Bob Shepherd has worked as an editor, author, assessment developer, curriculum writer, and most recently a classroom teacher in Florida.

In this post, he reviews the review of my book SLAYING GOLIATH, which was written by journalist Annie Murphy Paul and published in the New York Times Book Review.

To summarize, he thought the review was uninformed and mean-spirited.

He writes:

On January 21, 2020, Annie Murphy Paul’s “review” of Diane Ravitch’s Slaying Goliathappeared in The New York Times. Being reviewed in the Times is a big deal.  Such a review affects public opinion and sales. That’s why a hatchet job done on a truly important book is truly irresponsible.

In her new book, education historian Ravitch presents a recent history of the popular resistance to an “Education Reform Movement” led by billionaires interested in

  • privatizing U.S. PreK-12 education via charter schools and vouchers,
  • foisting upon the country a single set of national “standards,”
  • busting teachers’ unions,
  • selling depersonalized education software, and
  • evaluating students, teachers, and schools based on high-stakes standardized tests.

Here’s Ms. Paul’s opening salvo:

“She came. She saw. She conquered.”

This opening is, of course, an allusion to the boast about his role in the Gallic Wars attributed to Julius Caesar by Appian, Plutarch, and Suetonius—Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered). Caesar’s is doubtless the most famous boast in Western history, and the allusion is meant to be deflating. Technically, the term for what Ms. Paul is attempting here is bathos, a powerful rhetorical technique in which one plunges from the sublime into the ridiculous. She means to ridicule Ravitch as someone who sees herself as the great conqueror of the “Reform Movement.” Paul’s implication is that Ravitch’s book is an exercise in self-aggrandizement. That’s a pretty heavy (and nasty) charge with which to begin a review, don’t you think? I do.

And so the reader of Ms. Paul’s review is led, up front, to expect Ravitch’s book to be like Don the Con’s Art of the Deal. Trump’s book (if one can call it that; he didn’t write it) is ostensibly about how to become successful via negotiation, but it’s not, of course, about that. Like everything that comes from Trump’s mouth, this book is actually about Trump—about how great he is. It’s a work of pathological narcissism. Paul leads us to expect that Ravitch’s book, ostensibly about resistance to “Reform” or “Deform,” will actually be about Ravitch, a portrait of herself as conquering hero. But there’s a problem with Paul’s opening (and, as it turns out, her thesis): it’s false and therefore dishonest. Ravitch’s book tells the stories of and heaps praise upon a great many fighters in the Resistance movement, but the one she doesn’t tell us much about at all is the de facto leader, or chief among equals, of that Resistance, Ravitch herself. Throughout, she makes the gift to her readers of inspiring stories of ordinary heroes—students and parents and teachers who spoke truth to power and won. Ravitch’s book is overwhelmingly, clearly, about them. Ravitch rarely appears in her own book, and when she does, it is as someone cheering these others on. (Oligarchs don’t appreciate or understand spontaneously emerging, self-assembling grass roots movements like the Resistance because they think that the only way to get “Out of Many, One’ is via coercion or bribery by an authoritarian.)

As an English teacher, I must give Paul’s opening a D-. Why? Well, there’s a reading issue. Yes, I understand that journalist’s deadlines are tight, and there’s often little time to read the book, write the copy, and submit the piece, but seriously, reviewers are actually supposed to read the books they review. And then there’s the writing issue. One of the most common flaws of puerile writing is the inability to “kill one’s darlings,” as Arthur Quiller-Couch put it. Yes, Ms. Paul, you came up with a cute opening, but it was dishonest, and you or your editor should have put a line through it. Not having done so is, well, in a word, amateurish.

After a little de rigueur background on Ravitch, Paul goes on to attack her for

  • taking an “imperious” tone,
  • engaging in “empty sloganeering and ad hominem attacks,”
  • lacking “the subtle insight and informed judgment for which she was once known,” and
  • being interested primarily “in settling scores and in calling [people] out by name” and cataloguing “her vanquished foes.”

In other words, Ms. Paul makes against Ravitch, in a clearly imperious tone, a clearly ad hominem attack completely lacking in subtle insight and informed judgment.

Let’s consider, first, Ms. Paul’s lack of informed judgment. She blithely accuses Ravitch of “dismissing the call for a common standard as a corporate plot to create a uniform market for educational products” [sic; by “a common standard” Paul means “common standards”; is her reference to “a common standard” simply sloppy writing, or is it an attempt to be more Deformy than the next guy; one can’t tell]. If Ms. Paul had done a little background research, she would have learned that

  • Bill Gates, who made himself the wealthiest nonsovereign person in the world by leveraging ownership of the world’s most widely used personal computer operating system, was approached by Gene Wilhoit of the Council of Chief State School Officers and David Coleman, an education biz entrepreneur, and pitched the idea of a single set of national standards;
  • Gates enthusiastically endorsed the idea, paid for the development of these standards, and then paid out hundreds of millions of dollars (and influenced the spending of 4 trillion in taxpayer funds) to promote them; and
  • he did this, in his own words, so that with a single set of standards, “innovators” could “design tools that a lot of teachers could use.”

