Don't Leave Future of Education to Politicians

By Riedinger, Bonnie L. | Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education, October 2000 | Go to article overview

Don't Leave Future of Education to Politicians


Riedinger, Bonnie L., Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education


"What is the first part of politics? Education. The second? Education. And the third? Education."

--Jules Michelet, Le Peuple (1846)

In her new book, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, Diane Ravitch defines the debate about education in the 1900s as a clash of traditional and progressive ideas. She identifies progressives as followers of John Dewey, who believe schools are, and should be, tools for "social reform." Traditionalists, she says, hew to the line of W.E.B. Du Bois who wrote: "The object of a school system is to carry the child as far as possible in its knowledge of the accumulated wisdom of the world."

Ravitch blames progressives for the failings of education. She claims that in their zeal for social reform, the progressives have (among other nasty things) failed to actually teach students and introduced a two-tier system that excludes disadvantaged students from the liberal arts and herds them into vocational training.

Whether you agree with Ravitch or not, it's an interesting way to look at the current discussions of education in this election year. Although much of the book and many of the presidential candidates' pronouncements about education focus on K-12, both are important, since the fortunes of higher education are forever linked to primary and secondary education. For the way we define education and the purpose of education in K-12 will influence, if not determine, the academic mission of colleges and universities.

After reading the interviews given by the Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns to Matrix and reviewing their positions on K-12 education, I tried to separate the platforms according to Ravitch's dichotomy. Not surprisingly, I couldn't. Though George W. Bush and Al Gore certainly hold opposing views, each candidate's platform contains elements of traditional and progressive thinking as well as other less easily identified viewpoints.

And that melange of ideologies--rather than a conflict between two camps as presented by Ravitch--may be the true cause of this country's educational angst as one set of well-intentioned plans inadvertently cancels out another. …

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