Category Archives: Reading List

Thoughts On History, Ideology, and Kevin Carey’s Profile of Diane Ravitch

The New Republic has published a provocative profile of Diane Ravitch by my friend Kevin Carey, and it serves as a useful companion to the profile of Ravitch I wrote in June. Kevin, who works for the standards and accountability think tank Education Sector, is unsurprisingly more harshly critical of Ravitch than I was. He focuses a great deal of attention on her shortcomings as a historian, and while I think it's fair to point out that an ideological, polemical writing style has colored all of Ravitch's work, it's also the case that many celebrated, serious historians have held ideological worldviews, from Charles Beard to David Hofstadter to the Schlesingers. Gordon Wood's The Idea of America contains a lot of interesting thinking on the contributions and limitations of history colored by contemporary political concerns, and I think Ravitch's style follows the politically-engaged example set by the progressive historians in particular.

But unlike some her male role models, as a young woman, wife, and mother while she was working on her first major work, The Great School Wars, Ravitch faced what I have every reason to believe was a real and significant amount of sexism from the historical establishment, which took neither women nor public schools (as a subject matter) particularly seriously. Ravitch also experienced discrimination in the journalism world, when she interned at the Washington Post as a college student. There, it was made clear to her that women should not aspire to be reporters. So one reason Ravitch is argumentative and tough is because she's had to be that way in order to be taken seriously in a series of male-dominated professional and intellectual circles. Undoubtedly, her personality is also inherently confrontational and competitive, from her years as a teen drag racer to her recent delight in sparring with Joel Klein via email and with her many critics on Twitter.

Kevin allows that although Ravitch's positions on testing and school choice have flip-flopped, she has been constant on the need for a core curriculum. He is less sympathetic to Ravitch's defense of classroom teachers and their unions, but here, too, she has been fairly consistent. It's strange that The New Republic doesn't mention that some of Ravitch's most influential journalism was published in that magazine's pages. Her 1987 collection The Schools We Deserve reprints some of that work, including a 1983 essay, "Scapegoating the Teachers," which declares:

It is comforting to blame teachers for the low state of education, because it relieves so many others of their own responsibility for years of educational neglect.

This is very much a position Ravitch would take today. It's also worth noting that her affiliation with the anti-Communist left, dating back to her time at the small opinion magazine The New Leader, made her close friends with Al Shanker and some other labor folks who developed, as Ravitch did, neoconservative tics. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Shanker sent Ravitch on a speaking tour to newly-organized Eastern European teachers' unions, so she has always been comfortable as an ally of organized labor. 

In short, I believe that to understand Ravitch, you must understand her as a certain sort of lifelong counterintutive liberal, not all that constitutionally different, come to think of it, from the editors who established the tone of Slate and The New Republic in the 1980s and 1990s. Those magazines moved left when confronted with the the know-nothing conservatism of the post 9/11 era, and Ravitch has moved left, too, though she has applied her new beliefs to a subject — school reform — that many liberals continue to see through the lens of the bipartisan consensus that developed around "A Nation at Risk." Whether that center will hold over the coming years depends, I think, on how history evaluates the education reform records of Bloomberg, Klein, Rhee and their allies. Right now, I think we're lacking the perspective and longterm data we need to truly make that assessment, but as Kevin points out, Ravitch has put herself out in front of the debate by essentially predicting, before all the evidence is in, that this movement has failed.

Brain Crush

Hofstadter photo

With all the reading I'm doing for my book proposal, there is one person who I think deeply got the various dysfunctions of the American school system and, more importantly, the American cultural conception of education itself: Richard Hofstader. If you haven't already, you should really read Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. It is one of those eerie experiences where you feel the work could have been written today–Penn State scandal!–but it dates to 1963:

A host of educational problems have arisen from indifference—underpaid teachers, overcrowded classrooms, double-schedule schools, broken-down school buildings, inadequate facilities and a number of other failings that come from something else—the cult of athleticism, marching bands, high-school drum majorettes, ethnic ghetto schools, de-intellectualized curricula, the failure to educate in serious subjects, the neglect of academically gifted children. At times the schools of the country seem to be dominated by athletics, commercialism, and the standards of the mass media, and these extend upwards to a system of higher education whose worst failings were underlined by the bold president of the University of Oklahoma, who hoped to develop a university of which the football team could be proud. Certainly some ultimate educational values seem forever to be eluding the Americans. At great effort and expense they send an extraordinary proportion of their young to colleges and universities, but their young, when they get there, do not seem to care even to read

On a side note, Hofstadter was one of many New Deal-generation liberal thinkers put-off by the theatrics of the 1960s student protest movements and by hippyism more generally. I must have some kind of subconscious attraction toward these types, because when I was profiling Diane Ravtich, a similar period of her life fascinated me, though she is much younger. A lot of these folks moved right for a period of time, and it's interesting to wonder how Hofstadter's thinking might have evolved had he lived to complete the three-part, comprehensive American social history he planned to write.

