Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who watches the watchers?), Juvenal, Satire VI
On January 21, 2020, Annie Murphy Paul’s “review” of Diane Ravitch’s Slaying Goliath appeared in The New York Times. Being reviewed in the Times is a big deal. Such a review affects public opinion and sales. That’s why a hatchet job in the Times on a truly important book is irresponsible.
In her new book, education historian Ravitch presents a recent history of the popular resistance to an “Education Reform Movement” led by billionaires interested in
- privatizing U.S. PreK-12 education via charter schools and vouchers,
- foisting upon the country a single set of national “standards,”
- busting teachers’ unions,
- selling depersonalized education software, and
- evaluating students, teachers, and schools based on high-stakes standardized tests.
Here’s Ms. Paul’s opening salvo:
“She came. She saw. She conquered.”
This opening is, of course, an allusion to the boast about his role in the Gallic Wars attributed to Julius Caesar by Appian, Plutarch, and Suetonius—Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered). Caesar’s is doubtless the most famous boast in Western history, and the allusion is meant to be deflating. Technically, the term for what Ms. Paul is attempting here is bathos, a powerful rhetorical technique in which one plunges the subject from an assumed sublimity into his, her, or its actual ridiculousness. She means to ridicule Ravitch as someone who sees herself as the great conqueror of the “Reform Movement.” Paul’s implication is that Ravitch’s book is an exercise in self-aggrandizement. That’s a pretty heavy (and nasty) charge with which to begin a review, don’t you think? I do.
And so the reader of Ms. Paul’s review is led, up front, to expect Ravitch’s book to be like Don the Con’s Art of the Deal. Trump’s book (if one can call it that; he didn’t write it) is ostensibly about how to become successful via negotiation, but it’s not, of course, about that. Like everything that comes from Trump’s mouth, this book is actually about Trump—about how great he is. It’s a work of pathological narcissism. Paul leads us to expect that Ravitch’s book, ostensibly about resistance to “Reform” or “Deform,” will actually be about Ravitch, a portrait of herself as conquering hero. But there’s a problem with Paul’s opening (and, as it turns out, her thesis): it’s false and therefore dishonest. Ravitch’s book tells the stories of and heaps praise upon a great many fighters in the Resistance movement, but the one she doesn’t tell us much about at all is the de facto leader, or chief among equals, of that Resistance, Ravitch herself. Throughout, she makes the gift to her readers of inspiring stories of ordinary heroes—students and parents and teachers who spoke truth to power and won. Ravitch’s book is overwhelmingly, clearly, about them. Ravitch rarely appears in her own book, and when she does, it is as someone cheering these others on. (Oligarchs don’t appreciate or understand spontaneously emerging, self-assembling grass roots movements like the Resistance because they think that the only way to get “Out of Many, One’ is via coercion or bribery by an authoritarian.)
As an English teacher, I must give Paul’s opening a D-. Why? Well, there’s a reading issue. Yes, I understand that journalist’s deadlines are tight, and there’s often little time to read the book, write the copy, and submit the piece, but seriously, reviewers are actually supposed to read the books they review. And then there’s the writing issue. One of the most common flaws of puerile writing is the inability to “kill one’s darlings,” as Arthur Quiller-Couch put it. Yes, Ms. Paul, you came up with a cute opening, but it was dishonest, and you or your editor should have put a line through it. Not having done so is, well, in a word, amateurish.
After a little de rigueur background on Ravitch, Paul goes on to attack her for
- taking an “imperious” tone,
- engaging in “empty sloganeering and ad hominem attacks,”
- lacking “the subtle insight and informed judgment for which she was once known,” and
- being interested primarily “in settling scores and in calling [people] out by name” and in cataloguing “her vanquished foes.”
In other words, Ms. Paul makes against Ravitch, in a clearly imperious tone, a clearly ad hominem attack lacking in subtle insight and informed judgment.
Let’s consider, first, Ms. Paul’s lack of informed judgment. She blithely accuses Ravitch of “dismissing the call for a common standard [sic] as a corporate plot to create a uniform market for educational products.” By “a common standard” Paul means “common standards.” Is her reference to “a common standard” simply sloppy writing, or is it an attempt to be more Deformy than the next guy? One can’t tell.
