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Left Back

A Century of Battles Over School Reform


Diane Ravitch (View Bio)
Hardcover: Simon & Schuster, 2000; Paperback: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Left Back

Education in America is in deep trouble, yet we all know it holds the key to the future. Politicians swear endlessly to "do something" about it. Reformers abound with plans to "transform" it. In this masterful history of education, the first of its kind, Diane Ravitch finds that a century of reformers is just what has brought American schools to their dumbed-down dysfunctional state. Throughout the 20th century, school reform has followed a predictable pattern — jettison boring old academic rigor for the latest in avant-garde educational fads. Ravitch's chronicle of well-intentioned reforms (including misbegotten innovations like bilingualism and perennial efforts to substitute "relevant," vocational, and anti-intellectual Mickey Mouse programs in place of the basics or the best that has been thought and said) is must reading for anyone who worries about education in America.

"The most important book written in many decades about America's most important public institution." — The New Republic

"She has produced a thoughtful — and convincing — inquest to the wrongheaded ways of 20th-century educational practice.... In compellingly lucid prose, Ravitch argues that over the last century experts (mainly from the elite teachers' colleges) sought to move American students away from the touchstones of a liberal education — Latin, algebra, history — and into classes the professors deemed more appropriate for children of the great unwashed.... Ravitch doesn't offer an explicit blueprint for reform. But her startling account does tell us in strong English what hasn't worked. It's — well, it's quite an education." — Newsday

"School reform in past decades has embraced a belief in the powerful capacities of education, above all the belief that the right schools can overcome many social problems, if not all of them. The decline and fall of that belief is a long, sad story — a century long, by a certain reckoning — which Ms. Ravitch recounts with concision and panache.... It is a tale both stirring and depressing....[I]n her excellent, if somber, final chapter, Ms. Ravitch does draw some important lessons.... Whenever I complain, and I do complain, about the failure of our schools, I remind myself of its many triumphs. One of these is Diane Ravitch, a public-school product herself, whose latest book does so much to convey what went wrong with the schools — and what is still right about them." — The Wall Street Journal

"Plainly written and abundantly documented, this opinionated history of the 'permanent debate' about school standards, curricula and methods should initiate new discussions about the purpose of American schools. Taking a firm stance in favor of liberal education, Ravitch argues that the ascent of so-called progressive education has undermined the intellectual development of students and the democratic principles of American society.... [S]he persuasively advocates a return to the 'fundamental mission of teaching and learning' as the cure for the anti-intellectualism that ails American schools. Like THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND, this is a personal crusade, but unlike Allan Bloom, Ravitch is anchored in a dispassionate history of the ways education has failed this country's children." — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"One comes away from LEFT BACK contemplating not why our schools are so bad but why the are as good as they are." — Indianapolis Star

"Of all the debates in education, this argument between traditionalists and self-styled 'progressives' is the longest-running and the most important. In her excellent new book, Diane Ravitch makes a thoughtful and powerful case that time-honored subjects...should be at the heart of what is taught in today's classrooms....[I]f you're a parent or concerned citizen worried about what's happening to our schools, you will find that this volume is worth your time and money. And Ms. Ravitch is a good writer and storyteller." — The Washington Times

"Nobody understands American education better than Diane Ravitch. In this provocative and illuminating book, she shows how important it is to defend the perennial principles of sound schooling against wave after wave of misguided educational fads." — Michael Lind, Senior Fellow, The New America Foundation

"No one should hold forth on the problems of American schools without reading this valuable book — and that goes for presidential candidates, too." — Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

"LEFT BACK must be read by any American concerned with education. Diane Ravitch tells us what has gone wrong with education. Even more important, she tells us what can go right — a combination of broad democratic values and real learning. Her virtues shine through this truly important book: radical independence of thought, clarity, learning, care for children, and immense integrity." — Catharine R. Stimpson, Dean, Graduate School of Arts and Science, New York University

"In a wonderful new book, LEFT BACK: A Century of Failed School Reforms, Diane Ravitch, a critical scholar of education who served as assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education in the Bush Administration, argues that public school suffered when educationists decided that social reform was more important than disciplined academic teaching. Miss Ravitch focuses on the breakdown of traditionalism in public school classrooms that caused academic standards to deteriorate in lower schools, but it's not hard to see in her research a direct line of anti-intellectualism in the lower grades that led to the fashionable silliness at the university level, as well." — The Washington Times

"If at least three authors hadn't already claimed the title Paved with Good Intentions for their books, it would have served well for Diane Ravitch's latest — and best — history of education reform in the United States....Fairly read, it could frame the education debate for the 21st century." — Christian Science Monitor

"Here's the highest compliment to Diane Ravitch's work: The people who disagree with her, no less than those who agree, know she has studied our schools more deeply, has thought about them more insightfully, and is more committed to helping children learn than just about anyone in our country. LEFT BACK might be seen as the Summa Theologica of her lifetime of investigation: brilliant, elegant and important." — E.J. Dionne, Jr., author of THEY ONLY LOOK DEAD