I just ordered this biography on Kindle, so perhaps I will have more to say about Hofstadter soon. In the meantime, happy weekend. 

The “Policy” Books I Recommend Most Often

I've been asked a few times over the past year to recommend books for writers new to education or to social policy more broadly, and I thought it might be fun and useful to share this list on the blog. These are titles I turn back to constantly, both as references and as touchstones for my own thinking about education, public health, gender, race, and class. Interestingly, none of these books were written by policy wonks; rather, they are by journalists, sociologists, and historians with a strong grasp of how public policies operate in the real world. 

David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering Toward Utopia

There are many interesting histories of American education, but this is a history of American education reform–the cyclical churn of philanthropists', politicians', academics', and business leaders' attempts to improve our public schools. From test-driven instruction to merit pay to small schools, what goes around in American education history truly does come around again, often despite poor track records for students. Why do so many American education reforms fail? Because they are deployed with little understanding of how schools and teachers work on-the-ground, relying too much on visionary ideas and too little on the practical knowledge of experienced educators.  Tyack and Cuban's classic offers a bracing reminder that when it comes to policy-making, realism and humility are just as important as "innovation" and "big ideas"

Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep

Two sociologists report from inner-city Philadelphia on how low-income women approach relationships, sex, pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting, finding that across racial lines, many unmarried mothers want and even actively plan their pregnancies. In part this is because in communities in which higher education and decent jobs remain largely out of reach, motherhood is viewed as the key marker of adult womanhood. The book challenges the Bush administration's emphasis on promoting marriage among the poor, demonstrating that many welfare moms choose not to live with or marry their children's fathers because those men are unemployed, abusive, addicted, or otherwise unable to fulfill the basic responsibilities of family life. In other words, marriage promotion won't work unless it is accompanied by real anti-poverty, pro-jobs measures that help poor men become more attractive mates. But some of my own pro-choice talking points were also challenged by Promises, which depicts abortion as an afterthought to these women, many of whom oppose the procedure for moral and religious reasons and wouldn't seriously consider it as an alternative to bearing children they are hard-pressed to support. When it comes to birth control, most of the women in Promises do know how to access and use it, but often abandon the Pill or condoms as a way to prove commitment and love to their male partner. The book serves as a reminder that poor single moms, like the rest of us, base their decisions on a complex mix of well-reasoned costs and benefits and messy human emotions. 

Paul Tough, Whatever it Takes

This is magazine journalist Paul Tough's admiring account of the various programs within the Harlem Children's Zone. In addition to making a powerful case for an education reform agenda that combines in-school efforts with out-of-school supports around health, nutrition, and childcare, Tough cogently reviews 50 years worth of academic thinking on the causes and effects of poverty, including the latest evidence on how poverty impacts cognitive development during early childhood and even in the womb. Best of all, he does all of this while building a page-turning narrative around the real lives of Harlem parents and children.

Annette Lareau, Unequal Childhoods

A groundbreaking sociological study that defined two fundamentally different American parenting styles: "concerted cultivation," generally practiced by middle-class, affluent, and college-educated parents; and "natural growth," generally practiced by poor and working class parents. Both styles have benefits and drawbacks. More affluent kids are better at challenging authority and talking to strangers, and also benefit from more athletic and artistic enrichment. Working class kids have less sibling rivalry, less stress, and tend to enjoy closer ties within their extended families and neighborhoods. When it comes to academic success, however, the deck is stacked against kids raised by "natural growth" parents, who are less likely to know how to deploy a school's resources in their child's favor. This book reminds us how "formed" children are by their home lives before they ever enter a classroom–and what a difficult job teachers face in tailoring instruction to a classroom of students who may come from very different kinds of families. 

Donna Foote, Relentless Pursuit

If you read one book about Teach for America, this should be the one. Foote shadows a group of TFA recruits as they undergo trial by fire in Los Angeles public schools, demonstrating these young people's extraordinary commitment, but also the program's limited ability to overcome the lack of resources, professional development support, and competent administration within many inner city schools. Foote also reveals the sometimes strange group think behind TFA's missionary zeal, and the way in which some recruits simply find the program–and high-poverty teaching itself–impossible to balance with a normal personal life.

