Posts Tagged ‘books’

What I’m reading

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.

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Books are humanity in print – Barbara Tuchman

barbara tuchman

Your life is shaped by the end your live for. You are made in the image of what you desire – Thomas Merton

thomas merton

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested -Francis Bacon francis bacon

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Joel Runyon (Blog of impossible things) recently ran into the inventor of the first programmable computer, Russell Hirsch, in a Portland coffee shop. Here’s their conversation.

Hirsch made an interesting point about the consumption of media and the sale of tablets:

“I’ve been against Macintosh company lately. They’re trying to get everyone to use iPads and when people use iPads they end up just using technology to consume things instead of making things. With a computer you can make things. You can code, you can make things and create things that have never before existed and do things that have never been done before.”

“That’s the problem with a lot of people”, he continued, “they don’t try to do stuff that’s never been done before, so they never do anything, but if they try to do it, they find out there’s lots of things they can do that have never been done before.”

What did Runyon learn from this conversation?  That we should all stop reading books, and start doing things, of course. I guess the idea of a renaissance man isn’t quite what it used to be.

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Northrop Frye gives an excellent account of intellectual freedom in his preface to a collection of his speeches and essays entitled On Education.
“It seems to me that what is called academic freedom is the key to all freedom.”

His view on education is of particular interest to me, not just because he was Canada’s greatest literary critic, but because his career spanned the depression, second world war, cold war, student unrest of the 60s, and the “expectant stagnation of the seventies and eighties.” He was one of the founding members of the grassroots Ontario Curriculum Institute, before it was taken over by the provincial government in what is now OISE.

Here he discusses the relation between freedom of speech, and books:

It matters very little what one knows if one cannot express and communicate what one knows. That is why I think of the study of literature and related disciplines as fighting on the front lines of civilization. Free speech can only mean highly disciplined speech: it is normally (there are exceptions, but they remain exceptions) a skill resulting from relentless practice and a relentless search for the exact words that express one’s meaning. As is obvious, such practice is a moral as well as a cultural meaning. As is obvious, such practice is a moral as well as a cultural training. Its chief technological instruments are, and I think always will be, books. The book is often regarded as introverted (“always sitting in a corner reading a book,” as many parents say when worried by the fact that their children show symptoms of developing minds), and of course it can be that. But the book is actually a companion in dialogue: it helps to structure and make sense of the flood of automatic gabble that keeps rolling through the mind. This interior monologue, as it is called, never relates to other people, however often it is poured over them. Further, a book stays where it is, and does not vanish into ether or the garbage bin like the mass media. So the book becomes the focus of a community, as more and more people read it and are affected by it. It moves in the opposite direction the introversion of what has been called “the lonely crowd”, where no one can communicate with his neighbor because he is too close to him mentally to have anything to say.  (p.4)

Frye’s view of books as “communities” of readers reminds me of Montaigne’s argument that reading books could be a substitute for personal experience. Practical judgment could be a habit of the mind. You could learn practical judgment when you

. . . inquire into the conduct, the resources, and the alliances of this prince and that. These are things very pleasant to learn and very useful to know. In this association with men I mean to include, and foremost, those who live only in the memory of books. He will associate, by means of histories, with those great souls of the best ages. (Montaigne, Collected Works, 1957, p. 115)

The progressive view articulated by John Dewey, which is largely our own, has done much to dissuade us from this form of acquiring practical judgment.  In the 20th century, Dewey says we have

…finally reached a point where learning means discovery, not memorizing traditions. (‘Philosophy of Education’  in Cyclopedia of Education, 1913, p. 702)

Contrast this to Frye’s view on cultivating literacy:

I do not  trust any way of teaching writing except composition from models, feeling one’s way into the idiom of cultivated prose. (‘The Beginning of the Word’ in On Education, p. 17)

To be explored in future posts is the relation between freedom and discipline (not the punishment type..)

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After graduating this spring and spending my life savings on a trip to Italy, my goal this summer was to create a  list of education books to read and review for this blog. I’ve read through them, but now comes the elusive writing bit. Here is a sample:

Ken OsborneEducation: A Guide to the Canadian School Debate – or, Who Wants What and Why?

A very concise summary of views, with a liberal arts/civics slant. It helps to know some of the past education debates, and to consolidate some B.Ed. material. Ken has some shrewd observations along with a healthy dislike of “edubabble,” thanks to a sensibility for the history of educational ideas and its fads. I met Ken at last year’s SAGE where he did a workshop on teaching history through dilemmas. Ken’s an affable and Oxford trained Englishman who specializes in the history of history education in Canada. He retired from the University of Manitoba in 1997.

Northrop Frye – On Education

Frye is Canada’s greatest literary critic (UofT), and I should say quite a liberal arts traditionalist. I first read  An Educated Imagination while working as an editor and it helped assuage the guilt associated with buying too many second hand books.  This is a compilation of essays written from 1950s to the 1980s, some of them speeches to Ontario Council of Teachers of English. As a university professor, Frye was interested in the relation between the academy and the teacher colleges, and many of the issues he talks about in 1960s and 80s are still the same today.  His main thesis –  a truly basic education teaches that language is a way of thinking. Many quotable quotes in this book.

Nicholas Carr-  The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Your Brain

Carr’s book was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize and is a must read for anyone trying to make sense of the impact of technology on education. This one I’ve read twice now, mostly because he picks up on so many neuro-science studies which are hard to remember. His argument is that the internet is changing how we think, that the switch from books to the the Net means we’ll loose our one of the greatest catalysts of civilization and progress – the capacity for uninterrupted, sustained concentration (what postmoderns have demonized as “linear thought”). The Church of Google is perhaps his most telling chapter, where he sheds light on the reductionistic account of human nature brought to us by the priests of post-industrial capitalism – Google executives view the human brain as a machine and the greatest value is speed and efficiency. Especially when you make money off of how distracted you can make people.  Basically, Marshall McLuhan was right: a new medium changes how we think, not just what we think. Carr is a level-headed observer who is just reminding us of what we’re leaving behind in all our utopic progressivism.

Also to come are reviews of:
Yatta Kanu – Integrating Aboriginal Perspectives Into the Curriculum (2011)
The History Boys – a film version of Allan Bennett’s play.
George Steiner – Lessons of the Masters
Paolo Freire – Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Neil Postman – Building a Bridge to the 18th Century
John T. Gatto Weapons of Mass Instruction

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