Blogs > Cliopatria > More Bérubé, Ravitch

Mar 15, 2005 9:19 pm


More Bérubé, Ravitch



For those who missed it, an important op-ed this morning from Diane Ravitch. Her criticism of the Gates project seems on-target; more broadly, I completely share her analysis of the dangers of having a public school faculty with Education School rather than disciplinary training.

Meanwhile, as Ralph notes below, I have continued to attract the ire of Michael Bérubé. More to the point, as Ralph also noted, Bérubé has been around this track before: after Erin O'Connor published an article critiquing his Chronicle piece, he e-mailed her on several occasions, once dismissing her as"lassie," another time informing her:

So you're cowardly as well as dishonest. Very well-- I thought you would do me the courtesy of a direct reply, but I overestimated you. Suffice it to say that the only other person who's pulled this kind of stunt with me is the loony far-leftist Alexander Cockburn at CounterPunch. Your commentary on my essay was indeed unscrupulous (regardless of the link), as is your behavior with regard to my letter to you.

But take comfort in your correspondents and their bizarre little theories about my class. Your business professor from southern Cal (who's really arguing with Powers, and really doesn't have the intellectual wherewithal to do so) and your English professor from Wheaton (who believes that I think conservatives support the AJA camps-- kudos to you for telling him that I wrote to you and said otherwise!) are real prizes. Cherish them. They're your readers, they're your fans. Be proud.

When you think you've scared up the intellectual integrity necessary to reply to me, let me know.

As a long-time reader of Erin's blog," cowardly" and"dishonest" are two adjectives that don't come readily to mind when describing her, so I guess I'll wear Bérubé's slams at me with a bit of pride and leave my response to him at that.

As noted in Ralph's posting below, people of good faith could interpret Bérubé's article in different ways--Tim Burke disagrees with my reading, as does a colleague who I respect very much, who e-mailed me last night to tell me I was flat-out wrong in my interpretation. I, obviously, side with Erin on this question; perhaps we all could have been spared this problem if Bérubé (who is, after all, a professor of English) had been a little clearer in his original Chronicle article. One thing I learned from this exchange: based on his responses to Erin and me, I wouldn't want to be a student who expressed ideological disagreement with him in the classroom.

update, 12.29pm: Comments on this post have gotten a bit on the nasty side. I've shut them off.


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Jeff Vanke - 3/17/2005

I have witnessed and regretted the snobbery you discuss. Pedagogy is extremely important. In the end, though, we're teaching kids stuff, not processes. If you know your stuff, and your personality can handle the classroom in question, you can be quickly trained to package the stuff to get the kids curious.

What I'm saying is, pedagogical instruction is an instance of very early diminishing returns, where the opportunity costs in learning stuff are much greater than those slight returns.


Sherman Jay Dorn - 3/16/2005

It's very tempting for those in Colleges of Arts and Sciences to ridicule Colleges of Education, but I would hope that people would separate status issues from the substantive ones. (More on that and Ravitch's LEFT BACK later in this comment.) There are a few states which already require non-education majors for ALL undergraduate programs, but I don't know of any evidence that those states either have better systems or lower rates of out-of-field teaching. The dynamics are far more complex than who "controls" undergraduate teacher ed programs, regardless of the observations you may be able to make about your own campus.

The argument that the standard disciplines should control teacher ed begs at least two questions. The first is the definition of "traditional disciplines," which did not exist as departments in many colleges and universities until very late in the 19th century. One could make the case that there were a few chairs of pedagogy before chairs of anthropology, sociology, and others, but I'll just suggest that our understanding of disciplinary boundaries, especially in history, are not as secure as is implied by the Ravitch article or Johnson post (unless I am reading too much into the writing here). When the Social Science History Association celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, maybe we should be wary of claiming we know what history precisely is.

