Is Ravitch Really A Great Historian?

Given Diane Ravitch’s clear record of selectively and misleadingly citing the evidence on current education debates, we should wonder whether her much-lauded historical work contains similar distortions.  Someone so willing to pick and choose the evidence to serve her argument about current debates may well have the same proclivity to advance her preferred historical interpretation.

Detecting how Ravitch selectively reads the current evidence is relatively easy because the full scope of current research is knowable without too much effort.  But the full set of historical evidence from which an author chooses is less easily known to a lay reader.  How can anyone beyond the handful of scholars who have reviewed the original documents on a particular subject know whether Diane Ravitch or any other historian is correctly selecting and interpreting historical evidence?

The reality is that we can’t.  Most people tend to think that a historian is good because he or she writes well and makes an argument that is generally preferred by the reader.  It’s even unreliable to fully trust the opinion of other historians when assessing the quality of historical work.  Very few historians are intimately familiar with the same material, especially if the topic is highly specialized — like the history of American education.  And among those few historians their judgment on the quality of another person’s work may be colored by their professional interests in advancing similar interpretations or hindering opposing ones.

In short, it is very hard to know whether someone is really a great historian.  It is certainly harder to know the quality of historical work than empirical social science, especially when data sets are widely available and analyses can be replicated without too much effort.

Given that it is hard to know the quality of historical work and given Diane Ravitch’s distortion of the evidence in current debates, I’m inclined to doubt the quality of her earlier historical work.  Ravitch may have changed her views on some things but I highly doubt she has changed her standards of scholarship.  So, if her scholarship is lousy now, perhaps it was lousy before.

I’d be curious to hear examples that anyone may have of where Ravitch was sloppy or misleading in her historical work.  I bet they are out there even if they are harder to discover than her current sloppy and misleading work.

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12 Responses to Is Ravitch Really A Great Historian?

  1. GGW says:

    Robert Butche of Ohio State – check out Amazon.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    That Robert Butche critique doesn’t strike me as very powerful. Butche’s complaint more or less boils down to the assertion that Ravitch sees only bad, nothing good, in Dewey and in educational progressivism. Well, yes – and can you point to anything good? What if there really is nothing good in Dewey? That’s certainly my impression based on my own exposure to him (which I admit is less than either Ravitch or Butche have). If Butche can point to something specific that he thinks Ravitch missed, well and good. But he doesn’t. He just complains that Ravitch only brings bad evidence about Dewey and progressivism. But what if that’s truly all there is?

    Butche’s critique is all about motive. He denounces “her mission to discredit the philosophical model and the professional qualifications of thousands of dedicated and thoughtful educators.” But what if their model and qualifications really are bad, and really do need discrediting?

    “Ravitch derides the entire progressive era as destructive to both profession and students.” But what if it really was? Where is the counterevidence?

    “If Ravitch’s intent was to add yet another book to her collection of politically motivated attacks on what she portrays as weak minded progressives she has clearly succeeded.” But if the progressives really are weakminded, why does it matter what Ravitch’s motive is for pointing this out? And if you want to convince me they’re not, where is your evidence?

    Again, I admit Butche knows Dewey and progressivism better than I do. If he has evidence to point to, I’m very willing to hear it. But until Butche points to something specific Ravitch missed, I’m going to call him out for the hemisphere fallacy.

    Oh and then there was this gem: “Shall we drive all the pinko socialists out of education?” Um…yes?

  3. Ryan says:

    Well, this was mature, Jay. Based off of reading this post I’m going to assume that your earlier posts are likely petulant harangues as well; goose and gander, and all that.

  4. Robin Bingham says:

    It’s interesting that someone whose entire job is underwritten by Walmart, and is tasked with arguing for a very specific set of policies, should be trying to discredit someone else based on the idea she ‘picks and chooses the evidence to serve her argument about current debates.’ You might have a little more street cred if you weren’t calling the kettle black.

    • Patrick says:

      I hate when people make this logical fallacy about who funds or employs another. That can be thrown around at anyone and everyone leaving any and every argument worthless if we accept it. For example, just because someone is a Democrat or works for a union doesn’t mean that everything they say or write has no factual basis.

      Accusing people of thinking X way just because they are funded by Y party is intellectually lazy. Prove Dr. Greene wrong by supplying counterpoints … to the points he’s actually making.

  5. Robin — If you are going to accuse me of cherry-picking evidence, you have to back-up that allegation with evidence. Yes, I’ve accused Ravitch of cherry-picking, but I’ve also provided documentation of how she’s done that. You fail to present evidence for your claim — sort of like what Diane Ravitch regularly does.

  6. You ask a decent question.

    I have always assumed that historians have a point of view and select evidence to support it. What else can they do? The volume of historical material is vast. I admire Ravitch for her high tolerance for nonsense, which she demonstrated in reading source material for __Left Back__. Even then, it was clear that she was “conservative” in the authoritarian style, entertaining fantasies of using government power to compel instruction in a classical curriculum.

    One of the few histories that does not set out to prove a thesis is Joachim Remak’s __The Origins of World War I__, which perhaps advances the thesis that all theses are tentative and partial truths.

  7. There is no reason to have anything but the upmost respect for a truly informed and insightful critic, and supporter, of public education. And with credentials, Ravitch has every right to express an opinion. To argue she misrepresents the facts is to simply take exception to one person’s opinion of an ocean worth of data. It is disingenuous to criticize her knowledge or awareness of the vastness of the issue … and her credibility to speak exceeds most in the country, not to mention most who are simply familiar with education policy and feel because they went to school or work in one they have the de facto truth on an issue such as the “success” or “failure” of public education.

  8. Florida Speaks says:

    Ravitch has been named as recipent of the Moynihan award recently. Congrats!

  9. [...] Jay Greene Assessing the Quality of Diane Ravitch’s Scholarship: “Given that it is hard to know the quality of historical work and given Diane Ravitch’s distortion of the evidence in current debates, I’m inclined to doubt the quality of her earlier historical work.  Ravitch may have changed her views on some things but I highly doubt she has changed her standards of scholarship.  So, if her scholarship is lousy now, perhaps it was lousy before.” (Jay P. Green’s Blog) [...]

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