Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Is there anything worth reading about education?

I am traveling for work again today--this time to Seattle for an accreditation meeting. I get a lot of good reading time when I travel. Thinking about this trip made me realize that it has been a long time since I read anything recent and good about education, or at least anything recent and good that was longer than a magazine article or a blog post.

This is not to say that there is nothing worth reading that has implications for education. I am in the middle of Dixit and Nalebuff's, The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist's Guide to Success in Business and Life (purchased, incidentally, in the Seattle Airport bookstore). The Art of Strategy has a lot to suggest about education--both about how simple decision trees can help teachers and students predict the results of their activities, as well as about how the prisoner's dilemma might help colleges think more clearly about the cost of a higher education. Similarly, lots of reasonably popular trade books--Nudge, The Wisdom of Crowds, The Tipping Point, Emergence--are filled with ideas that have clear applications to learning, to the organization of schools, to educational policy, and even to the philosophy of education.

And there are several older education books that provide bracing viewpoints on education. Paul Goodman's Compulsory Miseducation ought to be read by anyone thinking about the purpose of college, or whether higher education is for everyone. (College administrators ought read it whenever they get a little confidence about the educational value of administration.) Ivan Illich's De-Schooling Society is rooted in a deep respect for tradition, but that respect allows Illich to predict forms of social organization (online social networks, for example) that others have only made sense of in retrospect. Neil Postman's The End of Education anticipates today's debates about the competing values of liberal and professional education, and suggests responses that today's administrators and teachers should use. (Not to mention Dewey--important but unreadable, Addams, Locke, etc.)

So the question is this: Why there is so little contemporary book-length writing about education that is worth reading? And why is this the case particularly when education has become an ever more significant part of public discourse? Here are some answers:

1. I have a narrow field of vision. Maybe there is a lot of good writing about education, but I have just missed it. This is certainly likely, but if it is the case, what would you suggest that I should read?

2. The long stuff is unnecessary. Maybe book-length writing is passe, and so what really matters is the short stuff. If so, what are the short pieces of writing about education that have really changed the way you think, teach, or learn?

3. Writing is unnecessary. What really matters is (a) data, and (b) action. So what we should be looking for is results, not ideas. If so, where are the results? Where are the data? Or where are the websites, cognitive maps, etc. that have replaced writing about education?

4. Education is no longer really important--it is only symbolically important. True, perhaps. But if so, why? Shouldn't there be at least one good book explaining why all the attention to education doesn't really mean anything? Is there one?

5. There is no market. Teachers don't make much money, and who else would read this stuff? If so, what explains the glut of spirituality books on the market? Do you get rich from religion? From writing political memoirs? Fiction?

6. There are no ideas worth paying attention to in education. Maybe, but it seems to me that the big challenges in the world--sustainability, the economy, social organization, liberty and responsibility, the purpose of life--are about learning in one way or another. And lots of the thinkers in those areas are asking education to take a more active role. So how can educators do the same, and ask business leaders, politicians, bureaucrats, and families to pay a bit of attention to what we know about how people learn.

I'll know this has happened when I get to the bookstore in the Seattle airport, and instead of choosing a business book, or a novel, or something about Buddhism, I have a selection of books about learning that I want to read.

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