Friday, December 03, 2010

Is Ravitch Really A Great Historian?

And here's the second:

Is Ravitch Really A Great Historian?

Given Diane Ravitch's clear record of selectively and misleadingly citing the evidence on current education debates, we should wonder whether her much-lauded historical work contains similar distortions.  Someone so willing to pick and choose the evidence to serve her argument about current debates may well have the same proclivity to advance her preferred historical interpretation.

Detecting how Ravitch selectively reads the current evidence is relatively easy because the full scope of current research is knowable without too much effort.  But the full set of historical evidence from which an author chooses is less easily known to a lay reader.  How can anyone beyond the handful of scholars who have reviewed the original documents on a particular subject know whether Diane Ravitch or any other historian is correctly selecting and interpreting historical evidence?

The reality is that we can't.  Most people tend to think that a historian is good because he or she writes well and makes an argument that is generally preferred by the reader.  It's even unreliable to fully trust the opinion of other historians when assessing the quality of historical work.  Very few historians are intimately familiar with the same material, especially if the topic is highly specialized — like the history of American education.  And among those few historians their judgment on the quality of another person's work may be colored by their professional interests in advancing similar interpretations or hindering opposing ones.

In short, it is very hard to know whether someone is really a great historian.  It is certainly harder to know the quality of historical work than empirical social science, especially when data sets are widely available and analyses can be replicated without too much effort.

Given that it is hard to know the quality of historical work and given Diane Ravitch's distortion of the evidence in current debates, I'm inclined to doubt the quality of her earlier historical work.  Ravitch may have changed her views on some things but I highly doubt she has changed her standards of scholarship.  So, if her scholarship is lousy now, perhaps it was lousy before.

I'd be curious to hear examples that anyone may have of where Ravitch was sloppy or misleading in her historical work.  I bet they are out there even if they are harder to discover than her current sloppy and misleading work.

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