March 8, 2010

Sour-grapes agreement

Michael Olneck and Peter Sacks turn petty in letters to the editor about Diane Ravitch that the New York Times printed today. Wow. I agree with Ravitch on a number of things and disagree with her on a number of things, some of which is in our area of expertise (history of education) and some of which falls outside the history of education. But I'm not sure why Sacks in particular is turning on the venom spigot. Well, actually, I do have some hypotheses about general hostility to her I've occasionally seen (as opposed to disagreement): she caricatured the field of history of education in a sloppy late-70s publication sponsored by the National Academy of Education, and along with Patricia Graham she was a woman to get high-status national recognition in the 1970s for her work in education policy at the national level, which heretofore had been a male bastion. (Graham was director of NIE from 1977 to 1979.) The first is a seriously flawed work, but that's several decades in the past, and in any case, a particular work should stand or fall on its own merits. I've never seen the second item discussed or even acknowledged. 

There's a related issue here, which is Ravitch's position outside traditional faculty. As far as I'm aware, she's never had a tenure-track or tenured faculty position, and she's one of the few historians who can say that they published their dissertation commercially before receiving the Ph.D. (The Great School Wars was published in 1974; Ravitch received her Ph.D. from Columbia in 1975). For the most part, her books are far more widely read than those of us who have full-time faculty positions, and I think she and Graham are the only historians of education to have held political appointments in the federal government. That's an interesting combination of insider and outsider positions. 

When Meier and Ravitch started their joint blog/conversation three years ago, I briefly referred to this history in writing, "Regardless of various professional views of her scholarship, Ravitch is a recognized voice on education policy. There are plenty of people I correspond with who have fewer claims to expertise, so I can either have a snit-fit about that or deal, and at this point, having a snit-fit is darned close to sexism and uber-testosterone in education policy studies." I'm sorry Olneck and Sacks, and especially Sacks, have made a different choice.

For the record, Sacks is factually wrong when he states, "Dr. Ravitch fashioned herself into the Ayn Rand of educational policy and rose to fame as a result of a free-market ideology that came into fashion in George W. Bush's administration." Ravitch's appointment was during the first Bush administration, and whatever you might think of Ravitch's historical arguments in different books, she's a much better writer than Rand.

Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy on March 8, 2010 8:09 AM |