Today is graduation day for the Siena College class of 2011! I am both excited and saddened to be a part of the celebration. Excited because I get to celebrate the academic achievement of some of my former students and students I have come to know outside the classroom during my year at Siena. I’m saddened to know that I will not be returning for the Fall 2011 semester because I must return to Washington, DC, to finish another graduate degree and prepare for ordination to the presbyterate. I am additionally excited because Siena College is honoring Diane Ravitch, along with two other deserving recipients, with honorary degrees.
I have been meaning to take some time to talk about Diane Ravitch and my introduction to her work. Those who know me well know that I have a rather eclectic, if not unpredictable, collection of interests. I blame both my extremely curious personality and NPR for that. Talk programs like the Diane Rehm Show and Fresh Air with Terry Gross have been responsible for persuading me to purchase books about subjects and by authors way outside my particular field of interest over many years. I just LOVE to hear people passionate about what it is they study and read their work. I am a sucker for higher education in general and believe that fewer things are as valuable to a society as a liberal arts education. This restlessness for exploring other areas lies at the heart of that principle.
That last point probably helped me be predisposed to liking Ravitch before she even answered a question from Terry Gross. While running in the Adirondack Mountains, something I’m known to do while spending time away from campus to write, I was listening to a Fresh Air podcast and caught Ravitch’s interview. She was promoting her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choices are Undermining Education (Basic Books, 2010) — Here is the New York Times review of it. From the moment she began to discuss, with sincere humility, her own personal conversion on the subject of standardized testing and the market-driven system now in place in United States schools (she was originally a promoter of “No Child Left Behind,” which she now decries), I knew I needed to read her book and learn more about her. I downloaded the book on my Kindle immediately (thank you, 3G!).
Some days later I was sitting in the friary living room talking with a bunch of my Franciscan brothers before dinner, a tradition we call preprandium, and I started raving about this new book I was reading. I explained that I think Ravitch is correct and her assessment, grim as it can be, but trustworthy and forthcoming, helped explain a great degree of frustration I had been experiencing with many of my students: they were practically illiterate! Few students were widely read, most students were terrible writers, yet they all were accepted into a competitive private college. The reason was that they were all very good at taking tests! The New York State Regents exams, the SATs, what have you. Many of the students in my freshman seminar had simply never written a real paper. They had practiced and practiced and practiced a vacuous format that would prove fitting for one purpose only: passing the New York State English Regents exam! This did not prepare them for college.
And my students, mind you, are the lucky ones. Ravitch points out how detrimental this situation is nationally and at all levels. Reading about the way massive school systems are striving to resemble large corporations (and not in a good way) is terrifying, the consequences are atrocious. Those who make it to a private college and have a professor like me academically smack them into reality, who is willing to work with them on papers and encourage students to go to writing centers and develop their work represent only a small portion of the population.
I could go on and on about Ravitch’s book and the way in which her own opinion has changed over the years as one of the nation’s leaders in education. BUT…back to my story…
As I was going on and on about this book, Fr. Kevin Mullen, OFM, the president of Siena College happened to enter the room and sit near me as I raved and raved. A few minutes after arriving he picked up on what I was saying and asked, “are you talking about Diane Ravitch?” to which I responded, “yeah.”
“You know she’s coming here in a couple of weeks?” he said. Here I was thinking she was delivering a lecture on campus. “She’s one of the honorary degree recipients this year,” he continued!
I am simply delighted that Siena College, during the year I happened to serve on faculty here, has selected to honor her for her work. Brava, professor Ravitch! You can check out her blog here at Education Week. And you can watch her earlier this year on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.