I’m strongly of the view that a passionate, honest debate is vital for any field, especially education. I was brought up believing that a courageous exchange of honestly held but differing views was the best way to arrive at understanding and truth.
But there was an underlying rule: the debate was about the ideas, not about personal or emotional slurs on the people behind them. There’s a reason that the ad hominem attack is a foul ball in a debate.
For the last two days, education historian Diane Ravitch and I have been engaged in a debate about KIPP and what one should learn from its example. You can read her original post here and my response here.
We disagree on the facts and on what one should learn from them. That’s ok. We even disagree whether my tone was respectful (my view) or “snarky” (hers). That’s ok too. What’s happened since then definitely isn’t.
In a series of four new posts this morning on her widely read blog, Ravitch—often quoting from others—puts forward a series of statements that move the debate deep into the realm of the personal. She quotes from a local blogger who claims that I wasn’t sufficiently critical of the KIPP school in Oakland when I worked at the Oakland Tribune. (The blogger has since renounced the claim, since the school she wishes I’d critiqued opened three years after I left the paper.) Then, to my bafflement, Dr. Ravitch drags my family into this debate. She discusses my father: “the famous Dan Schorr, who was a fearless man of the left, opposed to plutocrats and billionaires and privatizers and their schemes in foreign nations.” And she chooses to repeat this astonishing comment from the same blogger:
What is it with the offspring of principled people like Daniel Schorr and Marian Wright Edelman? I’ll never be famous or revered, but dammit, my kids are never going to sell their souls.
It should hardly be necessary to say that my father took deep pride in my work to improve education; he read me closely and, until his death two years ago at 93, was always my best editor. My mother, whose pivotal professional moments came working in the Office of Economic Opportunity in the War on Poverty under President Johnson, and later in writing about “what works” to improve the lives of underserved children, has forwarded my original blog post widely, and wrote an email saying, “I think EVERYONE should read it.”
It pained me to see my family brought into this debate, not just because it’s personal and nasty, but because of the effect that such attacks have on the wider debate. People are less likely to offer their views if they think they’re going to be personally attacked, resulting in a less vigorous debate peopled by fewer voices. The result is fewer good ideas, and ultimately, less progress in what I consider America’s most important conversation.
I’m all for a good debate, but let’s make it about the ideas, not the people behind them.
In her fifth post on this debate, Dr. Ravitch said that it’s time to call it a day on this discussion, and she referred fondly to a Monty Python skit. Apparently, there are at least two things on which we completely agree.