Tonight the Network for Public Education is throwing a shindig in New York to honor Diane Ravitch. In truth, it is also to help raise money for NPE, an organization for which Ravitch is a co-founder.
If you are at all concerned about public education, you are familiar with Ravitch's name, and the general arc of her story that has provided a sort of third-act apostasy-fueled career for her as a public figure. She has plenty of detractors from all sides of the education debates, and some of them are pretty worked up about her. Some of the arguments are the same old purity crusades, resting on the notion that if someone only says The Right Thing 98% of the time, they're ruined goods. I've never been a fan of that theory, but then I'm not much of labels guy, either. Human beings are generally complex and always non-uniform. If I ever meet someone who tells me that they agree with me 100% of the time, I assume they are lying to me.
Ravitch is important because she is the closest thing we have to a central figure in the public education side of the debates. While the reformster movement has manufactured big-time cover-photo public figures (She Who Will Not Be Named, former DC chancellor), won innumerable public posts (Arne Duncan), joined a plethora of billionaires (Eli Broad), and congealed around already-famous figures (Bill Gates), the defenders of public education have no such roster. If I showed a list of prominent reformsters to an average civilian, she would know many of the names. I don't think I could pull off a similar trick with public education advocates. Ravitch is about as close as we get to such a central, recognizable figure.
Part of that is her story. Hanging out with the architects of education reform, then defecting upon the realization that they were following the wrong past. But it is also her relentless attention to the movement and the many people it touches. She blogs endlessly, and a large part of that blogging is amplifying hundreds of voices of people who are invested in all of this. Reading Ravitch's blog not only keeps you informed about what is going out there, but it provides an undeniable sense that you have lots of company, lots of people who care about public education, too. You're not crazy, and you're not alone.
Ravitch has not tried to be a Great Leader, has not enforced an orthodoxy, and has not been getting rich from her activities. Her defection was arguably the worst career move ever, leaving people who write multi-million-dollar checks to fund websites, advocacy groups and think tanks to keep their ideas afloat and pushed on the public. Advocates for public education have no such deep pockets. There is no public education equivalent of a Bill Gates or an Eli Broad.
This, incidentally, why groups like the Network for Public Education need to throw fundraisers. Because Doing Stuff costs money, and money has to come from somewhere. Is NPE perfect? Of course not-- like the Badass Teachers, NPE has occasionally stumbled over other issues, particularly those related to equity and racism. But as far as I'm concerned, NPE is an important group doing important work and providing a far-reaching network of public education advocates.
I'm not there tonight; yesterday my son got married and my dance card is just a little full this weekend. But I can contribute to the cause easily enough via the interwebs, and so can you.
Does any of this mean that a testimonial dinner is a great idea? Should we be honoring an individual when the movement is so large and wide? Should we be holding up one individual for applause?
Well, I look at it like this-- we honor people as a way of honoring the kinds of values and behaviors that we care about, that we want to see in the world. This is part of how we shape our world-- if we want to see kindness, we have to honor people who show us how to be kind, and that in turn lifts more kindness into the world. If you have any doubts about this, simply look at how honoring more racism and hatred and just-plain-meanness in the election has lifted up a whole depressing load of racism, hatred, and meanness. And I believe with all my heart that if we wait for someone who is the perfect embodiment of our positive values to come along, we will be interrupted by a bunch of people who are perfectly willing to lift up an imperfect evil.
Ravitch has been a fighter, a scholar, a connector, a sharp writer, and a vocal advocate for public education. I have never seen her be anything but kind and generous, and she feeds my belief that I still have at least a few good decades left in me. She is an invaluable leader in a hugely important movement who has stepped up when it would have been easy to sit back. Those, to me, are all qualities well worth honoring, particularly when that helps support a group that does work I believe in. If, like me, you're not going to be in NYC tonight, consider making a contribution-- as I just said yesterday, in these times, we must all do what we can. Thanks to Diane Ravitch, who has done so much.