As I’ve wondered before, how do we know whether historians, like Diane Ravitch, are actually reliable in their account of what happened? Unlike quantitative empirical analyses, which can be replicated relatively easily by other scholars and have pretty well-established norms for quality work, we often have to rely on the authority of the historian and trust that he or she is accurate. Yes, other historians can read the same original documents and dispute a historian’s interpretation, but few historians work on the same highly specialized questions and readers never know whether disputes among historians reveal a serious error of scholarship or just a reasonable difference of interpretation.
I bring all of this back up because there is a new dispute involving Diane Ravitch’s reliability in providing an accurate account of events. The events involve a meeting she had with Rhode Island Governor, Lincoln Chafee, the state’s education Commissioner, Deborah Gist, and some aides. Ravitch felt that Gist was rude, constantly interrupted her, and generally behaved in an unacceptable manner.
Ravitch was so insulted that she wrote a blog post about it. According to her account of events:
Gist is clearly a very smart, articulate woman. But she dominated the conversation, interrupted me whenever I spoke, and filibustered to use up the limited time. Whenever I raised an issue, she would interrupt to say, “That isn’t happening here.” She came to talk, not to listen. It became so difficult for me to complete a sentence that at one point, I said, “Hey, guys, you live here all the time, I’m only here for a few hours. Please let me speak.” But Gist continued to cut me off. In many years of meeting with public officials, I have never encountered such rudeness and incivility. I am waiting for an apology.
Ravitch’s complaints generated an article in the Providence newspaper in which she elaborated on her interpretation of events:
“Over the past half-century, I have met with many governors, state superintendents, congressmen, senators, Cabinet members, and every president since Lyndon B. Johnson (I met John F. Kennedy in 1958, when he was senator from Massachusetts),” Ravitch wrote in an e-mail to The Journal Tuesday afternoon. “I have never encountered such behavior.”
Deborah Gist has a very different recollection of events. According to Sean Cavanaugh’s reporting on this over at his Ed Week blog:
Gist remembers things differently. In an interview with me Friday afternoon, she described the session, which lasted 50 minutes, as a “productive meeting and a good conversation.”…
“I certainly didn’t feel like I’d been disrespected, and I didn’t feel that I’d disrespected her,” Gist told me. “I feel like it’s unfortunate that any of us are spending time on it, because we all have more important things to work on.”
Governor Chafee, who is not generally an ally of Commissioner Gist, confirms Gist’s account. He issued the following statement after Ravitch raised a ruckus about Gist’s “rudeness”:
“I was very glad that Deborah Gist, our Commissioner of Education, was able to join me and several statewide labor leaders for a private conversation with Diane Ravitch during Ms. Ravitch’s recent visit toRhode Island. We enjoyed a lively discussion about many aspects of education reform. From my perspective, Commissioner Gist comported herself in an appropriate and respectful way at all times during this discussion.”
Which account should we believe? Ravitch is a prominent authority on education and acclaimed historian, as she and her horde of acolytes repeatedly remind us. If we can’t trust her to provide an accurate account of events in her own life, how are we supposed to trust her account of events in the past, pieced together from various archival documents. If she just weaves a story to suit her purposes, regardless of its accuracy, that would be very worrisome.
Fortunately, there was also a documentary film-maker present who videotaped the exchange between Ravitch and Gist. The film-maker is a bit skittish about getting involved in this controversy and so will only release the tape if all parties agree. Gist has consented and Ravitch has asked to see the video before giving her permission. This is an important test of Ravitch’s credibility. If she is the reliable chronicler of events that she claims, she should be eager to have the video released to confirm her account.
So far she has not given permission, and there may be good reason why she may refuse ever to do so. According to others who have viewed the tape, it does not support Ravitch’s account. According to one source, Gist does interrupt Ravitch once during the 50 minute meeting while Ravitch interrupts Gist 6 times. I can’t be sure whether this source is accurate, but the simple way to resolve this uncertainty is for Ravitch to allow the video to be released so we can all see the truth and know just how reliable she is.
There are good reasons to doubt Ravitch’s credibility. First, the statement from Governor Chafee contradicts Ravitch’s account even though he has no particular motive to do so. Second, Ravitch clearly has an inflated ego, thin-skin, and has been unreliable in other claims she has made. And third, Gist is eager to have the video released while Ravitch so far has not given her consent. It sounds like Ravitch has more to hide.
Let’s see the video. And if Ravitch does not allow it, we can assume what the video contains.