The second problem with the "disciplinary" argument is the assumption that the primary problem with undergraduate teacher education is a certain fluffiness in education courses. I'm not going to argue that all of the courses in my college are heavy reading courses -- I have a reputation of assigning a heavy reading load even though it has approximately half of the material I read in the closest equivalent I had as an undergraduate -- but the primary problem is with the lack of enough time to include BOTH disciplinary training and enough pedagogy to enable survival in a classroom. You do need both -- unless anyone here claims that they were perfectly trained for teaching in their doctoral programs with nothing more than the standard doctoral courses! And the sad fact of life is that few undergrad history majors are going to stick around for a fifth year to take all the courses that they probably should to survive in middle or high schools and then get paid around $31,000 once they get a job. Few history BAs can just be tossed into a classroom and stay in it for the long term. Few elementary ed BSs can be just tossed into a classroom and turn into great teachers of history.

Why do I suspect that status issues drive this disciplinary argument? A few things:

- The inconsistency of Ravitch's argument, both in the column and in LEFT BACK, focusing on curriculum history *except* for the early-literacy debate, where both the column and book suddenly turn into an argument about technique -- even though the whole-language movement focused far more on providing students with the best children's literature possible. I say this as someone who is convinced by research that phonemic awareness and careful phonic structuring of early-literacy teaching is often necessary. But Ravitch's argument tries to have it both ways.

- Ravitch's focus on the NAS proposal, which would duplicate the tracking that she deplores when discussing early 20th century high schools. Maybe it's tracking with a higher academic floor, but I just don't trust school bureaucracies to do it any sort of justice.

- The history of historians' turning their noses up at other social sciences when it comes to teaching in the schools. The Bradley Commission was the most ironic of these claims, arguing for a narrow construction of history precisely at a time when academic historians were exploring interdisciplinary techniques and ideas.

A small anecdote should suffice to suggest that we look into the mirror before assuming that historians have a coherent discipline or even a clear disciplinary pedigree. When I first arrived at my institution, I met some of my colleagues in the history department. One of them asked me, "So where are you from?" and after a few tries I understood that she was asking where I got my degree, so I told her the institution. "No, no--from which department?" she then asked. "History," I said, a bit confused. "Oh, good -- you're a REAL historian," she then uttered with some relief. I was hired with two other historians of education, both from colleges of education, and I sensed a clear snobbery here. What my colleague in the history department didn't know as that my advisor received his degree at that inferior training ground, the Graduate School of Education at Harvard. At that time, I declined to suggest that I was only an academic half-breed.


mark safranski - 3/16/2005

If anything, Ravitch understates the problem of out of field teaching in k-12 education. she is right however, that reform needs to be systemic. No one should be teaching without a degree in a content field *of some kind*.

Even a degree in the wrong content field is preferable to a degree in a process - which is what education is - because the college student will have to work in 400-500 courses in a field of study. Colleges of Ed should be retooled to focus on becoming true professional schools for prospective administrators on par with Law and Business schools that give M.ed students deeper knowledge of school law, finance and personnel management.


Jeff Vanke - 3/16/2005

I'm not sure why some folks keep typing at each other about some of that other stuff. I quickly saw where I disagreed with Johnson and stopped reading past his first lines on those subjects.

But amen to Ravitch's column.

And here are suggested solutions to the problems. (1) Teacher credentialing has to be put in the hands of discipline-credentialed people in order to be changed substantionally. Much of the rest will follow (curriculum, etc.).

(2) To leverage good outcomes, the private foundation sector ought to come up with its own end-of-grade tests, neutral ones that say Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., as well as the NAS could endorse. Standardized tests work very well if they are done well, which of course is a big if.


David Silbey - 3/15/2005

[i]Analyzing his temperament is certainly relevant to determining the credibility of his argument.[/i]

No, it really isn't. That he reacted angrily to your misintepretation said nothing at all about the validity of your criticism. It still doesn't.

[i]David and Anthony suggest that I misread Berube's final PP; Erin O'Connor suggests I didn't; I'll side with Erin on this question. There is little more that I can say than I already have in comments to the first post to explain my interpretation of the comment in the last PP, which I don't think was off base.[/i]

Sure, it was, and it remains wrong. All of this equivocating and focusing on the tone of Dr. Berube's response simply smokescreens that fact.


