JITE v38n2 - Book Review - A Critical Analysis ofLeft Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms

Volume 38, Number 2
Winter 2001

Ravitch, D. (2000). Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms . New York, NY: Simon and Schuster. $30.00. 560 pp. (ISBN: 0-684-84417-6).

Andrew E. Schultz
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Diane Ravitch has written a book, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms , which has been widely praised in some circles. It is a book that should be taken very seriously. Among many other achievements during her career, Ravitch was an Assistant Secretary of Education for educational research in the last years of the first Bush Administration, and she has been a prolific writer on education topics. Now a professor at New York University and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., her writings are generally well-regarded, broadly read, and frequently quoted by federal power brokers, politicians, and makers of education policy. Left Back is a weighty tome of over 550 pages. To some extent, it is a well-researched, substantive, and cogent argument against the progressive education movement and for liberal arts education. Unfortunately, because of its repeatedly uninformed and shallow condemnations of vocational and industrial education, this reviewer finds little to recommend the book, although the bibliography is certainly extensive and well worth examining.

How can this book fail to win accolades here, when The New Republic praises Left Back as "the most important book written in many decades about America's most important public institution" (Wolfe, 2000, p. 39), or when the New York Times Book Review calls it a "scathing indictment of the ed-school 'in' crowd" (Mosle, 2000, p. 7)? With Ravitch's frequent (and, I believe, unjust) criticism of vocational and industrial education, one must ask whether the voluminous research reported in the rest of the book is suspect too. Given its obvious prejudices, even the casual reader must answer, "Yes." Even disregarding the industrial and vocational education bombast, however, the book is flawed in its conception, historically superficial, opinionated, and sometimes just plain wrong.

Before we examine these flaws, however, we must define what the terms progressivism and essentialism mean. To make her argument, Ravitch suggests that progressivism was about four core ideas:

  1. That education might become a science and that the methods and ends of education could be measured with precision and determined scientifically;
  2. That the methods and ends of education could be derived from the innate needs and nature of the child;
  3. That the methods and ends of education could be determined by assessing the needs of society and then fitting children for their role in society; and
  4. That the methods and ends of education could be changed in ways that would reform society. Proponents of this idea expected that the schools could change the social order, either by freeing children's creative spirit or, conversely, by indoctrinating them for life in a planned society.

To help readers understand essentialism, Ravitch quotes the work of William Bagley, whom she identifies as a hero and spokesperson for traditional liberal arts values, the core of essentialism. According to Bagley, essentialists warned against early differentiation in the junior high school as a "'radical step away from our democratic institutions'" that would promote social stratification along European lines (p. 93). Essentialists believed that the common school in a democratic society should not decide whom to educate, and they consistently supported federal aid for education to promote equality of educational opportunity, long before it was a popular cause. From the essentialists' perspective, Progressivism "'restated two powerful American frontier traditions: anti-intellectualism and utilitarianism'" (p. 289), both of which are disdained in the liberal arts tradition.

How is the Book Conceptually Flawed?

Given these defining ideas, how is Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms flawed in its' conception? Let me count the ways. First, where is the evidence that education has failed? We have managed to educate millions and, to a considerable extent, our public education system is responsible for developing the most productive and vibrant culture of the 20th Century. Could we have done better? Sure. But the suggestion that the American educational system is a failure is simply unsustainable. If there is a failure in American education, it is a failure of our empowered political leaders and policy makers to appreciate the complexity of learning and the far more intricate problem of teaching classrooms of infinitely variable students. It is the political leaders who persistently prescribe simplistic formulas for short-term solutions, all the while pandering tax cuts to an equally ignorant public. In virtually every other country of the world whose educational systems we admire, such as Holland, Denmark, and Japan, the proportion of the nation's budget for educational expenditures versus defense expenditures is about the reverse of those expenditures here in the United States. And to compound our consistently meager funding for education, those same leaders have driven up education costs by mandating a variety of social experiments and non-educational programs such as school busing, school lunches, and Title X funding for equal access to athletics. When education costs are controlled for this social engineering, school funding has remained stagnant at 1970 levels, and teacher pay in the United States remains at the very bottom of the scale compared to other licensed professionals.

Second, in order to have 100 years of educational reform one would have to assume that there was a system of education in the first place, and this was simply not the case. While grammar school education was commonplace at the turn of the 20th century in large cities and along the eastern seaboard, education in general was at best a piecemeal effort across the nation. American society had only the beginnings of a nationwide system of education in 1890, the point at which Ravitch begins her critique. It certainly had a diversity of local educational efforts, and these were like beacons of light, some bright and promising and some dim and wavering. Much of what Ravitch condemns as failed school reform is the sorting out of these ideas about what education should be. That competitive experimentation represents the best of American enterprise and what educational research should be -- the free-market exchange and competition of ideas. We are richer in educational knowledge because of these efforts, not poorer as Ravitch would have it.

How is the Book Historically Superficial?

Ravitch organizes the book chronologically and she describes with only broad statements the thinking that was prevalent in the country during each time period. Great events like world wars, depressions, plagues, and mass migrations of people occur in the background while these educational movements blossom with inadequate explanation or interpretation. Frankly, education is a small story on this broad backdrop of the incredible 20th century, and Ravitch doesn't cover the big picture adequately enough to understand the societal impetus to educational change. Ravitch shows little understanding for, or appreciation of, the times during which these changes were implemented. With the exception of her understanding of her own era, this is a pervasive and critical omission.

How is the Book Opinionated and Just Plain Wrong?

As Wolfe (2000) noted in his New Republic analysis of Ravitch's book, racism and sexism are reported as if they are an outcome of progressivism, when in reality they are a function of the whole culture. These biases were an integral part of turn-of-the-century America, and to describe them as something that progressivism encouraged does a great disservice to the people associated with progressivism. Further, Ravitch's attempts to tie progressivism to communism are also contextually amiss; she fails to place the socialist movement in its historic context in the 1920s and 1930s, when labor and industry were deeply at odds and when the Depression was raging. Her inclusion of this association seems inflammatory; not McCarthyism by any stretch, but disconcerting nonetheless.

Ravitch's understanding of industrial and vocational education is very limited. She appears to have little idea of the scope of industrial education beyond, as she might say, "hewing wood and toting water" (see p. 379). She shows no appreciation for the prehistoric and historic role that tool use played in the development of cognitive capabilities, or how they are still needed by many to develop cognitive skills valued in contemporary society. Her objections to industrial and vocational education seem based on ideas from a brief point in time, when the Smith-Hughes Act was very much a compromise between two conflicting points of view: the progressivist view espoused by Dewey and the views articulated by Prosser, who was, like Bagley, an essentialist (Scott and Sarkees-Wircenski, 1996).

Compromises such as the ones made by Dewey and Prosser, while certainly an American political necessity and virtue, equally certainly mute the effectiveness of legislation. Few vocational or industrial educators were entirely pleased with the Smith-Hughes legislation, and we who struggle with its legacy still fight many of the implications of those compromises. But Ravitch ignores the subtleties of this interchange of ideas because they do not strengthen her thesis. It is this tendency to comment selectively on industrial education, vocational education, and progressivism to bolster her arguments that confounds much of her criticism. She selects extreme statements from progressivism to criticize, while citing the more benign points of essentialism.

Ravitch attempts to have it both ways. Although she insists in her introduction that there was no golden age of education, throughout the book she repeatedly refers to the halcyon days of traditional liberal arts education as if they were indeed the brightest moments of American education.

Finally, her notion of the role education plays in a democratic society ignores the role of economic well-being as a concomitant necessity for participation in citizenship; she ignores the clear relationship between work and democratic ideals. Her disdain for industrial education is made clear in the following quotation:

Slowly but surely, the meaning of "democracy" was redefined by progressive theorists. Instead of a ladder that stretched from kindergarten to the university and was open to all students, there would be many paths leading to different destinations: the future professional would prepare for college; the future farmer would study agriculture; the future housewife would study household management; the future clerk would study commercial subjects; the future industrial worker would study metalworking and woodworking; and so on. (p.95)

Ravitch's analysis of vocational and industrial education seems skewed by the privileged academic education that is detailed in her resume. It is not just that Ravitch cannot see the relationship of work to citizenship, it appears she simply cannot imagine vocational education as any more than second rate. She continually injects barbs such as: "A 'good general education' did not include vocational education; any employer could teach machine work in a couple of weeks" (p. 300), and:

The children most harmed by such practices were those who could not count on the protection of educated parents. While youngsters from poor and modest circumstances had greatest need for the intellectual stimulation that schools were supposed to provide, they were the targets of such "reforms" as curricular differentiation and industrial education. (p. 460)

In this book, Ravitch has made a prolonged argument that liberal arts education is education for everyone. Education for everyone is general education. With these two previous statements, Ravitch demonstrates that she fails to understand that industrial education also had a general education role expressed in Industrial Arts. That thread lives on in what we now call Industrial Technology Education or Technology Education.