If Ms. Paul had done a little background research, she would have learned that
- Bill Gates, who made himself the wealthiest nonsovereign person in the world by leveraging ownership of the world’s most widely used personal computer operating system, was approached by Gene Wilhoit of the Council of Chief State School Officers and David Coleman, an education biz entrepreneur, and pitched the idea of a single set of national standards;
- Gates enthusiastically endorsed the idea, paid for the development of these “standards,” and then paid out hundreds of millions of dollars (and influenced the spending of many billions in taxpayer dollars) to promote them; and
- he did this, in his own words, so that with a single set of standards, “innovators” could “design tools that a lot of teachers could use.”
In other words, Gates believed that just as the standard Microsoft operating systems led to the creation of products like Word and Excel and other DOS- and then Windows-based PC software, a single set of standards would lead to education products of which Gates would likewise approve. As Gates himself put it, a single set of national standards would mean that “[f]or the first time, there will be a large uniform base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn.” Or, as the Gates enabler Joanne Weiss, Chief of Staff to Education Secretary Arne Duncan in charge of the childishly named and coercive Race to the Top program, put it:
The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.
I give Weiss credit. She knew exactly what was going down. The Common [sic] Core [sic] was a business plan, a strategic plan, to be precise.
So, Gates himself extolled as his purpose precisely the one that Ms. Paul tells us sprang totally from some lunatic imagining on the part of Diane Ravitch, and Gates’s messaging was parroted by his collection of official bobbleheads and action figures. Of course, having one set of national standards would create economies of scale that educational materials monopolists could exploit, enabling them to crowd out smaller competitors. Sound familiar? And Ms. Paul seems not to have noticed that the very corporate plotter who paid for the creation of this single bullet list of national “standards” also created a company, InBloom, the purpose of which was to develop, manage, and sell a Goliath-like, Orwellian national database of student grades, scores on high-stakes Common [sic] Core [sic] tests, and other information (including such highly personal information as records of student race and ethnicity, economic status, disabilities, and disciplinary actions). The InBloom database would have served as a kind of national gradebook, and curriculum developers, in order to use it, would have had to pay to play, would have had to become “partners” with InBloom, making the Gates company, effectively, the gatekeeper of U.S. curricula. It’s the same playbook for control used with DOS and Windows (whatever I create, it has to work with Windows, or it has to work with InBloom). Fortunately, student privacy issues and heroic Resistance fighters like Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters killed that monster in its cradle.
Not being informed by these facts, Ms. Paul fails in her judgment. But there is more evidence in this “review” that she didn’t do her homework. She speaks of “the collapse of the Common Core, a set of national academic standards that once seemed poised to take permanent effect.” If she had bothered to do even minimal research, by visiting the Common Core website, for example, she would have learned that “forty-one states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA)” are all using the Common Core today. And if she had dug a little deeper, she would have found that most of the remaining states have adopted standards very like the Common Core. Why is she so confused about this? Why does she think that the Common Core has “collapsed?” Well, the Common Core was and is a disaster. It was and is, in ELA, an almost content-free, backward, puerile bullet list of vague, abstract skills that ended up being treated as the de facto U.S. curriculum because of the high stakes attached the tests on the standards bullet list. Predictably, treating the abstract skills list as a de facto curriculum led to a dramatic trivialization and devolution of U.S. curricula and pedagogy. Ms. Paul doesn’t understand any of this; she simply, with the naivete and ignorance of someone pontificating outside her area of expertise, assumes that national “standards” must be a good idea.
While the Common [sic] Core [sic] didn’t “collapse,” as Paul claims, the well-merited pushback against the Coring of America was so extreme that the oh-so-reverend Mike Huckabee (Huckster-bee?) went to the annual C-PAC convention and advised attendees to go back to their states and give the one set of standards new, state-specific names, and that’s what they did—they carried out a studied, deliberate deception. It’s clear that Ms. Paul, having not done her homework, was deceived. Her report of the death of the Common [sic] Core [sic] is, sadly, not just exaggerated but simply false. Again, she failed to read Ravitch’s books carefully, and she didn’t do her homework. As a science journalist, Ms. Paul reads studies in fields that she is not herself expert in and then writes articles and books, for popular consumption, about these. So, she’s in the business of writing about matters about which she is not expert. But there are limits. Ignorance as profound as she evinces in this “review” should warn her off a topic. Everyone but Ms. Paul, it seems, knows that Gates and Coleman are still stomping through the garden of U.S. PreK-12 education in their big Common [sic] Core [sic] boots.
