Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Troubled Crusade



Copyright © 2003 José Cossa

A Book Review of Ravitch, D.  (1983).  The Troubled Crusade:  American Education 1945-1980.  New York, NY:  Basic Books.


The Troubled Crusade is a descriptive, and to a small degree evaluative, history of American higher education from the period immediately after World War II until 1980.  Although this is not an exhaustive treatment of the forces at work that characterize the crusade against ignorance or campaigns for equal educational opportunity, Ravitch explores a selection of forces at work that constitute the core for understanding the times of the crusade, and this she does intentionally in order to fulfill her purpose for writing the book, “This book is a report on the state of the crusade against ignorance during a particularly tumultuous time in American history.”

The prologue to The Troubled Crusade is launched from the contextual framework of Jefferson’s letter to his friend and advisor George Wythe, then the American minister to the French government, regarding the bill on religious freedom.  Jefferson’s exhortation to Wythe sheds light as to the fundamental agenda and the speculated outcome of the crusade against ignorance,

Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils, and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.  (p. xi)

Ravitch’s introduction of Jefferson’s rationale displays the spirit of the crusade against ignorance and, indirectly, introduces the themes that Ravitch would engage in the text as auxiliary in placing the reforms in their context.  Like the Christian crusades, the movement was to convert the ignorant (i.e., those who were victims of an evil crippling society) into the world of the knowledgeable; and, like any social movement, the crusade was destined to face opposition.  In Jefferson’s ethic, inequality was to generate greater expenses than equality; therefore, the crusade to equality of educational opportunity was not a matter of choice but a necessity.  Ravitch looks into the crusade with this pre-understanding and reports on the events without engaging in judgments – this is not to say that she refrains completely from judgments. 

The theme of equal educational opportunity, in Ravitch, presents the dichotomy of change and resistance.  Evidence of this dichotomy is seen in the constant struggle faced by movements that crusaded against social issues such as (a) racial segregation and discrimination, which were at the heart of the crusade for equal educational opportunity; (b) the Vietnam War and the Cold War; (c) sex discrimination; (d) government and educational control; (e) religious freedom and educational control; (f) student activism and educational control; (g) the education for the handicapped; and (h) urban versus rural schools.  It would be unthinkable to discuss the crusade without this conceptual framework because, “what other than race, gender, politics, religion, power, and physical ability can constitute a greater source of conflict in any given society?”

Considering that the American republic was established with a hierarchical view of race and that arguing for equality of educational opportunity would challenge that initial characteristic of the republic and its segregated structure, it is no wonder that Ravitch dedicates two chapters to race and education, and even incorporates discussions on race-related movements within other chapters, e.g., Chapter seven.  Race is a core issue in debates on equal educational opportunity and to this date Ravitch’s research is essential in understanding why we still have race at the center of the discussions on equal education opportunity.  Again, my critique is that this is not the only issue but the core.

Ravitch describes the spirit of the crusade as a drive for change at any cost and at a high speed, “Whoever the claimant, whether representing blacks, women, the handicapped, or non-English-speaking minority groups, the avenue of political remedy was the same: To bypass educational authorities by working directly with sympathetic congressional committees and by gaining judicial supervision”  (p. 311).  One constant thesis in the book is the perception that the school is a means through which the goal of equity was to be achieved and the awareness by crusader groups that a dominant culture was being transferred through the school system.  What is not explicitly evident in the book is whether Ravitch’s thesis, in someway, is the result of her judgment of the role of schools in society or simply an objective description of the perception of those engaged in reforms during the crusade.  In other words, “did the reformers truly believe that the school is a transformer of society? Or did they perceive society to be the reason educational reforms were necessary?”  This is a distinction not made in Ravitch, which a critical historian would have engaged.  Forces at work are essential to understand social phenomena, but a deeper understanding of social phenomena requires a deeper understanding of forces at work and not a mere report on what such forces were. 

Although Ravitch lacks a thorough critical analysis of the issues outlined in the book, one cannot judge her book on such basis, as some critiques have, because she makes clear that her intention is to present “a report on the state of the crusade against ignorance during a particularly tumultuous time in America.” – This is a wise indication that Ravitch does not intend to delve exhaustively in the history of the crusades but rather open a platform for a better understanding of the times and some whys of the crusade.

Like most historians, Ravitch recognizes the complexity of the crusade in the following statement:

In the crusade against ignorance, there have been no easy victories, but no lasting defeats. Those who have labored on behalf of American education have seen so many barriers scaled, so much hatred dispelled, so many possibilities remaining to provide the basis for future reconciliation. To believe in education is to believe in the future, to believe in what may be accomplished through the disciplined use of intelligence, allied with cooperation and good will. If it seems naively American to put so much stock in schools, colleges, and universities, and the endless prospect of self-improvement and social improvement, it is an admirable, and perhaps even a noble, flaw.  (p. 330)

The book opens with the somehow simplistic-optimistic tone evident in Jefferson’s letter, the book’s content is filled with a mix of several isms, such as optimism, pessimism, and skepticism, and it closes in an optimistic tone.  To close the book in this fashion is indeed opening up a challenge to one’s interpretation of historical events, particularly because I am skeptical as to whether the complexity of the issues prompting the crusade and the current issues presented in today’s discussions on reforms, for instance equal educational opportunity, will find their solution in the belief on education and not in the belief of something outside education.  In my view, equal educational opportunity includes aspects that go beyond the curriculum and educational endeavors because such constructs as equality, education, and opportunity are socially construed and remain conflicting due to the multiplicity of perspectives on the interpretation of what indeed constitutes equality, intelligence, and opportunity. 

Ravitch’s book is a must-read for all historians and those concerned with social transformation related to education.  In spite of the issues I raise regarding its closing, I have deep respect for such an insightful reading, and there is no perfect history ever written, yet this is “close to perfect” because it does justice to its intention and promise.
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