Critical Analysis

Ravitch has written a political polemic in the guise of a scholarly work. Rather than an unbiased examination of the last 100 years of educational practice, Ravitch has given us a weighty op ed piece intended to persuade. It is marketing for her narrow, highly politicized point of view that academic education is general education, that it is superior to vocational education, and that there is one true path consistent across time: the liberal arts curriculum. In that sense, and particularly because she has exceptional talent as a writer, she has done great wrong. She is skilled, she has influence, and she has power -- the power to persuade. It is this power of persuasion that concerns me most because her prejudice against vocational and industrial education is poisonous. For example, lamenting the lack of academic education in Goldsboro, North Carolina, Ravitch quotes with what I read as an inferred horror:

Not only were traditional subjects merged in the core curriculum, but some were converted to practical activities…. A high school class in physics was turned into a shop class where students made diving helmets and built radios; two farm boys made fence chargers for the electrical fencing of pastures. Trigonometry was turned into surveying and mechanical drawing. In homemaking, the girls figure out how to equip the girl's restroom, which "led to the improvement of the general personal appearance of all the girls in school." Students in Business Training filed book cards in the library while students in Manual Training built library furniture. (p. 265-266)

What is there about actually building something that fills this academic with disdain? Why is there such revulsion that students could actually do something? More importantly, why is she communicating this message to parents, school board members, and the population at large?

If this were the only episode of criticism against industrial education and vocational education, perhaps the book might be salvageable, but these beliefs permeate the book. For example, the following Ravitch reference to the work of W. T. Harris in support of her position illustrates quite clearly her bias against vocational and industrial education:

The great power of education, Harris suggested, was not gained by repeatedly performing an action, such as sawing wood or welding two pieces of iron. No, its great power derived from the ability to think, reason and generalize. For Harris, the use of intellect was man's quintessential power, hardly to be compared to the mundane task of learning how to use a few tools. Intellect grows not from manual labor, he argued, but from active engagement with language, literature, science, mathematics, and history. Not only did manual training lack intellectual value, said Harris, it had no vocational value either, since only eight percent of the nation's laborers worked in wood or metal. (p. 37)

There are probably over 7,000 species of wood on the planet, and each of these woods has many unique properties and hundreds of techniques associated with its use. Furniture, houses, newspapers, and books are all manufactured from wood products, and Ravitch undoubtedly uses dozens of these products each day. There are hundreds of varieties of metals and probably thousands of ways of shaping, treating and using them. Within contemporary industrial education, there are hundreds of specialty areas, each with an associated highly technical knowledge and skill base that can require years of study and training to master. To say that these are mundane tasks is more than a distortion; it is a supreme, confident display of ignorance. I prefer to imagine this is an oversight on Ravitch's part, inadvertently criticizing a short-lived and extremely focused movement in industrial education like the manual arts movement. But because most of her readers will not know that this is an inaccurate portrayal of vocational and industrial education, we must fault her for its omission and attempt to correct it. Schultz (1999), for example, argues that the exact opposite of her argument is true, that in fact the genesis of each of the so-called academic disciplines is to be found in the very skills about which Harris and Ravitch speak so disparagingly.

Ravitch attempts to convince readers that it is academic education that is venerable, while vocational and industrial education is a johnny-come-lately fad, stating: "despite Harris's low regard for manual training, the movement was not to be denied. It became one of many movements that periodically swept through American Education" (p. 37). This, too, is a distortion that ignores the long, rich, and profound history of apprenticeship, craftsmanship, and technical education that greatly preceded academic education, as well as the repeated calls for practical education across history from such pillars as Martin Luther and Amos Comenius. Further, it ignores societal changes and challenges that were apparent to all at the end of the 19th century -- the end of the frontier and the massive influx of almost 40 million eastern European people into U.S. cities between 1890 and 1920. One of the essentialists who denigrated progressivism was Arthur Bestor, of whom Ravitch writes:

Arthur Bestor charged that progressive education had turned into "regressive education," having "severed all real connection with the great world of science and learning." Bestor opined that: "One can search history and biography in vain for evidence that men or women have ever accomplished anything original, creative, or significant by virtue of narrowly conceived vocational training or of education programs that aimed merely at "life adjustment. The west was not settled by men and women who had taken courses in "how to be a pioneer…. I for one do not believe that the American people have lost all common sense and native wit so that they now have to be taught in school to blow their noses and button their pants." (p. 345)

The frontier, however, was gone, and the rugged individualists who had settled that frontier were not the sorts of citizens likely to be accommodated in the row houses of the crowded cities and time-clock regulated factories of the now industrialized country. Traditional academic education may have served the 5% of the nation that graduated from high school in 1890, but the likelihood that it would have served the 40 million immigrants who poured into the country in the next 30 years seems highly unlikely (Hayward & Benson, 1993).

Much of Ravitch's argument flows from her thesis that progressivism has enabled anti-intellectualism to flourish. For example, she writes:

By discrediting the generally understood and broadly accepted definition of schooling for intellectual growth, pedagogical experts such as Edward L. Thorndike, G. Stanley Hall, and David Snedden cleared the way for the new education based on utility…. The experts also cleared the way for two of the worst manifestations of anti-intellectualism. First, the loss of education's historic rationale meant that the definition of education was up for grabs, available for capture by any idea, fad or movement. (p. 89)

But her argument that there was an intellectual rationale for education is from its inception confounded by her admission on the first page of the introduction that "those who seek the 'good old days' will be disappointed, for in fact there never was a Golden Age" (p. 13). In other words, she admits that there was no universal agreement on the purpose of education being solely for intellectual development, contrary to her later assertions. Although she alleges that there was universal support for liberal arts education and access to university among parents, it seems more likely that the parental regard for a college education was fostered on the possibility of securing an economically promising profession rather than a sound intellectual footing.