Ralph E. Luker - 3/15/2005

Um, Michael, I've long been aware of your work on disability issues and I appreciate it. I have a daughter who has disability issues. It is difficult to accept the fact that three or four reasonably intelligent people can read your article in a way that you didn't intend it to be read. I think both KC and you could show us some generosity of spirit in this discussion, instead of firing shots at each other.


Robert KC Johnson - 3/15/2005

Quite to the contrary, Michael: I invite you to quote it. One aspect of my tenure case was that I made everything--the good and the bad--open to the public. A word of caution, though: I'm not sure it would bolster your credibility to use as your source someone who, in writing, described his departmental opponents as "academic terrorists" and proclaimed that his goal in a search was to bring in "women who aren't whiners."


Robert KC Johnson - 3/15/2005

I hardly see how my comments on the article could be interpreted as insulting to disabled students.

With regards to my response to Berube, he criticized the entirety of my Midstream piece, and I responded in kind. Analyzing his temperament is certainly relevant to determining the credibility of his argument.

David and Anthony suggest that I misread Berube's final PP; Erin O'Connor suggests I didn't; I'll side with Erin on this question. There is little more that I can say than I already have in comments to the first post to explain my interpretation of the comment in the last PP, which I don't think was off base.

Berube has now supplied additional statements, suggesting that, regardless of the merits of Erin's and my criticism, he did not intend for his piece to be interpreted as Erin and I did. That's fine with me. I won't use the piece in additional writings. To do so, as David notes, would not be compatable with intellectual integrity.

And Anthony . . . "After this little shameless exhibition I don't think I'll ever take your opinion with the same seriousness I did before." I don't recall you as among those who took my posts too seriously in the past . . .


Michael B?rub - 3/15/2005

Um, Ralph, actually that searing heat was me looking at your qualified support for Erin O'Connor's reading (particularly the bit about how my work about my son and disability issues supports her reading that I meant to associate conservatives with disability), not your support of KC, which I respect even if I do not fully understand it.

KC, as for "lashing out," what can I say? You fired the first shot in this one by misrepresenting my essay, which certainly did not advise anybody to treat conservatives as students with disabilities, and you have provoked me further at every step. If I were to do to you what you've done here by citing O'Connor and Bauerlein, I would have quoted some of the choice comments made by your most hostile critics, adducing them as character witnesses against you. I don't think you would like that. The last sentence of Philip F. Gallagher's June 5, 2002 email, part of which is reproduced in the Chronicle's quite glowing May 23, 2003 article about your tenure case, would be Exhibit A. I think you're probably familiar with that sentence. But I won't reproduce it here.


David Silbey - 3/15/2005

This is embarrassing. Dr. Johnson started off with a misreading of Dr. Berube's final paragraph, one insulting to conservative and disabled students alike. What was a thoughtful essay about how to deal with a range of students in the classroom becomes caricatured and turned into one small piece of Horowitzian dogma about evil liberal professors. When the mistake is pointed out, what is the reaction? To carefully parse the responses for evidence of irrationality, hysteria, and inappropriateness. Stand up for your intellectual integrity, Dr. Johnson, and admit your misinterpretation.


Robert KC Johnson - 3/15/2005

One small comment: at the time I wrote the Midstream piece, I was unaware that Berube's son had Down's syndrome.

Tim, would you characterize Berube's post above as "lashing out"?


Robert KC Johnson - 3/15/2005

Berube's initial criticism of me was framed in far less neutral terms than you supplied ("He criticized something you wrote a while back as a misinterpretation, suggested that this misinterpretation was either careless or a deliberate slanting"). You and I go back and forth on these issues often on Cliopatria, and I wouldn't describe anything you've written about me (with the exception of your being left to "wonder" about my possibly being guilty of the "sin" ideologically biased teaching, without having first taken a look at anything from my on-line course material) as remotely comparable to the insinuations in Berube's first or second post. Tone matters. Moreover, contrary to what you say, the original Berube post went on at length and went well beyond solely suggesting that I misinterpreted his remarks.

