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In Need of a Renaissance

Ohanian Comment: There is lots of good material in this essay, which is an excerpt from Ravitch's book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Excerpted here is a brief piece ignored in reviews, a snippet I find outrageous. Diane Ravitch has not changed her mind about her continued allegiance to national standards and a national curriculum--so we can be sure every kid reads Milton.

Ravitch reveals her huge distance from the realities of classrooms and the needs of children, not to mention the agony of Milton. I escaped serious study of Milton until I was in graduate school, where I figured I had only myself to blame for my misery: After all I'd chosen to be an English Major. I encountered Herman Melville as a senior in college. I had a great teacher, but I loathed Melville. I just wasn't mature enough to appreciate the novel. I tried again at age 42, discovering that Moby Dick IS a great book. It should not be pushed on youngsters but should be delayed until one is over 40 and had the chance to accumulate the maturity the book requires. I don't mean maturity in vocabulary; I mean maturity in lived experiences.

I still can't read Milton and long ago gave up trying. I acknowledge a character flaw here (After all, none other than Wendell Berry told me in a personal note how great Milton is) and I say "Peace" to those who love him. Read on with pleasure.

But Milton lovers should not let their passion blind them to the very real needs of students. I worry about trying to stuff the work in Ravitch's revered inventory into youngsters in today's classrooms. The fact of the matter is that different students need different books. I've always wanted the students in my care to want to read another book one day. I emphasize this statement because embedded in the casual phrasing is a rich and thought-out pedagogy. It is not laissez faire.

And by the way, who got smart and took Wordsworth's "Preface to Lyrical Ballads" and Plato's "Cave" off the Common Core exemplar text lists? Now can we laugh Milton and company off the stage?

Note: This is a tiny excerpt from a long, substantive article. Editors posted this pullout quote in huge typeface:

If we are willing to learn from top-performing nations, we should establish a substantive national curriculum that designates the essential knowledge and skills students need to learn.

Sounds like E. D. Hirsch. Ravitch said this in her book, but nobody paid any attention.

by Diane Ravitch

. . . If we are willing to learn from top-performing nations such as Japan and Finland we should establish a substantive national curriculum that declares our intention to educate all children in the full range of liberal arts and sciences as well as physical education. This curriculum would designate the essential knowledge and skills that students need to learn. In the last two years of high school there should be career and technical studies for students who plan to enter the workforce after high school graduation. But they too should study the arts and sciences so that they too may gain a sense of life's possibilities. Because we are all citizens of this democracy, because we will all be voters, we must all be educated for our responsibilities.

Some will object that a country as diverse as ours can't possibly have a national curriculum. The counterargument is that our nation had a defacto curriculum for most of the 19th century when textbooks in each subject were interchangeable. For the first half of the 20th century as well, we had an implicit national curriculum that was decisively shaped by the college entrance examinations of the College Board: Its highly respected examinations were based on a specific and explicit syllabus designed by teachers and professors of each subject.

But what about the culture wars that will surely erupt if there is any attempt to decide what will be taught and learned in any subject? We can now see with the passage of years that it is possible to forge a consensus in every contested subject-matter terrain if the various factions accept the necessity of working together and the futility of trying to impose their views on everyone else.

There is reason to hope that the curriculum wars of the 1990s have ended not in a victory for either side but in a truce. Where once there were warring partisans of whole language and phonics, now there is a general recognition that children need both. Beginning readers must learn the sounds and symbols of language and they should learn to love reading by hearing and reading wonderful literature. I would go further to insist that all children should learn grammar, spelling, and syntax, which will enable them to write well and communicate their ideas clearly.

Furthermore, I suggest a short reading list--not more than 10 titles--of indispensable literary classics for each grade. Back in the days of the culture wars, it was taken as a given that any list would be oppressive, exclusive, and elitist. One hopes we have moved beyond those contentious times and can at last identify essential writings that have stood the test of time and continue to be worthy of our attention.

Without the effort to teach our common cultural heritage we risk losing it and being left with nothing in common but an evanescent and often degraded popular culture. Let us instead read, reflect on, and debate the ideas of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Henry David Thoreau, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, W.E.B. DuBois, Herman Melville,Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Shakespeare, John Milton, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Lewis Carroll. . . .

— Diane Ravitch
American Educator





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