Anti-Intellectualism Runs Rampant in U.S. Education

by | May 29, 2001 | POLITICS

Diane Ravitch research professor at New York University and holds the Brown Chair in Education Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC and is author of the book Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms. Clowes: What prompted you to write Left Back? Ravitch: When I began the book, I thought it was […]

Diane Ravitch research professor at New York University and holds the Brown Chair in Education Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC and is author of the book Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms.

Clowes: What prompted you to write Left Back?

Ravitch: When I began the book, I thought it was going to be just a straightforward history of the teaching of history and literature–the humanities. I began with that intention, but I realized what I was really concerned about were some issues that were really pressing: Why is it that we’re constantly disappointed with the schools? Why is it that we have this experience of dumbing down in areas like history and literature? Why do we have this ongoing battle about the seriousness with which we view education?

In fact, at one point, the working title of the book was Anti-Intellectualism in American Schools. That was the underlying theme I was working with–the recurrence of this anti-intellectualism, this idea that knowledge is unimportant, facts are unimportant.

There was a fundamental anti-intellectualism in the IQ testing movement, in the industrial education movement, the vocational education movement, and the child-centered movement. There were so many different movements, but the movements were always saying: “Why do you care so much about teaching all this dreary old stuff? The children should just be free to explore whatever they want to explore and to learn only what is immediately useful.”

In the 1920s, even Dewey wrote that “Some people think that you can just surround children with wonderful materials and let them go and they’ll learn all by themselves.” And then Dewey comments, “Now that is really stupid.”

This is surprising coming from Dewey, because the way he is seen by many of his admirers is urging people to just surround children with wonderful materials and let them learn by themselves without adult direction. But Dewey understood that the children coming from very fortunate circumstances will have lots of interests and will pursue them very avidly, because they’ve had structure and encouragement at home. He also understood that children who don’t have those fortunate circumstances will lose out because their interests will be not as broad and their ability to sustain their concentration and pursue their interests will be foreshortened. He knew they needed adult guidance, that is, good teachers.

Clowes: Because they don’t have an adequate framework to direct their own education and need the structure of a teacher-directed classroom?

Ravitch: Right. Children who come from extremely advantaged circumstances will very often thrive in all sorts of schools. Children who are disadvantaged are not as much self-starters. They don’t have the advantage of having educated, literate parents, and so the schools have to give them more.

I was very struck with Jeanne Chall’s book, The Academic Achievement Challenge, which came out a few months before my book. She reviews the research of the past 100 years while mine is a history of the same period. But they’re very complementary in the approach they take, which is that children usually need teachers who teach them. They don’t need teachers to be facilitators. They need teachers to be teachers.

Clowes: How did educators come to believe that the “teacher-as-facilitator” approach was the best way to educate underprivileged children?

Ravitch: There were two different ways in which disadvantaged children were negatively affected by educational reforms.

One was that the avant-garde thinkers in the first 30 years of the century were great believers in vocational tracking. It was the avant-garde thinkers who said that, say, the children of farmers should be studying agricultural education, that the children of workers should be learning industrial education, and that black children should be learning the domestic arts to become domestic servants and cobblers and other manual trades.

But all of this tracking and curricular differentiation, which was considered very progressive at the time, weighed most heavily on poor children because they were the ones who were most in need of a good education and the likeliest to be denied a good education.

The other way in which poor children were further disadvantaged was through the advocacy of child-centered education, in which the emphasis was shifted away from instruction and towards children following their interests. Good teachers could make this work, but many teachers were not equipped to help the children who really needed direction and structure. These children needed to be taught how to read, not left to figure it out on their own by guessing at the meaning and shape of words.

Another change that occurred was in reading methods. The teachers in the first 30 years of the century used a variety of methods to teach letters, words, sounds, and comprehension. Then it became very vogue-ish and avant-garde not to teach phonics, but to teach only the word method.

In the 1930s, the Dick and Jane books were published. They were intended to de-emphasize or eliminate phonics instruction and to teach children to memorize whole words. The whole word method became de rigueur in the education schools and all the reading experts of the 1930s advocated the whole word method as opposed to any sort of phonics.

The issue never even came up for open discussion until that infamous book, Why Johnny Can’t Read, came out in the 1950s. That was the first the American public understood about a strong professional bias against teaching phonics. Jeanne Chall again was the critical person, because her book in 1967 explained what had happened by reviewing research and showing how phonics had fallen out of favor among pedagogical elites.

What my book is about is a series of almost professional scandals, if you will, in which people ran lemming-like toward some panacea, throwing away effective instructional methods, throwing away good curricula, and tracking children into dead-end curricula because it was the thing to do.

Clowes: So progressive education meant a shift from teacher-directed instruction, a shift to vocational education, and a shift to whole language reading instruction?