Beyond the point that my reading of the text was quite similar to Erin's, I find nothing objectionable in Berube's article--as I stated in the Midstream piece, and as I have stated repeatedly--until its closing paragraph. (I also find little commendable in it; it strikes me as unremarkable one way or the other.) I don't know what was going through Berube's mind when he wrote the last paragraph, and I would suggest that you don't either. Berube has said he's been misinterpreted. The vehemence of his response suggests that perhaps he was--or suggests that perhaps he regualrly engages in vehement responses to his critics, as a glance through his website certainly suggests.

I am perfectly willing to concede, however, that it was a carelessly written paragraph and I'll leave it at that.


Anthony Paul Smith - 3/15/2005

Just ridiculous.

You have effectively moved the debate away from the fact that you said Berube advised people to treat CONSERVATIVES as if they were disabled students (which, anyone who has a PhD should be able to see is not AT ALL what he said) to something completely different. If Berube has an anger problem, that doesn't mean that you didn't screw up in your article. Do you do this with historical texts too?

You really are a cocky, cocky man. After this little shameless exhibition I don't think I'll ever take your opinion with the same seriousness I did before and am further convinced that you want the academy to be a boring place of zero-resitance, like business school.


Ralph E. Luker - 3/15/2005

I think that I can bear the searing heat of Michael Berube's "looking at" me. I once referred to a historian, who blogs elsewhere at HNN as a liar. I was obliged to delete that characterization and he was obliged to correct himself. Let me be quite clear with Professor Berube: KC Johnson is _not_ a liar or a scoundrel. He is a courageous historian who won a major battle for tenure over the unscrupulous manipulations of some of his department colleagues. I am willing to accept Professor Berube's interpretation of his own article, but I am _not_ willing to be intimidated by his accusations against a valued colleague at Cliopatria. I will defend my colleagues against either David Horowitz or Michael Berube any day, today included.


Michael B?rub - 3/15/2005

Oh, and for the record, I think what happened in KC's tenure case was an utter travesty. My sympathies were entirely with him on that one. But here, he told a whopper about one of my essays, and when I called him on it, his reply was "Mark Bauerlein says that Bérubé responds to critics too much." Thankfully, KC eventually won that tenure case, and everything he says here (and for Campus Watch) is amply covered by academic freedom. But I do hope he'll conduct himself more ethically in the future.


Michael B?rub - 3/15/2005

The reason I apologized to Erin O'Connor, fifteen months ago, was that I should not have lost my temper in responding to her. But let's not pretend that Ms. O'Connor is a blushing innocent here, either. Her initial post called my essay "condescending and patronizing, not to mention intellectually dishonest." (The "not to mention" bit is nice.) Then, adducing my young son, who has Down syndrome, as evidence that I meant to demean conservatives, O'Connor wrote, "When he says outspoken conservative students are best handled as disabled students, he knows what he is saying and he means it."

Those of you who want to defend O'Connor in this-- Ralph, I'm looking at you-- can go right ahead, but I can't imagine that you will think better of yourselves in the morning for it.

So in response, I wrote O'Connor an email, which she did not reply to, but, rather, immediately posted on her blog. (At the time, her blog did not allow comments, and contained no notice that emails from readers would be posted without their consent). That email read:

"There really is no question in my essay that the primary problem with 'John' was that he was a blurter, and that this problem was compounded by (a) the fact that he blurted some exceptionally provocative things (I would hope, by now, that there is something like a consensus that a defense of the AJA camps is provocative), and (b) the fact that I was reluctant to challenge him precisely *because* his views differed from mine, in a pedagogical context where conservative students often do feel silenced by liberal professors.

"Like so many other conservative critics I've dealt with this week, you also refuse to acknowledge the fact that I prevented liberal students from ganging up on John."

