Diane Ravitch, Unreliable Historian?

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.

12 Responses to Diane Ravitch, Unreliable Historian?

  1. matthewladner says:

    “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 noticed that Ravitch is quick to claim authority based on her longevity and self-imagined status. Of course, such things are no substitute for providing evidence and employing logic.

    Perhaps this is a difference in professional norms between social scientists and historians (I hope not) but I have never had a political scientist or economist try to offer “because I said so” or “I’m experienced and distinguished” as a point in a debate.

    • Greg Forster says:

      I have never had a political scientist or economist try to offer “because I said so” or “I’m experienced and distinguished” as a point in a debate.

      Really? Guess you didn’t spend much time in academia. 🙂

      • matthewladner says:

        Did I get out when the getting was good?

        My experience with even liberal social scientists has been that they look at the world as a model and will happily offer evidence as to whether model A, B or C is closest to reality. “I changed John F. Kennedy’s diapers” doesn’t constitute evidence in such a discussion…

  2. I’d be very surprised to learn that Gist was disrespectful. Back when I was conducting my first cost analysis of DC public schools, Gist and her staff were consistently helpful and courteous in response to my questions. I remember being impressed that she quickly returned an e-mail from me late on a Sunday evening. All of that despite the fact that I’d long been on the record as critical of state schooling in general and the DC system in particular. That showed class.

  3. Greg Forster says:

    Here is another datum you could have cited. Back in 2009 Ravitch set off a big debate by claiming that unions hadn’t been an obstacle to reform in Massachusetts; Robert Costrell more or less ended the discussion by 1) laying out his eyewitness testimony on how the Massachusetts unions had worked tirelessly to block and undermine reform, and 2) recounting how Ravitch had once solicited an article from him on that very subject, and had praised it at the time as “great.”

    Special bonus: Buried deep in the comment thread is my personal favorite joke that I ever made on JPGB.

  4. Paul Hoss says:

    The only thing I wonder about Ravitch’s Whittaker Chambers-like metamorphosis on the ed reform debate is her income, as it relates to her book and the nationwide tour she’s made resulting from said. Her change has resulted in the preaching to the choir of the educational establishment, all the insecure teachers out there worried they might soon be judged not on some subjective dog and pony show observation by their administrator but on objective data, the test results of their students.

    Scared? Many of these teachers don’t know where to turn. Enter Diane Ravitch and her book, followed closely by the nationwide lecture circuit, espousing everything teachers want to hear. So who is paying for this tour with its travel expenses? Is she being remunerated at every stop? Quite a tidy little windfall if she’s not paying for the travel out of her own pocket and picks up a check at every stop.

  5. Paul,

    I’m inclined to think that the adoration and attention are better explanations than the money. Fragile egos like money but they like a cult-like following even more.

  6. Deborah Amis says:

    I heard Ravich speak in Boston and in Providence.She’s a legend in her own mind.Gist’s teachers want to see that tape. Ravich said many vicious things about Deborah while in Boston.Now she’s copping out with religion.What doesn’t she reverse her mind on when it comes to seeking cult-like followings to boost her insecurities.Ask Whitney Tilsen about her reversals to seek approval.Ravich is me, me, me and nobody else. She’s a union-owed mouthpiece touting her own greatness throughout the nation.

  7. Walter Lewis says:

    Although this is clearly a right-wing blog, and therefore obviously biased against both teachers and unions, I must grudgingly agree with you that it would be best for all if the video were released.

  8. Jean Lehane says:

    I don’t know the validity to these claims…but do know Diane Ratvich is nationally renowned and respected. I think there may have been a tiny bit of collusion going on so the story favored Gist. What in RI, collusion -naaaah! But hey I am all for sunshine…if there is a video of the proceedings, lets see it. Note that Chafee says it was a “lively” discussion…hmmmm.

    What I CAN tell you is that when I tried to get information from Gist on her Facebook page about Common Core State standards – She blocked me from her page, b/c she accused me of spreading “conspiracy theories” which many btw turned out to be accurate. I dislike CCSS and I don’t trust Gist. She is in this state so she can privatize public education and then she is off to bigger and better things nationally. The RI Board of Regents should have listened to the educators in this state when they voted no confidence on her and canned her.

  9. […] Dr. Gist and others had a completely different recollection of this encounter. Blogger Jay Greene published a counter argument that strongly contradicts Ravitch’s version. According to Greene, Gist described the session […]

  10. […] blows apart some unsubstantiated claims that have circulated among such high-profile figures as Diane Ravitch and the Big Apple’s new school chancellor, Carmen […]

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