Throughout the book, Ravitch has a tendency to frame her arguments in a fashion most favorable to her conclusions. Example: "The great educational issues of the twentieth century in the United States centered on the questions of who was to be educated and what they were to learn" (p. 14). Actually, these are inherently questions of political and sociological importance, because they are really about who will be empowered and enriched in our society, and they are not solely educational. By making them mere educational questions, Ravitch ignores their broader societal context and dodges their implications for a democratic republic.

Ravitch's analysis is much better when she focuses on the years with which she has first-hand experience. Her memories and understanding of the time period in which she came of age in the 1950s and when she was a university student in the 1960s are deeper and more significant. She is gentler with progressivism during this time period, too, and more tolerant of some of the odd twists of educational excess that occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately, she is still harshly critical of industrial and vocational education.

Ravitch has kind words for the work of several commissions and people active during the 1980s and 1990s (a time during which she assumed increasingly important positions in education). These include Terrell Bell's Commission on Excellence in Education for its report A Nation at Risk , E.D. Hirsh, Jr. for his book Cultural Literacy , and particularly Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers for promoting a national system of standards and assessments to the first Bush Administration. There's a deep irony in this praise, because these are people with whom Ravitch is associated and, frankly, there is no more evidence provided to support the benefits of their points of view than there is for any of the movements which Ravitch has previously criticized. In fact, Stedman (1994) and Weaver (1996) describe a report generated by the Sandia National Laboratories which indicated that there were no achievement score declines as suggested in a Nation at Risk , and on which Shanker and Hirsh made the case for national standards. Berliner & Biddle (1995) charge that the Sandia report was not published until 1993 because its findings were not consistent with the aims of the federal department where Ravitch was employed as Assistant Secretary. If this is true, secondary technology education and vocational education programs across the nation have suffered from declining enrollments for almost 20 years due to increasing graduation requirements which were predicated on the worst kind of demagoguery, of the sort that Ravitch has been complaining about throughout her book.


This analysis has examined Diane Ravitch's book Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms and found that it is flawed conceptually, historically superficial, opinionated, and occasionally wrong. The ability to read analytically and use language effectively sometimes gives readers the impression that good writers actually know what they're talking about. There's an old saying that applies here: "Any jackass can kick down the barn." I am kicking down Ravitch's work, which itself was a criticism of vocational and industrial education. In my defense, at least I can claim I am doing this for defensive reasons, while Ravitch is purely on the offense. Frankly, criticism is easy, and to build something is hard. Both Ravitch and I should devote our time to building something difficult and substantive. Given our education backgrounds and interests, I would suggest that we help to build an educational system that acknowledges each person's gifts, and devises the best educational opportunities possible given that person's interests and the interests of the society we live in.

At best this book offers a narrow, utopian, "east coast" point of view rather than an attempt at truth. At worst it is an apologetic for elitism and schools that cater to those who will be scholars. It imagines that, contrary to Thoreau, we all march to the beat of the same drummer. Somehow in the United States we continue to confuse democratic ideals with notions of sameness; that somehow, in order to be equal, we must be the same.

What is truly surprising is that this is a narrow and parochial book. I fear it means that our finest institutions are turning out scholars, leaders, and policy makers who have never worked with their hands, who have never strayed far from the library, and who are dead certain of their prejudices. This is an alarming trend.


Schultz is Assistant Professor and Head of the Industrial Education Program in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Center for Curriculum and Instruction.


Berliner, D.C. & Biddle, B.J. (1995) The manufactured crisis: Myths, fraud, and the attack on America's public schools . Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Hayward, G.C. & Benson, C.S. (1993). Vocational-Technical Education: Major Reforms and Debates 1917-Present . Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education Office of Vocational and Adult Education.

Mosle, Sara. (2000, August 27). The Fourth R [Review of the book & : A century of failed school reforms]. The New York Times Book Review .

Schultz, A.E. (1999). What we teach and why we teach it. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education , 37(1), 83-87 .

Scott, J.L., & Sarkees-Wircenski, M. (1996). Overview of Vocational and Applied Technical Education . Homewood, IL: American Technical Publishers.

Stedman, L.C. (1994). The Sandia report and U.S. achievement: An assessment. The Journal of Educational Research , 87(3), 133-146.

Wolfe, Alan. (2000, December 11). Subject matter matters [Review of the book Left back: A century of failed school reforms]. The New Republic .