Dmitri Mehlhorn has a lot to say about Diane Ravitch’s activism. So much that we must break it up into several blog posts. In this one below he confronts the selective way that Ravitch writes history and how she ignores the racist girding of public education systems.


Diane Ravitch casts herself as an education historian. In that, she is welcome to her biases; like me, she is a Jew who often celebrates America as a “melting pot” in which Europe’s Old World ethnic rivalries became less virulent. That said, case law is clear that a true historian may not mislead by selectively cherry-picking evidence, and must take the motives of historical actors into consideration.  

This matters because Ravitch has used the badge of “historian” to become perhaps the most influential education policy celebrity in America. She uses this platform to vilify the bipartisan education reform movement as promoting institutionalized racism, white racism and white supremacy, because it “seeks to eliminate the geographically based system of public education as we have known it for the past 150 years.”  

It’s a bizarre claim. Public schools opposed white racism for 150 years? And now, extending parent choice to parents of color is a racist plot?

To explore how this claim violates the ethical standards of her self-proclaimed profession will require a few different columns.  This post will address the first part of the Ravitch “150 years,” from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s.  

The basic structure of American primary and secondary education was hammered together in the forge of white-hot national racism during the decades from the Civil War through the early 1900s. During this era, major categories of coordinated government efforts were anchored in white supremacy. This includes the Indian Wars that wiped out most Native American nations west of the Mississippi, and the Jim Crow regime that violently reconstituted many elements of black slavery.  The Progressive Era of government reform was not primarily about race, but it was led by whites who “not only read exposés of capitalistic barons and attacks on laissez-faire economics by muckraking journalists, they also read racist tracts that drew on the latest anthropology, biology, psychology, sociology, eugenics, and medical science.” Leading progressives such as Carter Glass and Benjamin Tillman all described blacks as an inferior race and sought in various ways to keep them disenfranchised.

The system forged during this period, unsurprisingly, had racist beliefs at its core. The new model included compulsory education; local political oversight of both content and pedagogy; a tightly controlled workforce managed with lockstep pay and tenure; and racial segregation. Together, these policies sought to make America’s public schools into a tightly controlled factory that could produce precisely calibrated skills and values by race and class. Massachusetts, an early adopter of this model, was approvingly cited in the United States Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision as demonstrating the rationality of racial segregation. This model expanded nationally as part of an anti-Catholic movement that was described by Professor Douglas Slawson in his masterwork on education politics in this era. Slawson documents that the two white Anglo-Saxon Protestant lobbies that led the charge for this new model of public education were the National Education Association (NEA) and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).  

In other words, during the first half of the “150 years” that Ravitch defends so forcefully, the core elements of the public system were explicitly constructed by a white supremacist power structure as a machine that would help wipe out Native American nations, keep African Americans subservient, and eliminate the distinctive and heterogeneous cultures of ethnic immigrants (especially Catholics and Jews) from Europe. THIS is the system she’s defending against the “white racism” of giving more choices to poor parents of color?  

Ravitch is welcome to celebrate America’s contributions to the world.  But to ignore our nation’s “original sin” is morally blind and historically ignorant. As Sojourner magazine wrote in 1987, “The historical record of how white Europeans conquered North America by destroying the native population and how they then built their new nation’s economy on the backs of kidnapped Africans who had been turned into chattel are facts that can hardly be denied.”

Perhaps Ravitch rests the claim on the political developments that happened after the Progressive Era?  If so, her reference to “150 years” is misleading at best, and her claim is still a-historical as we will address in future posts.  

For now, let’s see if Ravitch has any apologies to offer about her hagiography of an ugly period.



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