In other words, Gates believed that just as the standard Microsoft operating systems led to the creation of products like Word and Excel and other DOS- and then Windows-based PC software, a single set of standards would lead to products of which Gates would likewise approve. As Gates himself put it, a single set of national standards would mean that “[f]or the first time, there will be a large uniform base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn.” Or, as the Gates enabler Joanne Weiss, Chief of Staff to Education Secretary Arne Duncan in charge of Race to the Top, put it:

The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.

I give Weiss credit. She knew exactly what was going down.

So, Gates himself extolled as his purpose precisely the one that Ms. Paul tells us sprang totally from some lunatic imagining on the part of Diane Ravitch, and Gates’s messaging was parroted by his collection of official bobbleheads and action figures. Of course, having one set of national standards would create economies of scale that educational materials monopolists could exploit, enabling them to crowd out smaller competitors. Sound familiar? And Ms. Paul seems not to have noticed that the very corporate plotter who paid for the creation of this single bullet list of national “standards” also created a company, InBloom, the purpose of which was to serve as a gigantic national database of student test scores, grades, and other information. In other words, it would have served as a kind of national gradebook, and curriculum developers, in order to use it, would have had to pay to play, would have had to become “partners” with InBloom, making the Gates company, effectively, the gatekeeper of U.S. curricula. Fortunately, student privacy issues and heroic Resistance fighters like Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters killed that monster in its cradle….

Let’s consider the other charge she lays to Ravitch—a lack of subtle insight. Ms. Paul devotes much of her “review” to attacking Ravitch for giving to “Education Reformers” the title “Disrupters” and calling the opposition the Resistance, with a capital R. Paul is clearly quite incensed by this. One would expect a journalist to understand, having studied political movements and messaging, the value of giving names to movements and messages. But, of course, the education tyro Paul is imagining herself as some objective observer, above factionalism of the kind indulged in by mere mortals like Ravitch. Paul accuses Ravitch of treating the other side unfairly, of not telling their story. Here, again, Paul channels Trump, who infamously referred to the neo-Nazis and their opponents gathered in Charlottesville as the “good people on both sides.” This is the same kind of moronic distortion of a legitimate goal of reporting—that it be fair and balanced—that led journalists, for decades, to report, dutifully, the “two sides to the argument” about whether tobacco caused cancer, that leads them, today, to write as though there were actually two legitimate and opposing scientific views concerning whether anthropogenic climate change is real. Darn that Ida B. Wells, why couldn’t she have been more fair to the Ku Klux Klan? Why did she just report on the lynchings? Darn that Rachel Carson. Why couldn’t she have been more fair to the makers of DDT?  Darn that Greta Thunberg, why can’t she be more fair to Exxon and British Petroleum and Aramco? After all, it’s only the future of the planet at stake.

Putting on, again, my English teacher hat, I must point out another issue with Ms. Paul’s reading: she totally missed the genre of Ravitch’s book. Much of Diane Ravitch’s work over the past few decades is in the grand tradition of the muckraker, represented in our history by people like Lincoln Steffens, Julius Chambers, Nelly Bly, Helen Hunt Jackson, Henry Lloyd, Ambrose Bierce, Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, Frank Norris, Jane Jacobs, Rachel Carson, and Ralph Nader. Ravitch’s job, her scary duty, is to call out those doing damage—the wealthy and the powerful—and to do so by name, but this is the very thing, the courageousness with which Ravitch call the powerful to account, to which Ms. Paul objects. (There are so many unintended ironies in Paul’s review that I can’t treat them all, alas.) Ms. Paul’s failure to understand the genre of the book she was reviewing leads her to a catastrophic failure of insight into what Ravitch accomplishes in this book—mapping a constellation of evils and showing how they can be righted….

Ms. Paul’s uniformed, vituperative, shallow, amateurish “review” is entitled “Diane Ravitch Declares the Death of Education Reform.” But, of course, in the book, Ravitch does no such thing. Nowhere in her book does Ravitch claim to have “conquered the forces of Disruption,” as Paul snidely suggests (to be fair, Paul might not be responsible for the headline; newspapers often have dedicated headline writer/editors who do that, but she makes the same spurious accusation in the body of her “review”). So, the “review” is not only wrong from the start; it is wrong before it starts. Slaying Goliath is a powerful reportfrom the beginnings of the battle for the preservation of our sacred democratic institutions from oligarchical control. It’s about schools, certainly, but it has resonances far beyond the classroom. Ms. Paul didn’t get that. But then, again, she didn’t get much about Ravitch’s book, it seems.

Please read Shepherd’s review in full. It is brilliant.

Thus far, the review by Ms. Paul is the only hostile review I have seen, though I don’t expect it will be the only one. It has been heartening to me to seethe outpouring of positive reviews from people who are or were classroom teachers. They are the experts about education whose views I most respect.