Matt Yglesias, Susan Moller Okin, and Michelle Obama

Matt Yglesias has done an interesting interview with The Browser about five books that have influenced his work. He names one of my all-time favorites: Justice, Gender, and the Family by Susan Moller Okin. 

I really love what Matt had to say about Okin's work (emphasis is mine):

This is definitely a book I recommend to men. A lot of men who have left-wing political views of one kind or another say, “Well of course I’m a feminist! Of course women’s equality is important.” They pay lip service to that goal. But being men, they do not necessarily have a visceral sense of what these questions are all about. Susan Okin has written a book which is not visceral at all. It’s an intellectual book, it’s very abstract. It engages with all of the “great men” of political theory through a feminist lens, in a very rigorous and analytical way. She shows that the exclusion of women from centuries of conversation – about what equality, liberalism and freedom mean – has had a really distorting influence. I think the main message of her book is that you can’t take a political order that’s been constructed over hundreds of years on the basis of the disempowerment of women, and then one day say, as a kind of add-on, “oh and also we’ll treat women fairly”. Once you take seriously the idea that women are equal, you actually have to rethink social and political institutions from the ground up.

Yes! As Matt mentions, this is most obviously a problem when we look at women's rate of participation in electoral politics. About 17 percent of the U.S. Congress is female; only about 13 percent of the members of all parliamentary bodies worldwide are women. Numbers are similarly depressing among CEOs and even non-profit executives. 

There are lots of reasons why this is the case — after all, we're facing down centuries of business and political life being culturally coded, in most times and places, as male — but one of the big ones has to be that within hetero couples, homemaking and child-rearing work tends to fall disproportionately on women. Even when women do work outside the home, they do about four times as much childcare and two times as much housework as their husbands. This leaves women less able to take on uber-ambitious public roles, whether in politics or other fields.

Susan Moller Okin wanted individuals and society-at-large to become much more aware of the trade-0ffs women are forced to make when their partners don't step up. One of her more radical proposals in this regard is that when one member of a married couple does not work outside the home, the working spouse's income should be split in half and paid equally to each partner. Riffing off this idea (which, let's face it, is really more of a thought experiment) I wrote a column two years ago on the role of the First Lady. I was inspired not only by Okin, but by Michelle Obama, who once told a second-grade girl that she should think twice about wanting to be First Lady, because the job is unpaid:

The job of first lady is so crucial that our one bachelor president, James Buchanan, appointed his niece to carry out the traditional duties. So considering the varied social and political services the first lady–or, one day, the first gentleman–renders to the United States, don’t taxpayers owe her a salary?

Not so, argues historian Jonathan Zimmerman in the San Francisco Chronicle. If we paid the first lady, Zimmerman writes, wouldn’t the vice president’s spouse expect a salary and maybe even the spouses of senators? After all, they too have numerous duties. During a recession, we must be more frugal. “Living ‘only’ on the president’s $400,000 salary, however, [the Obamas will] make eight times as much as the average American household,” Zimmerman points out. “It’s hard to see why they need a second income.”

It is true that the Obamas don’t need the money. But that’s no reason to deny the president’s partner compensation for her work. The salary for the first lady could be garnished from her husband’s wages. Since we expect our presidents to be just one half of a 24/7 public-relations team, why not pay the president less–say $300,000–and make out the remainder of the check to his wife?

It might sound radical, but I’m not the first person to suggest salary-sharing as a solution. In her 1989 classic, Justice, Gender, and the Family, political philosopher Susan Moller Okin goes further, arguing that in couples made up of one stay-at-home and one working spouse, employers should pay each partner exactly 50 percent of the working spouse’s salary. “The household income is rightly shared, because in a real sense jointly earned,” Okin writes. “The wage-earning spouse is no more supporting the home-making and child-rearing spouse than the latter is supporting the former; the form of support each offers the family is simply different.”

Such a system would protect women, giving them the financial resources necessary to exit unhappy or abusive relationships. And while Michelle Obama is in no need of extra cash, paying her for a difficult job sets the right example.

Sunday Morning Reading List

This guy might be the craziest state legislator in the U.S. (and that's saying a lot): He introduced a bill that would require the Georiga police to investigate all miscarriages as murder and issue fetal death certificates.

study of Hebrew day school students finds they are skeptical of the information they are taught at school about Israel and Zionism, and prefer less biased sources of information.

