Cross-posted at Education Week
The table next to my bed is always stacked with a changing array of books waiting to be read, very much like the airplanes stacked in the approach pattern to major airports, waiting to land. Some are recently written and in the news and others are classics, books I should have read a long time ago, and still others are waiting to be reread. Here’s a list of some of the books I’ve read or reread over the last year that you might enjoy while sitting on your Adirondack chair on the porch of your cabin by the lake.
The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. By far the best telescope you can get to see the future coming, specifically a glimpse of the way intelligent machines will change almost everything, especially work, income distribution and the kinds of skills that work will demand. Not at all a gee-whiz treatment of this issue, it is carefully considered, well documented and thoughtful, a levelheaded look at the likely upsides and downsides.
First Salute by Barbara Tuchman. We won our war for independence from Britain on land, culminating in a series of battles won and lost with the victory at Yorktown, right? Well, not exactly. If the French had not had a fleet blocking the lower Chesapeake Bay, we would have lost that battle, and, probably, the war. We think of the American Revolution as a conflict between our colonies and their colonial master. However, Tuchman gives us a maritime view of the Revolution that begins in the Caribbean and uses the political scene in the Caribbean at the time to explain how the rivalries among the European powers accounted for the presence of the French fleet just in time at just the right place to enable us to win our independence. Who knew? A great story very well told. A short book. You can read a chapter in the hour after dawn, when everyone else is still asleep and you are stealing glances at the mist rising from the lake, a cup of coffee in hand.
The Road to Character by David Brooks. A leading public intellectual, Brooks broods here about what it means to be a good person. This is not a how-to book, but something much more akin to what could be expected from someone grappling hard with the question of how to live the kind of deeply satisfying life that is based not on being happy or on being professionally fulfilled, but on struggling to do the right thing. It felt as though I had been invited to sit in on a fascinating meditation. You might want to read this book sitting on the bench under the pines, sitting in that little natural cathedral with the smell of balsam in your nose.
The Wisdom of Practice: Essays on Teaching, Learning, and Learning to Teach by Lee Shulman. I was visiting with Lee and his wife Judy a few months ago, and chanced to pick up a copy of this book, which I had not laid eyes on in years. Opening the book to a random page, I started to read and found myself, once again, realizing that Lee had long ago plowed ground that I had thought virgin and done it better than I could imagine doing it. We are once again absorbed in issues of teacher professionalism, curriculum and assessment, and I am finding that there is little in this territory that Lee has not considered with a thoughtfulness that has not been matched since. If you can find a copy of this book, pick it up and start reading…anywhere. You’ll see what I mean.
The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson. What could the study of insects possibly teach us about how human beings managed to conquer all the other creatures and dominate the earth? Wilson’s answer: Everything. Cooperation–or at least the particular kind of cooperation practiced by humans and insects–conquers all. That’s the message of E.O. Wilson’s inquiry. Understanding where that kind of cooperation came from and how it works explains more than you might imagine about the biological basis of the human condition. I am imagining you reading Wilson while glancing at the line of ants in the sand by the beach, patiently carrying pieces of food from its source back to their little hill, realizing how little you knew about that remarkable group of insects.
The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White. Ah, you say, but this is summer, and I do not want to carry books so heavy to the beach or the cottage by the lake. Take The Sword in the Stone with you. You thought it was a children’s story about the legend of the young King Arthur and so it is. But at its heart is the story of the program of education that Merlin devised for the future king. It is a great romp and still one of the best education books ever written. It is hard to imagine a better way to spend your summer than riding along with Sir Pendragon in search of a few good fewmets. And, lest you think that a solid academic education is necessarily superior to an applied one, I invite you to consider the education of the future King Arthur.
Speaking of books, I had an idea a month or so ago. When I was a kid growing up, there were a handful of books that most educated people were expected to read. But, after the Vietnam War, that list was derided as the leavings of dead white men. The Western Civ curriculum and the books in it were attacked as a legacy of Eurocentric colonialism. Not much later, schoolteachers, eager to find a way to get non-readers to read, began to put comic books in the curriculum if that was what it took to accomplish their goal. Shakespeare disappeared from many high school English classes. The canon I grew up with was not replaced by another canon. It was replaced with no canon. My friend Will Fitzhugh tells me that few high school students are ever asked to read a whole non-fiction book. It is not at all clear to me how many are asked to read a whole book of adult fiction, much less which books of fiction they are asked to read.
My idea was simple enough. I would put together a list of books that I would like my grandchildren to read, about ten of them, and, just to make sure that those books were actually available to them, I would buy them for them and send them to them. I cannot and would not want to make them read them, but I would make it as easy as possible for them to read them, if not right away, then when they thought they might be ready for them.
So I have a question for you. If you had to choose ten books that you would like your grandchildren to read, what would they be? Why those ten? I don’t want the answer. I would like you to think about your own answer. I don’t want one canon. But I would like to think that you might have your own canon.
I hope you have a fine summer.