U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Intellectual Conversions In U.S. History

Diane Ravitch has finally gone public—in a big way—with her turn against No Child Left Behind. I say “finally” because her dissatisfaction with the law has been percolating well over a year; the evidence has mounted in various posts at the weblog, Bridging Differences, that she shares with Deberah Meier.

I bring this to the attention of USIH readers because I believe this signals something bigger—something more philosophical. Here’s the passage from the NPR story that interested me as an intellectual historian:

Part of the reason schools were so intent on achieving high tests scores was because they were competing with other schools for resources, which were often doled out on that basis alone. Ravitch is critical of the impact this had on schools. “There should not be an education marketplace, there should not be competition,” Ravitch says. “Schools operate fundamentally — or should operate — like families. The fundamental principle by which education proceeds is collaboration. Teachers are supposed to share what works; schools are supposed to get together and talk about what’s [been successful] for them. They’re not supposed to hide their trade secrets and have a survival of the fittest competition with the school down the block.”

Ravitch has apparently rejected the political-economic philosophy of the Friedman school, or perhaps neoliberalism (looked at another way), as applied to education. As for NCLB particulars, Ravitch’s two main gripes are about school choice (people don’t want to leave their neighborhood schools) and testing (too much measuring and punishing, as well as cheating and gaming the system). Here’s more from Ravitch herself on the book’s publication, as well as a NYT piece.

The NYT article contains this (juicy) nugget on the intellectual discontinuity of her conversion:

“She has done more than any one I can think of in America to drive home the message of accountability and charters and testing,” said Arthur E. Levine, a former president of Teachers College, where Dr. Ravitch got her doctorate and began her teaching career in the 1970s. “Now for her to suddenly conclude that she’s been all wrong is extraordinary — and not very helpful.”

Extraordinary? Sure. But “not very helpful”? What does that mean? Politics? Perhaps. But it makes an intriguing problem for a future intellectual historian/biographer. Going forward, how will Ravitch reconcile her conversion with her past statements? How does anyone reconcile their past with their future, intellectually, after a conversion experience?

One prominent historian, mentioned in the NYT, is already taking a stab at it:

“First she angered the Marxist historians, and later the fans of progressive education and the multiculturalists,” said Jeffrey E. Mirel, a professor of education and history at the University of Michigan. “But she’s always defended public schools and a robust traditional curriculum, because she believes they’ve been a ladder of social mobility.”

Ravitch’s move led me to think about other high-profile intellectual and/or philosophical conversions of public intellectuals in U.S. history—particularly the twentieth century. Although Ravitch’s does not seem follow this pattern, ‘philosophical’ and ‘intellectual’ in these contexts often also contains political and religious overtones.

For starters, I suppose Irving Kristol comes to mind in relation to a swing from mid-century liberalism to neoconservatism. Another is John Neuhaus, who swung in the seventies (not what you think–hah!) from being a social-cultural liberal activist to a neoconservative (in addition to converting from Lutheranism to Catholicism).

Mortimer J. Adler moved from being a neoThomist in the 1940s to an Aristotelian more broadly in the 1950s. In light of that conversion, he also ironically moved from irreligion/agnosticism to Christianity later—an Episcopalian first in the early eighties and then a Catholic in 1999. Unlike Neuhaus, however, Adler remained a FDR-type mid-century liberal at least through the late eighties (in contrast to his association with Buckley via many Firing Line appearances).

More examples? More issues to consider? – TL

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. There are countless examples of this phenomenon…so many in fact that I’m not sure it’s even a single phenomenon. Some others that leap to mind:

    Orestes Brownson’s journey from Unitarianism to Transcendentalism (and his own unique brand of radical politics) to conservative Catholicism.

    Many other conservatives (among them most of the first generation of the neoconservatives) who made the journey from far left to right: James Burnham, Willmoore Kendall, John Dos Passos, Frank Meyer, Martin Diamond, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, Joshua Muravchik, Sidney Hook, Marvin Olasky, and many others.

    Alasdair MacIntyre’s journey from Marxism to Catholicism (though this trip began before he came to the US).

    Eugene Genovese’s transformation from Communist to Southern agrarian (or however you’d describe where Gene Genovese ended up).

    All of these stories are left-to-right conversions, which is different from Ravitch (though I’m not sure her leaping from the neoliberal train is necessarily a move to the left, even though in terms of the partisan politics of education it may be seen that way).

    There seem to be fewer prominent right-to-left journeys: Garry Wills, Kevin Phillips, and John Dean, perhaps (though the latter two might still call themselves conservatives). Illinois congressman (and later third-party presidential candidate) John Anderson started his political career as a far-right Republican and became a liberal Republican as his party was moving in exactly the opposite direction. David Brock, founder of the progressive non-profit Media Matters, came to public prominence as author of the right-wing attack book The Real Anita Hill. Michael Lind went from being a neoconservative to something left of center (or at least not so clearly right of center). Damon Linker went from being a “theocon” (as editor of First Things to writing a book denouncing the theocons from the left (though, like Lind, I’m not sure you’d call Linker a leftist in any strong sense).

  2. Ben,

    Well, don’t I feel stupid. I’ve even done some extensive work on Orestes Brownson. I must admit, however, that since that work my memory has focused on his Christian conversion over his other political conversion. Which is silly, since he spent the rest of life after conversion thinking through the compatibility of Catholicism and democracy.

    Two more of your examples shame me due to their prominence and relevance to my interests: the Genoveses (particularly the female half) and McIntyre.

    I appreciate your underscoring the distinction between the frequency of right-to-left versus left-to-right conversions. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that Ravitch was moving to The Left, just left of where she was—which means from right to just right-of-center.

    I must concede, however, that many of your other examples from politics (excepting Horowitz and Hook) are somewhat unfamiliar. But that’s simply a reflection of my education and interests in history. …Speaking of, let’s not leave Posner’s recent conversion from Friedman-esque thinking (to what I’m not sure, perhaps straight forward Keynesianism).

    – TL

  3. Tim,

    I didn’t mean to suggest that you were suggesting that Ravitch had really moved to the left. I was just trying to fit her into my (too crude) dichotomy and I was hedging my own bets!

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