Selwyn House

Coaching debate has its perks. Last weekend I attended the Oxford Cup nationals at Selwyn House, Montreal, whose alumni include Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and journalist Jonathan Kay. I chaired a couple rounds of debate as a judge and found the top teams to be exceptional. I always come away from these tournaments inspired by the display of intellect and spirit.

I’m lucky to be learning from the best – Winnipeg’s own John Robinson has led his students to win 17 out of the 25 international public speaking championships. Brian Casey, the venerable coach of Sacred Heart in Halifax, believes his team can edge into the top 10 at British Nationals this year (by some odd historical coincidence, Canada and Australia are both able to send teams to the UK nationals).

At Selwyn house, I noticed in the hallway of the middle school that one of their TV monitors displayed “what the staff are reading,” which I think is a great practice for any school. Hopefully I’ll be getting back to the purpose of this blog, which is to review books, but for now here is what I’ve been reading this Fall:



Part of the intellectual ferment of debate stems from the need to learn basic political philosophy. At West Point Grey Academy in Vancouver (home of this year’s Oxford Cup victors), Sandel’s Justice is required reading for debaters. I’ve also used it for my philosophy club in the past.



My family rolled their eyes when I spent my summer vacation mulling over grim statistics of the Bloodlands. I had re-discovered my great-great grandfather’s dairy from southern Ukraine, where he was branded as a Kulak (He was killed by Makhno’s bandits, and his relatives somehow survived the Holodomor.  It was fascinating to cross-reference events and get into the psychology of well-off Mennonite farmers near Crimea).

This is an important book – it does a good job of humanizing the 14 million who died in Eastern Europe while meticulously cataloguing various crimes. Snyder’s analysis of Soviet and Nazi cognitive dissonance is shattering.

tony judt - reappraisals

These essays by Tony Judt may have been just re-printings of journalism and book reviews, but they are elegant and insightful. He argues that we are in “an age of forgetting,” where the meaning of struggles that defined the last century are no longer understood. I really like his character sketches, especially of Marxist historian Hobsbawm, and Leszek Kolakowski, the Polish ex-Communist philosopher whose criticism of French Marxist thinkers remains unpublished in France today. Kolakowski’s “How to be a Liberal-Conservative-Socialist-Anarchist” is a classic that would really mess up students’ preconceptions of the political spectrum.

how children succeed

I randomly met my superintendent at a garage sale, and bought his desk and this book. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of it as an AP Psych teacher, and it is one of those books that ties together many important strands of research, including Michael Meaney’s experiments on the biological effects of early attachment (better stress-regulation and life-long health benefits), Martin Seligman’s Virtues catalogue, Angela Duckworth’s Grit scale, Carol Dweck’s framing effect, and James Heckman’s repudiation of the cognitive hypothesis – that IQ matters more for success than character. I feel that this book is launching me toward my master’s thesis, and will also change my views of parenting.


aristotle emotions and education

Aristotle, Emotions, and Education. Kristjian Kristjiannson is the director of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, UK. As Michael Sandel explains with such lucidity,  in order to resolve ethical disputes about the role of education, it helps to ask what kind of thing education is in the first place. Responding to the surge of virtue ethics in the last couple decades, Kristjiannson presents competing versions of Aristotelian education and tries to clarify what the “philosopher” really said. Is education really all about habituation in the early years? Etc. I’m looking forward to experiencing the clash of positive psychology’s “virtues” and the classical account.  I also like that he is trying to have both feet in philosophy and the social sciences.


Au revoir.