What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez?: The American Revolution in Education
reviewed by Mayme Francyne Huckaby, Cameron Potter & Stephanie Cole — July 12, 2018
Title: What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez?: The American Revolution in Education
Author(s): Geoffrey Galt Harpham
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 022648081X, Pages: 224, Year: 2017
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Geoffrey Harpham begins What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez?: The American Revolution in Education, with the personal history of the books namesake. Arriving on the shores of Florida some fifty years ago, Mr. Ramirez, a Cuban immigrant, had no money, no English, no American relatives, no friends, no papers (p. 3). Along a path paved with hard work and determination, Mr. Ramirez scraped together a living, learned English, earned his GED, and found his way into a community college. There, he enrolled in a literature class in order to fulfill his degree requirements. He struggled. The instructor, noticing him helplessly staring at Shakespearean poetry, approached him and asked, Mr. Ramirez, what do you think? (p. 3). Mr. Ramirez had no idea what he thought and realized no one had ever asked him such a question. Recognizing the desire to hone his independent voice and thought, Mr. Ramirez completed his associate degree and continued his education, eventually retiring as a professor emeritus of comparative literature.
The author argues that Professor Ramirezs miraculous journey is one of many such stories from the American education system, which is too often criticized for its failures in spite of many successes. Dr. Ramirez inspired Harpham to explore how American education was constructed to maximize the possibility that such miracles might occur (p. 5).
Like Dr. Ramirez, many others have experienced the possibilities that education can provide, including immigrants, refugees, people of color, and women. Each of these groups, however, has fought to access these possibilities. The following review will highlight insightful areas and also note an important element which is absent from this historical account: the struggles for gender and racial equality that are also part of the history of American educational institutions and systems.
Harpham discusses Americas founding commitment to individual reading and understanding, a populist practice driven by a religious imperative (p. 52). He notes early Americans commitment to reading and interpreting the Bible for themselves, arguing that independent thought was one of the key principles behind the American Revolution and the foundation of American democracy. He then relates this to education in the humanities and literature, a key aspect of which is learning to interpret and analyze texts.
What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez? comes at a particularly salient time with modern debates regarding DREAMers, immigration reform, border walls, and other Trump administration policies to make America great again. Key strengths of American education, as experienced by Dr. Ramirez, are now viewed as liabilities and campaigned against. Harpham describes the current American education system as, decentered, plural, resistant to top-down directionhardly systematic at alland, of course, derivative from ideas and traditions developed elsewhere (p. 167). Nonetheless, he argues:
The American system is different in ways that reflect a national self-understanding that has been articulated and affirmed throughout the course of its history. The most foundational of the ideas I have been discussing is the right of each person to his or her opinion even on matters of great consequence. This right entails not only a commitment to a civil society predicated on difference, dissent, and persuasion, but also a determination to refine and discipline the process of opinion formation and argumentation in order to limit the potential for anarchy and tyranny that threatens a society in which public opinion plays such an important role. (p. 168)
Harpham fails to recognize the barriers to the expression of opinion (as well as the exclusion from a voice in the democratic process) experienced by marginalized groups, particularly women and people of color. While he offers a compelling and insightful account of the history of the American educational system, the fact that racial and gender inequalities were not thoroughly discussed is problematic, especially since Dr. Ramirez is the center around which this book revolves.
American educational history is not only a roadmap of where we have been, but also provides insights about where we might be headed. Harphams compact history closes by describing the role education, literature, and intention have in helping us continually rediscover America by identifying the principles and practices that will best realize, in the contemporary world, certain fundamental principles that have served the nation well (p. 171). Clearly the humanities and literature have been instrumental, as have civil rights struggles and their legal and policy implications. No doubt each of these were part of Dr. Ramirezs success.