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A Response to Michael Apple


by Diane Ravitch - 1988

I enjoyed reading Michael Apple's critique of What Do Our 17 Year-Olds Know? Despite his caveats, I suspect that he likes the book, even though he knows that he is not supposed to and not supposed to let anyone know that he did. With a certain reluctance, he admits that the book is "not uninteresting" and acknowledges that many of our criticisms of the curriculum are "correct." He is even willing to grant that we are "neither charlatans nor unthinking educators" and that we are "not merely far-right ideologues." I am pleased to read in the journal published by the institution that has been my professional home for nearly twenty years that I am neither a charlatan nor unthinking and possibly not even a far-right ideologue. Based on the civility and intelligence of Professor Apple's comments, I readily conclude that he is neither a charlatan nor an unthinking educator nor merely a far-left ideologue. Interestingly, he does not offer any examples from the test or our recommendations... (preview truncated at 150 words.)

I enjoyed reading Michael Apple's critique of What Do Our 17 Year-Olds Know? Despite his caveats, I suspect that he likes the book, even though he knows that he is not supposed to and not supposed to let anyone know that he did. With a certain reluctance, he admits that the book is "not uninteresting" and acknowledges that many of our criticisms of the curriculum are "correct." He is even willing to grant that we are "neither charlatans nor unthinking educators" and that we are "not merely far-right ideologues."

I am pleased to read in the journal published by the institution that has been my professional home for nearly twenty years that I am neither a charlatan nor unthinking and possibly not even a far-right ideologue. Based on the civility and intelligence of Professor Apple's comments, I readily conclude that he is neither a charlatan nor an unthinking educator nor merely a far-left ideologue.

Interestingly, he does not offer any examples from the test or our recommendations to demonstrate his claims of our alleged political agenda. He knows that the sort of background knowledge that was tested is necessary for any kind of political thinking, whether right, left, neoconservative, or liberal. Regardless of the politics of students, teachers, or parents, students should be able to identify major regions or nations on a map; they should know in which half century the Civil War or World War II occurred; they should know about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II; they should know what Jim Crow laws were; they should know what the Brown decision was; they should know what the Scopes trial was about; they should know what the Seneca Falls Declaration was. None of the questions contains within it a political slant; if there had been even one such question, I feel sure that Professor Apple would have called it to the attention of readers.

Professor Apple seems to recognize that the results of the assessment are disturbing; possibly our findings confirmed his own observations. From our analysis of the results, as well as from student responses to background questions, we concluded that not enough time is devoted in the K-12 years to the study of history and literature; too much time is devoted to the regurgitation of textbooks; not enough time is spent reading documents, autobiographies, and other primary source materials; not enough time is spent in discussion and debate; the quality of textbooks, as studies have shown, contributes to student apathy; too little time is devoted in the primary years to activities and readings that create an interest in other times and places. More time is needed, but the time must be spent in ways that arouse student interest and make history and literature meaningful to students.

What we argued in the book bears repeating here: Students cannot learn to ask critical questions or to think conceptually about the past or about their own lives as political actors unless they have sufficient background knowledge. Without knowledge of the past, they will be lost in the present, buffeted by consumerism, pop culture, and shallow utilitarianism.

The kinds of questions asked on the test were simple, perhaps too simple. Professor Apple at one point refers to the information tested as the " 'great wisdom' largely stored in universities" and at another point suggests that we failed to reflect adequately on "whose knowledge this is." I respectfully disagree. Knowing that the Civil War occurred between 1850 and 1900 is not "the great wisdom" stored in universities, it is not elitist, and it is not the possession of any particular social class. It should be common knowledge, but only 32 percent in the national sample of high school juniors answered this question correctly. Most students did not know who Senator Joseph McCarthy was or what the "three-fifths compromise" in the Constitution was. Again, this is not "great wisdom" nor should it be the special knowledge of an elite. These are examples of the kind of background knowledge that all students need in order to think critically about the relationship between historical and contemporary issues.

Professor Apple would like to see students "empowered… by understanding the history and current struggles in their communities," but he knows very well that local history gains meaning only when seen in relation to the history of movements for social and political change and the national (and international) context in which they succeeded or failed.

The assessment does not make a grand and authoritative determination of "what knowledge is of most worth." In the history portion, the questions aimed to test what was found in the most widely adopted American history textbooks. Students were tested on what they had presumably been taught. To test them on what they had not been taught would make little sense. We hope that future assessments will find ways other than multiple-choice questions to test knowledge; we are well aware of their limitations and aware too that better methods will probe for deeper levels of understanding.

Professor Apple observes that "it would be essential to know who served" on the panels that designed the test objectives. He is correct, which is why the members of the learning area committees are listed on page 24 of the book. The history panel included Stephan Thernstrom of Harvard, Henry Drewry of Princeton, and three social studies professionals. Neither my co-author nor I knew then (or now) the ideology or politics of the panel members

The test does not establish a canon of cultural knowledge. Every additional administration of the history assessment (another was given in the spring of 1988) will add new questions and new areas of content. Whatever the content, it will still remain necessary for students to have a sound grasp of chronology and geography, if they are to have any understanding of deeper issues in history.

I hope that the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) will invite Professor Apple, Vincent Harding, and Robert Heilbroner to serve as members of a learning area committee so that they can help shape the test objectives for future history assessments.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 90 Number 1, 1988, p. 128-130
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10456, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 5:51:38 PM

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