“The problem with ‘I was wrong about everything’ as the prelude to an argument is that it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the repudiator’s judgment,” Kevin Carey of the think tank Education Sector complained in The New Republic. “[Ravitch] simply trades one pre-defined agenda for another: the collected talking points of the reactionary education establishment. It is a philosophy of resentment and futility, grounded in the conviction that public schools—and the adults within them—can’t really be expected to do better than they currently are.”
That’s a relatively respectful version of it. But the school-reform debate now has enough star power that there’s plenty of lower-brow criticism, too. If the idea of an education-policy historian popping up on Jon Stewart’s show is weird, the idea of a parody Twitter feed to caricature said education-policy historian may be even weirder.
But a review of Ravitch’s career, which actually began on the left, suggests a more complex narrative. A lifelong political liberal who has always wrestled with a sort of innate personal conservatism, Ravitch—like Jane Jacobs, the urbanist whose book she referenced—has been constant in her deep attraction to institutions that have survived the test of time, and her aversion to intellectual fads. “It’s the fierce urgency of no,” Ravitch says of her worldview. “I like institutions, in part because I like to rebel against them, but also because I think society needs them and needs to continually reshape them, not blow them up.”
Diane Silvers was born into a middle-class family in Houston in 1938, the third of eight children. Her parents owned a small chain of liquor stores. A bookworm, she also found time for adolescent thrills: At San Jacinto High School, she was a tomboy and an ardent drag racer. She’d been in three car accidents by age 16.
The Houston of Ravitch’s adolescence was embroiled in McCarthyism. Hailing from an FDR-loving, Democratic family, Ravitch was horrified by a campaign against her ninth-grade history teacher launched by the Minute Women of the U.S.A. The teacher, Nelda Davis, subscribed to a liberal internationalist worldview; she was eventually forced out. Another formative political experience came during Ravitch’s senior year, when she discovered a cache of books on the Soviet Union stashed under the school library’s circulation desk. They had been censored. She devoured them.
At the suggestion of her family rabbi’s wife, Ravitch went off to Wellesley College, in Massachusetts. Her goal was to become a reporter, so she interned one summer at The Washington Post. The experience put her off newspapering: She says most of the women in the newsroom were “gal Fridays,” making copies and fetching coffee, which seemed boring. But in D.C. she met her future husband, Richard Ravitch, who was working for a Democratic congressman from California. The couple married two weeks after Diane’s 1960 graduation, settling in Manhattan.
Ravitch set out to find a job to match her writerly ambitions. Because she didn’t want “women’s work,” it was a slog. “The only jobs available for someone with my inexperience were secretarial, typing,” she says. “It was a big turnoff.” Then, in January 1961, she came across a New York Times editorial about the death of Sol Levitas, the Russian exile who had run the small democratic socialist magazine The New Leader. The Times called The New Leader “one of the most stimulating and valuable magazines of our day,” filled with “every variety of democratic opinion.”
Ravitch looked up The New Leader’s phone number and called the office. A flustered secretary invited her for an interview. By the close of business, she had landed a $10 per week editorial assistant job. For three years Ravitch worked there on and off, gaining an introduction to the New York anti-Communist left. She remained a part of that world for decades. Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, became a friend; in the late 1980s, he sent Ravitch to Eastern Europe to speak to newly organized teachers’ unions.
But Ravitch was never purely a creature of the left. As the counterculture took root in the mid-1960s, she was busy with two all-consuming projects—motherhood (her sons were born in 1962, 1964, and 1967) and research on what would become her celebrated 1974 history of the New York City public schools, The Great School Wars. She was attracted to the topic because she was fascinated by the era’s battles between community-control advocates, teachers, administrators, and the United Federation of Teachers. It was black vs. Jew, organized labor vs. New Left. And, in Ravitch’s view, the era also involved too many misguided philanthropists “playing God in the ghetto” by supporting new-fangled identity-politics curricula at the expense of traditional liberal arts.
Ravitch’s criticisms of that phenomenon yoked her to the conservative establishment, where right-leaning outfits like the Hoover Institution, the Olin Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute supported her work. She went on to spend 18 months in the first Bush administration and to produce another decade’s worth of policy writing in favor of introducing “competition” to education.