back is not that it is "history turned to the purpose of supporting a political agenda," as Rury claims. There is plenty of wonderful, provocative history motivated by political or social beliefs; my favorite is C. Vann Woodward's Origins of the New South. Those good works are just as presentist as Left Back. They're just better at handling evidence and the nuances of writing an historical argument. I've decided that presentism is a label, not a useful analytical concept in historiography.

Someday soon, I'll tackle another perennial bogeyman of history, the number of history doctoral programs in the U.S.

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Posted in Education policy on February 27, 2007 11:00 PM |