O'Connor then followed this quotation, in the same post, with:

"Having dismissed my commentary as a typical conservative refusal to acknowledge facts (and having thus confirmed that my assessment of Berube's assessment of conservatives was on target), Berube also suggests that I do not know how to read. 'You completely-- and deliberately, unless you're utterly incompetent as a reader-- misconstrue the closing paragraph of my essay,' he writes. 'I explicitly said that *all* students are entitled to reasonable accommodation. The problem here is precisely that I know what I'm talking about, and you don't: 'reasonable accommodation' both relies on and goes beyond the theory of 'disparate impact' in civil rights law. It suggests that *all* persons be reasonably accommodated-- articulate conservatives, annoying loudmouthed liberals, shoot- from- the- hip Ivy League bloggers, and kids with Down syndrome. Your final sentence here is simply unworthy of a literary critic, and very likely unworthy of people who believe in civil discourse."

It was only when O'Connor posted all this on her blog that I wrote her the email that called her "cowardly and dishonest." The "cowardly" referred specifically to her refusal to reply to an email sent to her; the "dishonest" referred to her initial post. And the apology, which I offered the next day, referred to my own breach of civil discourse in the exchange.

Now, back to KC. I was willing to think well of KC after his somewhat civil reply to Tim Burke last night. But that appears to have been a mistake on my part. I return, therefore, to the point that initially led to this exchange. KC lied-- yes, lied-- about my essay in an article that he then allowed to be reprinted for Campus Watch. The lie is not immaterial, insofar as KC adduced my essay as evidence of academe’s “almost comical hostility to perceived conservatives.”

This is simply unscrupulous behavior, which KC has now twice compounded-- once by defending/ evading it, and now by trying to conduct this nonce "debate" by way of other people's ungenerous or unscrupulous readings of my work. I won't be changing my opinion of KC again, folks-- you here at Cliopatria have a genuine scoundrel on your hands.


Timothy James Burke - 3/15/2005

KC, can I ask you what "habit" means to you? It means an established pattern of behavior, does it not? Do you really feel you have a long enough engagement with Berube's published work or blogging to say what's a habit or not for him?

Second, do you regard Berube's criticism of your essay as "lashing out" comparable to what Berube admitted was an overreaction to O'Connor? Did he call you "lassie" or send you an email comparable to what he sent to O'Connor? The two dialogues seem asymmetrical to me. I don't think any apology is owed to you, and this reduces your assertion of Berube's "habit" to a case of one if so.

He criticized something you wrote a while back as a misinterpretation, suggested that this misinterpretation was either careless or a deliberate slanting. You can defend your interpretation. This takes close reading of the texts and cases in dispute. You can concede a slight misinterpretation but disagree with the suggestion that you were either careless or ideological in making it. But stay on the issues at hand.

If you want to continue to try and talk about Berube's criticism of your essay on the merits of it, then that's fine, though I think you continue to freely serve up red herrings of all kinds in that discussion. Say, for example, your original reference to an academic who regarded your tenuring as a "slap in the face"--I found it odd that you regarded Bauerlein's snarky remarks about Berube's self-referential tone in The Employment of English such a legitimate "skewering" when some of your response to Berube seems to me equally self-referential and in a rather distracting way.

I think the most you can say about the original Chronicle essay is that Berube frames his conservative student as an "Other" to himself--but I still struggle to understand why that doesn't in fact please and comfort you (or O'Connor), in fact. Isn't that honest? Doesn't his essay reflect an honest attempt to come to grips with the distance between himself and his student? Isn't he using his article to try and understand where there is a neutral pedagogical issue (maintaining classroom discipline) and where there is a messier communicative issue (the distance between the teacher and the student, whether ideological generational or interpersonal)? Why doesn't this encourage rather than anger you?