"For more than a century, writes Diane Ravitch in her new book LEFT BACK, the 'in' crowd has been the 'progressive' educators, the inheritors of a tradition that began with John Dewey.... Her positions on issues like standards and multiculturalism are far more enhanced than her critics often give her credit for, and she has a talent, as Albert Shanker did, of speaking her mind, irritating friends and foes alike...[T]here is no denying that Ravitch is a fierce opponent of what she perceives as a virulent anti-intellectual strain in the teachings of dozens of educators whom she describes, somewhat reductively, as 'progressive.' The history of their ideas is the subject of LEFT BACK.... Ravitch's case against the progressives is persuasive.... Her book is best understood as a scathing indictment of the ed-school 'in crowd.'" — The New York Times Book Review

"Diane Ravitch's fourth book analyzing the problems and promises of education could easily be titled The Cost of Tinkering with Our Schools. It gives us a sad itemization of the price we have paid for our rash and often idiosyncratic experimentation with our most critical institution...[A] sobering...worthwhile book...[It] does far more than simply bemoan the past and criticize the present state of schools, however. It also provides concise advice on what we must do to correct their deficiencies. As such, it is an important book for every American to read and should be a primer and source book for education policymakers. Democratic and Republican candidates are joining the nation's governors in including strong education reform planks in their political platforms. Each group would do well to learn in depth the history lesson Ravitch provides in LEFT BACK." — Denver Post

"Diane Ravitch is one of America's most important scholars of education. Her latest book, LEFT BACK, documents the (ongoing) conflict between progressivism and traditionalism in the fight to improve our schools over the last one hundred years. It is essential reading for anyone interested in how our schools got to be the way they are, and what we can do about it." — William J. Bennett

"Diane Ravitch is a national treasure. No one understands better the essential predicament of our schools. LEFT BACK tells the sad history of how, in the name of democratic values, educational elites have pushed on our schools political nostrums and notions of 'relevance' that have impoverished the intellectual substance of the curriculum, with tragic consequences for educational opportunity in America." — Benno C. Schmidt, Jr., Chairman, Edison Schools

"Diane Ravitch has long been one of the sanest voices among the country's education experts....In her new book on the various 'progressive' reforms that have swept over the country's schools during the last hundred years, Ravitch confirms her standing not only as our preeminent historian of education, but also...as the most consistent of educational egalitarians...[A] masterful book...Ravitch's richly documented chronicle of a century of educational folly makes an invaluable contribution to the ongoing debate about our schools. In particular, it will provide embattled parents with much-needed historical perspective, helping them to say no the next time teachers and administrators try to pass off the latest educational fad as if it were scientific truth." — Commentary

"A 555-page chronicle covering one hundred years of pedagogical self-deception (which is what this book does, as its title indicates), is not a jolly read, but is worth the pain.... Eye-opening...Diane Ravitch forcefully demonstrates the perverse nostrums of progressive education." — Times Educational Supplement

"[Y]ou will find Diane Ravitch's invaluable new book, LEFT BACK: A Century of Failed School Reforms, most enlightening.... Ravitch's overall recommendations are excellent, but some questions arise.... But such questions are only testimony to Diane Ravitch's continuing importance to the education debates. Her artful recounting of the history and consequences of the reform movement in America's schools adds incalculably to our understanding of the present state of education, and is a contribution that only a scholar of Ravitch's stature could have made." — National Review

"[I]mpeccable scholarship and withering logic.... An incisive examination of failed utopian schemes in the classroom." — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"[H]er latest extraordinary tome on education....This is a hugely important work that every parent, grandparent, teacher, and conscious politician should read." — Liz Smith

"[A] timely volume on the nation's educational history...sobering...[An] exhaustive and clearly polemical book." — Newark Star-Ledger

"Ravitch goes at it with energy and enthusiasm, constructing a gallery of heroes and villains many readers won't have heard of. (One of the virtues of LEFT BACK is that it reminds us that most of the educational battles of the moment, which are usually discussed as if they were carryovers from the cultural warfare of the sixties, have actually been going on for a hundred years.)...What gives LEFT BACK its heart is Ravitch's constant, impassioned insistence that schools must make 'intense moral commitment to the intellectual development of each child.'...If Ravitch had merely defended the academic curriculum, she would have produced a valuable book, but, by linking this position inextricably to educational universalism, she has also made herself into a plausible champion of democracy...In the educational realm, LEFT BACK will be unpopular. In the political realm, Ravitch has already won the argument. Whether that means that the history she sorrowfully recounts in LEFT BACK is now going to be undone will be just about the most interesting question in politics over the next few years." — Nicholas Lemann, The New Yorker

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