The Tallahassee Democrat retells the story of the 1959 gang rape, by four white men, of Florida A&M student Betty Jean Owens. She was impregnated during the rape and had to travel to New York to obtain an abortion. At trial, Owens took the stand to testify against her rapists; one defense attorney referred to her as a "(N-word) wench" in front of the all-white, all-male jury. Nevertheless, the four men were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The trial was a civil rights watershed, helping to end the conspiracy of silence around white sexual violence against black women.

WNYC's Leonard Lopate interviews Liz Canner, director of the new documentary "Orgasm Inc.," about the pharmaceutical industry's desperate quest to create a "female Viagra," and whether normal female sexual response is being pathologized along the way.

If you've been following the Silvio Berlusconi news with interest and are looking for some context on Berlusconi's perverse, oligarchical tenure, it's worth revisiting Alexander Stille's April 2010 New York Review essay, "The Corrupt Reign of Emperor Silvio."

Random Interlude on Women in Rock Music History

For my book writing course, I am reading and really enjoying Girls Like Us, Sheila Weller's joint biography of Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Carly Simon. It's a page-turning, deeply-reported account of how female musicians in the sixties and seventies exploded popular notions of what was appropriate for women to write and sing and speak publicly about. There was Joni Mitchell's "Little Green," a love song to the daughter she had out of wedlock and gave up for adoption; Carole King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," an unmarried girl's cautiously hopeful–and wonderfully frank–ballad about entering into a sexual relationship; and Carly Simon singing "Nobody Does It Better," which Radiohead's Thom Yorke (decades later) called "the sexiest song ever written." (Watch this very 1980s Carly performance. He was sorta right.)

All three women experienced more than their fair share of heartbreak, but I was particularly moved by the story of Carole King's difficult early twenties. Her first husband and songwriting partner, Gerry Goffin, was not only a manic-depressive addict, but had an open affair–and a child–with Jeanie Reavis (stage name: Earl-Jean), a pop/soul singer with a gorgeous, smooth voice. It was Carole and Gerry who co-wrote Earl-Jean's classic hit, the love song "I'm Into Something Good." 


Carole found out about the affair and the baby, but didn't immediately leave Gerry. In fact, Goffin and King–by then hugely successful songwriters–bought a house in their white, suburban New Jersey neighborhood for Reavis to live in with her husband, their kids, and the new baby girl. 

Both marriages (surprise, surprise) eventually disolved, and Carole moved to Los Angeles, where she launched her massive solo folk-rock career. And I maintain that her own performances of her songs are the classic ones–they are just so deeply felt. Here is one of my all time favorite love songs. 


Reflecting on the First Histories of the 2008 Election: 2 Books Worth a Read!

Historian Julian Zelizer has a very nice essay at The Nation about Game Change, pondering how much we can really learn from the Heilemann-Halperin bestseller nine months after its initial release. Unsurprisingly, Zelizer concludes that as juicy and gripping as character-driven election narratives can be, they shed little light on the actual end result of campaigning: governing. Election narratives "exaggerate the possibility of change that elections can bring without fundamental reforms in the way that our institutions work," he writes.

Amen. And this gives me a good opportunity to link to my American Prospect review of two 2008 campaign retrospectives that don't fall nearly as deeply into this trap: Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women, by Rebecca Traister, and Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, by Ari Berman.

Traister and Berman each took nearly two years to sleep on the results of November 4, 2008 before publishing their deeply-reported books, and it shows. Big Girls Don't Cry is one of the best cultural analyses I've read of a political event; it is the first truly intersectional campaign chronicle, examining how race, sex, and class all shaped the debate–and boy, did they ever! One of my favorite things about this book is that although Traister identifies as a Hillary supporter, she totally eviscerates the argument that younger women who supported Obama were bad feminists. And she refuses to engage in Oppression Olympics, completely rejecting the reductionist argument that any ism–racism or sexism, in particular–is more morally outrageous than any other. (Warning: Prepare to take an emotional trip back to some of the most difficult inter-left debates of 07-08.)

Meanwhile, Herding Donkeys uses Howard Dean and his 50-state strategy as a lens through which to understand first, how Obama won, and second, why his popularity at the polls has not translated into a governing mandate to think big on progressive public policy, from economic justice to civil rights.

Both smart books, both by young authors you're going to hear a lot more about in coming years. And both will teach you WAY more about culture and politics in America than you'll learn dishing about Elizabeth Edwards yelling at her ex's campaign staffers. (No offense to Game Change. Like every other political journo, I read it and loved it even as I argued with it.)