Diane Ravitch's Stunning Certainty

Later on today, education historian Diane Ravitch is going to head out from her Brooklyn Heights home and make her way into the city to be a guest on tonight's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" for the first time since May 2003 (pictured). Perhaps they'll send a town car for her. There will be a green room of some sort, probably some water bottles and snacks.  A makeup artist will offer to touch her up.  If there's time between rehearsing bits and script rewrites, the host will come in and say hi and tell her how happy he is to have her on the show.  Until the headsetted staffer comes to get her, Ravitch will likely sit quietly in her chair as she does before most of her speeches.The Comedy Central appearance will be a tremendous victory for Ravitch, who has been pushing to get on one of the two shows in the 11 p.m. time slot for almost a year now.  It will be a happy moment, too, for all of the educators and parents who have welcomed Ravitch into their arms.  For me, however, Ravitch's appearance will be another moment to reflect on the nagging unease I have with what she's saying -- and in particular the absolute certainty with which she is saying it.

Ravitch is correct that the reforms of the last two decades -- charters, alternative certification, standards and accountability -- have all proved insufficient thus far.  She obviously has the right to change her mind -- I'm a big fan of those who are brave enough to reflect, admit doubt, and take action.  

In fact, Ravitch isn't the only reformer to have major concerns or want to try something new -- Bill Gates has stopped funding charter expansion efforts and George Miller wants to revamp the NCLB teacher quality rules he co-authored. Nor is Ravitch the only major education figure to change views after a long career. Later in life, union leader Al Shanker questioned some of the value of the trade union approach that he brought to education.

But I'm just not sure that, given the circumstances, Ravitch has the right to so much damn certainty about either her critique or her new/old prescriptions for improvement. In her book and in person Ravitch dismisses questions surrounding her change of heart in a couple of sentences, invokes the value of self-reflection and adjustment, and then seems completely without doubt (or remorse).  She is absolutely certain that she was wrong before, and absolutely sure that she is right now.  It's that hardened certainty that I find so troubling, even after all these months and despite agreeing with her and admiring her on so many levels. It's also not so certain to me that there's no hope in standards and accountability, or that there's any viable path for a return to a rich common curriculum and respect for classroom teachers.  

Certainty, like confidence, is appealing (to a point).  And conversion stories are inherently compelling, whether they be political, religious, or educational.  But they're not enough for people like me who can't help but think that if Ravitch was wrong before, then why not again now?  Someone who admits that she was so profoundly swayed by 18 months in the Bush administration that she spent the next 25 years expounding market based reforms doesn't inspire confidence or certainty.  For me, Ravitch is the unreliable narrator, the witness caught contradicting herself on the stand, the girlfriend who's been caught cheating once but says she won't ever do that again (and wants your trust to be fully restored a week later).  I just don't trust her.

That being said, I have major trust issues. There aren't many people or ideas that I really believe in; convinction is just not something I'm comfortable with. I admit to liking things better when Ravitch was using her considerable powers of skepticism to debunk fads, panaceas, and fairy tales -- even if she was failing to monitor her own beliefs carefully enough.  If her book was simply a takedown of charters, choice, and accountability, a giant mea culpa for the past 25 years or so, that would probably satisfy me immensely, intellectually and emotionally. So you might dismiss my concerns as unwarranted or even mildly disturbing. 

I also know that maintaining skeptical distance is intellectually and psychologically exhausting. We all want to believe in something, to have hope, and to be welcomed by colleagues.  Living in constant doubt is a umcofortable.  There are pressures, internal and otherwise, to say what you're for. You don't get invited to speak on panels, or keynote conferences, or (apparently) get onto The Daily Show if you don't have a simple, clear story to tell and certainty in what you're saying.

Here's Ravitch's 2003 appearance: