Diane Ravitch, education reform, and wrongness

Check out this interesting article about wrongness in today's New York Times.  Diane Ravitch, a longtime advocate of conservative educational policy, has lately undergone what Times writer Sam Dillon describes as “an astonishing, slow-motion about-face on almost every stand she once took on American schooling.”  Standardized testing, charter schools, free-market educational models, No Child Left Behind: Ravitch, it seems, is leaving it all behind. 

 To my mind, there are two particularly interesting things about this story.  The first is how uncommon it is.  Articles that are implicitly about wrongness (say, almost anything written on the financial crisis in the last few years) are a dime a dozen.  Op-eds about other people’s false beliefs and mistakes are more like a dime a gross.  But stories about the explicit rejection of a previously beloved belief system are unusual.  And no wonder: such ideological conversions are, themselves, extremely rare. 
The second interesting thing about this story is that it’s currently the number one most-emailed article in the Times.  I’d like to think that this is because we all care passionately about educational reform, but I suspect that something else is going on here.  Everybody loves a good conversion story, after all: rags to riches, Scrooge to mensch, dowdy secretary to vinyl-clad Cat Woman.  Or, in this case, Assistant Secretary of Education under George H.W. Bush to progressive school reform champion.  Of course, we particularly love such stories when we think that they balance the moral checkbook (that is, when the main character comes to share our own cherished beliefs), but even when the conversion works the other way, we are fascinated by these tales.  However much we love a new convert to the cause, we also love to hate a traitor.

But I like to think that we devour these stories for another reason as well: because we want to be reminded that change is possible, that people of any age and status can rethink their beliefs about themselves and the world.  Given how entrenched we all become not only in our convictions but in communities of like-minded thinkers, it takes a certain stubborn liberty of mind to achieve that kind of transformation.  How appropriate that in this case, that liberty of mind is being exercised in the name of helping our nation’s young people learn how to think.


Okay, maybe you don’t have strong beliefs about the “right” way to load a dishwasher, or about your sweetheart’s propensity to do it “wrong.” In that case, either you are unusually saintly or (like me) you don’t own a dishwasher. But you almost certainly get involved in domestic disputes about who’s right and who’s wrong all the time; we all do. Although interpersonal arguments can have a number of causes – from serious and painful breaches in trust to the fact that we haven’t had our coffee yet – an impressive number of them amount to a tug-of-war over who possesses the truth. We fight over the right to be right.