Ravitch: The one thing that the proponents of all these different methods had in common–whether they were dealing with curriculum or instruction–was a hostility to the academic curriculum and a belief that an academic curriculum should be available only to that very small number of students who were likely to go to college. In the end, it becomes a very elitist argument to claim that the real academic curriculum should be preserved only for the most gifted students.

For example, David Snedden–who was one of the most prominent educators of the early twentieth century, a professor of vocational education at Teachers College, and the founder of the field of educational sociology–said, “Well, what’s the purpose of studying history?” He regarded history as just facts that were put into cold storage and had no value. He was dubious about most subject matter. “If it’s not useful, don’t teach it,” he said.

But as soon as you start with that, you eliminate everything except what you can use for your job. The problem with that is that we don’t know what anybody’s job will be in the future or what occupations will exist in the future. It is a very static view of society and the economy.

Clowes: Also, if you don’t teach content in history then you break down the transmission of learning and values from one generation to the next.

Ravitch: I think that what we want to transmit are fundamental democratic values. We want to teach young people not only about the importance of democracy, self-respect, respect for the rights and freedoms of others, and majority rule, but also the importance of standing up for your own principles even when you’re a minority of one. It’s a whole panoply of values that we would say are civic values, or some people would say are civic virtues. But they don’t teach themselves.

No one is born knowing what it means to be a citizen in a democratic society. Part of this is not just the disembodied values and ideas. They don’t stand all by themselves. They emerge out of a historical context, and they emerge out of a civic tradition that stretches back across American history and, in some cases, into European history and European thought.

If we don’t teach children any of that and just say, “We have these ideas,” they can’t take the theory of democracy seriously because it has no context. They don’t know where the ideas came from, and they don’t understand the experience of the United States through the American Revolution, through the Civil War, through all of the trials and tribulations and all of the mistakes that were made as well as the great achievements.

I’ve reviewed a lot of tests in the field that is now called “English Language Arts,” and the test very often will be: “Can you read? Can you speak? Can you listen? Can you view?” It seldom if ever involves asking if you know any literature or if you’ve read anything or know anything. The reason the tests can’t ask about literature is that students haven’t read anything in common.

That’s why you would never see on a test, for example, a question about Dickens or about the Gettysburg Address. The test would have to reproduce the Gettysburg Address because it could not assume that anyone has ever read it. So if you were to ask, “What have American children read in common?” the answer is probably, “Very little, maybe nothing.”

It was not always this way. In the past, Americans did believe that there was value in sharing a common culture and that it was the job of the public schools to teach that culture.

Clowes: What can parents do if they find their child is at a progressive school and they can’t afford an alternative school?

Ravitch: First of all, try to get involved in the school and let your voice be heard, so that the professionals in the school know that not everybody goes along with that particular program.

Very often teachers know more than they teach. One of my own children loved to write when he was in fifth grade, and I asked the teacher if she would teach him to diagram sentences. She said she had never done it because it wasn’t approved of in the school, but she said she knew how and would do it. Within three weeks, everyone in the class was diagramming sentences because the children thought it was such fun. Now my son is a professional writer, and he is glad that he learned the structure of the language.

Secondly, you may have to help your child learn to read. Read to them and listen to them read to you. If your children are in a school where they’re only doing whole language, then you must get involved and help your children learn how to sound out words.

Also, make sure you have lots of books in your home for your children. Make sure you share with them your own favorite books and poems that you loved as a child. Let them see you reading. Read poetry to them at night, before they go to bed, and make sure they don’t watch too much television, certainly never more than an hour a day. That would be a start.

Clowes: If you could, how would you change the Title I program so that it could actually narrow the achievement gap between students from lower-income and higher-income families?

Ravitch: Right now, the Title I funding is for the school, not the child, so if the child moves to a slightly better school, the funding remains behind in the old school. Instead, Title I should be the K-12 version of the Pell Grant for higher education, so that whatever accredited institution the child went to, the federal money would follow.

That way, the child could get educational services–reading and math services in particular–because of being able to bring money with her or him. This would empower the family and the child to choose a better setting where the educational services ideally would be better.

In 1972, there was a debate on student aid in Congress between Congresswoman Edith Greene of Oregon and Senator Clayborne Pell of Rhode Island. Congresswoman Greene argued the money should go to the institution for college student aid, and Senator Pell argued, “No, the money should follow the student. Let the student choose the institution.”

Pell won the debate, and so we now have Pell Grants a student may use to go to a public or a private institution and the federal government doesn’t care which, as long as it’s an accredited institution. We have a very dynamic and pluralistic system in our higher education system, which most people consider to be the best in the world.

For more information pick up a copy of Diane Ravitch’s Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms. Made available through

George Clowes is Managing Editor for School Reform News. Made available through The Heartland Institute. The views expressed within may not represent those of Capitalism Magazine.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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