One of the common conservative criticisms of "political correctness" is that its practicioners tend to focus on single words or phrases while ignoring the evident intent or meaning of an author, that they twist interpretations in order to produce the impression of a pattern of thought or attitude, to make scapegoats. I feel there's something of that going on here, and that the thoughtful thing to do would be to take a step back, to be gracious where frace is called for, and see if there's a real issue anywhere to be discussed as opposed to the various layers of smokescreens and red herrings being built up.


Louis N Proyect - 3/15/2005

`Have some wine,' the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.

Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. `I don't see any wine,' she remarked.

`There isn't any,' said the March Hare.

`Then it wasn't very civil of you to offer it,' said Alice angrily.

`It wasn't very civil of you to sit down without being invited,' said the March Hare.

`I didn't know it was your table,' said Alice; `it's laid for a great many more than three.'

`Your hair wants cutting,' said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.

`You should learn not to make personal remarks,' Alice said with some severity; `it's very rude.'

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, `Why is a raven like a writing-desk?'

`Come, we shall have some fun now!' thought Alice. `I'm glad they've begun asking riddles.--I believe I can guess that,' she added aloud.

`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?' said the March Hare.

`Exactly so,' said Alice.

`Then you should say what you mean,' the March Hare went on.

`I do,' Alice hastily replied; `at least--at least I mean what I say--that's the same thing, you know.'

`Not the same thing a bit!' said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that "I see what I eat" is the same thing as "I eat what I see"!'


Robert KC Johnson - 3/15/2005

"Some have even suggested that your seeing a reference to disability law as offensive to conservative students is in fact offensive to disabled students." I'm not exactly sure what conversation would be worth having in this regard. Disability law--quite properly--requires colleges and universities to make special accomodations, for medical reasons, to students with disabilities, to ensure that they receive equitable access to education. It seems to me insulting, in any way, to suggest that students with certain political beliefs have a medical problem, and I don't see how that comment could be interpreted as offensive to disabled students. As Ralph noted below, Berube seems to have backtracked from that position.

On the last post of Berube's blog, if you see that as "charitable response," I'd hate to see what an uncharitable response would be!!


Caleb McDaniel - 3/15/2005

P.S. There I go typing "conversation" as "conservation" again. I trust everyone knows now that when I say "conservation," I mean "conversation." Unless I'm talking about the conservation of energy or rainforests. Then I really mean "conservation."


Caleb McDaniel - 3/15/2005

As I noted at his own blog, Professor Berube crossed out the harshest line in his original post, referred to your own reply as "generous," and said that your charity towards him warranted charity in return.

If you don't see that his last response here at Cliopatria was a charitable response, then I don't know what to say.

Several commenters have tried to redirect this discussion from our different readings of the final paragraph to the substantive body of the article. But in every one of your replies, it seems to me that you have disregarded these attempts to deal with the thematic content of the article and clung to the line you deem offensive.

Some have even suggested that your seeing a reference to disability law as offensive to conservative students is in fact offensive to disabled students. But instead of entering this conservation, which (as Ralph says) is worth having, you keep directing us to other conversations that have happened long ago.

So now I really am speechless. You have my sincere apologies if I've given offense myself or misrepresented anything you've said, but now I really am bowing out.


Robert KC Johnson - 3/15/2005

As I noted above, Berube has a habit of quickly lashing out whenever he encounters criticism of his work along the lines that Erin and I offered. He quickly lashed out and Erin and then apologized. I'll be waiting, then, for his apology to me, although I doubt it will be forthcoming.


Caleb McDaniel - 3/15/2005

I had resolved not to comment on this debate again, but this post leaves me almost speechless.

In his last comment on your post below, Professor Berube very graciously wrote: "As for Erin O'Connor: fifteen months ago, I thought her reading was deliberately mischievous (that is, I couldn't believe she meant it seriously), and my initial reaction was outrage-- a significant overreaction, really, for which I apologized at the time."

Don't you know an apology when you see one?

I don't expect my friends, acquaintances, and colleagues to keep their cool in every situation. But when they apologize for saying things they should not have said or did not mean to say, I'm inclined not to keep rubbing their faces in the record.

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