Second, let’s consider the other charge she levies against Ravitch—a lack of subtle insight. Ms. Paul devotes much of her “review” to attacking Ravitch for giving to “Education Reformers” the title “Disrupters” and calling the opposition the Resistance, with a capital R. Paul is clearly quite incensed by this. One would expect a journalist to understand, having studied political movements and messaging, the value of giving names to movements and messages. But, of course, the education tyro Paul is imagining herself as some objective observer, above factionalism of the kind indulged in by mere mortals like Ravitch. Paul accuses Ravitch of treating the other side unfairly, of not telling their story. Here, again, Paul channels Trump, who infamously referred to the neo-Nazis and their opponents gathered in Charlottesville as the “good people on both sides.” This is the same kind of heedless or sleazy (it’s one or the other; I prefer to think it the former) distortion of a legitimate goal of reporting—that it be fair and balanced—that led some journalists, for decades, to report, dutifully, the “two sides to the argument” about whether tobacco caused cancer, that leads some, today, to write and speak as though there were actually two legitimate and opposing scientific views concerning whether anthropogenic climate change is real. Darn that Ida B. Wells-Barnett, why couldn’t she have been more fair to the Ku Klux Klan? Why did she just report on the lynchings and not on the fine hymnals in white Southern churches? Darn that Rachel Carson. Why couldn’t she have been more fair to the makers of DDT? Darn that Greta Thunberg, why can’t she be more fair to ExxonMobil and BP and Aramco? After all, it’s only the future of the planet at stake.
Putting on, again, my English teacher hat, I must point out another issue with Ms. Paul’s reading: she totally missed the genre of Ravitch’s book. Much of Diane Ravitch’s work over the past few decades holds its own in the grand tradition of the muckraker, represented in our history by people like Lincoln Steffens, Julius Chambers, Nelly Bly, Helen Hunt Jackson, Henry Lloyd, Ambrose Bierce, Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, Frank Norris, Jane Jacobs, Rachel Carson, and Ralph Nader. Ravitch’s job, her scary duty, is to call out those doing damage—the wealthy and the powerful—and to do so by name, but to this very objective—the courageous Ravitch’s calling the powerful to account—Ms. Paul objects. (There are so many unintended ironies in Paul’s “review” that I can’t treat them all, alas.) Ravitch calls the powerful to account so bravely that one is tempted to compare Ravitch, as she never does herself, to the lad David going up against Goliath. Ms. Paul’s failure to understand the genre of the book she was “reviewing” leads her to a catastrophic failure of insight into what Ravitch accomplishes in this book—mapping a constellation of evils and showing how they can be righted.
Which leads me to another failure on the part of this “reviewer.” Clearly, Ms. Paul not only missed the genre of the book but also missed its larger message. Ravitch is doubtless our greatest historian of American education. One of the jobs of the historian is to draw for us the lessons of history. Here’s what happens when a country is ruled by fear of someone with absolute power (Edvard Radzinky’s Stalin). Here’s what happens to a continent in the grips of superstition and moral panic (Norman Cohn’s Europe’s Inner Demons and The Pursuit of the Millennium). Here’s what happens when communities are gripped by viral enthusiasms (Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds). In Slaying Goliath, the historian Ravitch and the muckracker Ravitch meet. Ever the historian and now the muckraker, Ravitch details in this book the devastation left by “Education Reform,” outs its perpetrators, and, importantly, celebrates the very recent history (and history makers) of the Resistance to charters and vouchers, nonstop testing, depersonalized education software, data-mongering test-based numerology, and other so-called “Reforms” that have stolen from a generation of U.S. children their chance at a humane education in music, arts, literature, writing, math, history, and science.
Ravitch tells a lot of cheering stories of students, teachers, and parents in the streets and in the statehouse, using nonviolent civil disobedience and other means to combat the attempted privatization for profit and centralization for control of our preK-12 educational system. These stories are inspiring and informative, and so, like the great muckraking books of the past—like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Silent Spring—Slaying Goliath is the kind of book that makes things happen. It is recent history. It is muckraking. But it is also a manual for resistance against the emergence of a New Feudal Order of oligarchical command, coercion, centralization, and control, showing how ordinary people can and have worked together to preserve democratic institutions like our public schools—a fight begun but not yet won. Other democratic institutions are under siege as well, of course, unions, Congressional oversight, family farming, small business, and every federal department and agency in the Trump misadministration formerly devoted to the public good, for example, so this book is an important guide for those who wish to preserve them. Like many of those other great muckrakers whose august company Ravitch so clearly joins, she presents, at the end of her book a vision of a better world in which the evils she has detailed are gone and argues that Disruption carries within it the seeds of its own failure because it is not a true grassroots movement and because it is an affront to human nature, human beings being driven in cognitive tasks not by extrinsic rewards like test scores but by intrinsic ones like learning something worth the effort. Nowhere does Ravitch claim that the war against Disruption has been won. Ms. Paul didn’t get that because she simply didn’t read the book closely or carefully, though Ravitch’s message, in closing, is obvious enough.
Paul castigates Ravitch for labeling the oligarchical, would-be Ed Reformers “Disrupters” and for calling then a “cabal.” Unforgivable, LOL. But then Paul herself must have approved the title of one of her own books, which suggests that those who approve of personality tests are members of a “cult” (Annie Murphy Paul, The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves). Cult, cabal–if anything, the former is the more loaded term (though I agree with Ms. Paul that personality testing has always been, from its inception, something of a cultish phenomenon).
Paul’s uniformed, vituperative, shallow, amateurish “review” is entitled “Diane Ravitch Declares the Education Reform Movement Dead.” But, of course, in the book, Ravitch does no such thing. Nowhere in her book does Ravitch claim to have “conquered the forces of Disruption,” as Paul snidely suggests (to be fair, Paul might not be responsible for the headline; newspapers often have dedicated headline writer/editors who do that, but she makes the same spurious accusation in the body of her “review”). So, the “review” is not only wrong from the start; it is wrong before it starts.
Slaying Goliath is a powerful report from the beginnings of the battle to wrest from oligarchical control our sacred democratic institutions. It’s about schools, certainly, but like classrooms themselves, it has resonances far beyond the classroom. The book shows us, for example, teachers teaching workers generally, by their example, how to make change through nonviolent action. It’s a lesson that could go a long way toward reinvigorating the union movement in this country. Ms. Paul didn’t get that. But then, again, she didn’t get much about Ravitch’s book, it seems.
In an attempt, I suppose, to display her own imperious impartiality, contra Ravitch, Paul makes a few lukewarm criticisms of Education Reform. I won’t go into those. Let’s just say that they sound to me like criticizing the Klan as an admirable preserver of traditional values that, sadly, uses up far too many perfectly fine bedsheets.
The New York Times has long prided itself on being America’s “newspaper of record” in the sense of being the place one could go for accurate reporting of important movements, events, and ideas here in the United States. That this “review” should miss the importance of Ravitch’s book so completely as to make the fantastic claim that the phenomena Ravitch describes so clearly, so accurately, don’t even exist is shocking and sad. Annie Paul’s “review” is a hatchet job. She and The Not Woke Times (The New Yoke Times?) owe Dr. Ravitch an apology.
Copyright 2020, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved. This review may be freely copied and distributed as long as this copyright notice is retained. BTW, coming soon from the oligarchical Disrupters of U.S. education will be an attempt to follow the Common [sic] Core [sic] with a national Curriculum Commissariat and Thought Police because they have money and so know better than millions of teachers, scholars, researchers, parents, and students do. Be forewarned.
For my review of Ravitch’s Slaying Goliath, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/2020/01/09/essential-reading-book-review/
For more of my writing about Education “Reform,” go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/ed-reform/
I’ve written a lot about Ed Reform over the years, and especially about its effects on U.S. pedagogy and curricula. If you don’t want to wade through all that, good places to start are here: