Feel-Bad Education

Feel-Bad Education And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling by Alfie Kohn

Kohn takes self-evident facts of human psychology and applies them to education, pointing out how conventional schooling goes against obvious principles like “Students are more likely to learn what they find interesting.” I appreciated how he defines progressive education and explains why it’s so rare; this concept is something you often hear about in education circles, but one that I have never personally seen in practice. Some people might find Kohn kind of extreme: not only does he oppose standardized testing of any kind, he’s even against all forms of number and letter grades. But even though he argues for ideas that most would consider radical, he always traces them back to principles that most people would agree with, and thoroughly and persuasively explains his position. His work is very well-researched and based on evidence, as well as on his progressive views on the purpose of education.

 

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The Teacher Wars

The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein

Often, in debating education issues, people talk about getting things back to the way they were in some golden age. But a careful look at the history shows that there were problems of some kind at every point in the past; there was no golden age, no perfect time that we need to return to. If anything, a broader perspective shows how much better things are now than even in the recent past. Still, it’s useful to know how we got where we are, especially when the mud starts slinging.

Goldstein goes back to the beginning of American education to illuminate how the teaching profession has changed over the years. I particularly appreciated learning about how teaching became a female-dominated profession: women teachers were pitched as a chance to save money on salaries. The missionary zeal of these pioneering young women is compared aptly to that of college graduates who join Teach For America today. I was fascinated by the stories of school integration and teachers’ strikes.

It becomes clear in this longer view that there is no one party or group that has always had the moral high ground in debates on education. At various times and places teachers’ unions have fought for both what I would consider ‘the good side’ and ‘the bad side,’ while concepts like local control have been used for good and for evil–to resist both charter schools and racial integration, for example.

I agreed with the majority of Goldstein’s concluding recommendations, especially improving teacher pay, using tests appropriately, and giving teachers time to collaborate and observe each other. I am more sanguine about teachers’ unions than she is, but that’s probably because I have had a positive personal experience with mine, while she has reported and written about cases where unions were in the wrong. Even so, a sympathetic, well-researched book like this can only improve teachers’ working conditions and professional standing, so even though she argues for ending “outdated” union protections, it’s a net positive for teachers.

Better Than Before

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin

This book is about habit formation and what it takes to adopt and maintain good habits, and break bad habits and keep from relapsing. I found it incredibly useful. Rubin talks at length about how people’s different tendencies and personalities should change their approaches to habits. She breaks people into four groups in regards to how they approach habits and expectations from self and others: 1) Upholders, who like to follow rules, 2) Obligers, who follow through on commitments to others but not to themselves, 3) Questioners, who only do things that they can see a good reason for, and 4) Rebels, who resist all habits and expectations on principle. In habit formation, the name of the game seems to be self-knowledge: know yourself so that you can choose the strategies most likely to work for you. Rubin lays out all the tools you’d need to do that. I’m mostly an Upholder, which means that Rubin did not have to sell the notion of habits to me; I was already on board. When you have a good habit, that means you don’t have to think about doing the right thing, you just do it automatically, saving your willpower for tackling other problems.

Rubin tries to talk generically, so that her info is applicable to almost any habit that you might want to take up or drop. She ends up talking a lot about food, especially low-carb eating. Her particular personal habits and preoccupations are a little idiosyncratic, to say the least, but her voice is charming, and she’s usually just using her experiences to make points that are well-researched and reasonable.

Here are some of my habit advice takeaways from the book:

  • Avoid feeling deprived.
  • It’s often easier to abstain entirely than to consume moderately.
  • Anticipate and minimize temptation.
  • Habits, good and bad, have momentum and are self-reinforcing.
  • It’s ok to make exceptions to your habits, but only if you plan it ahead of time. If you decide at the last minute to break a habit, you’re in danger of dropping that habit altogether.
  • Schedule time for the things you value.
  • Make it convenient and easy to follow your good habits. And if you want to break a bad habit, put obstacles in your way to make it harder to do that thing.

Unfinished Business

Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family by Anne-Marie Slaughter

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This book has been on my list to read ever since I heard that the author of the widely shared Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” got a book deal. It lived up to my anticipation, presenting an analysis of American work/family issues that goes beyond issues of gender.

Slaughter’s main thesis is that American society has a widespread bias against care work and caregivers, which has historically disadvantaged women in the workplace. She argues that gender discrimination is often discrimination against people with family responsibilities, or people who are otherwise unable to be the ideal worker/corporate drone that companies prefer to hire and advance. She wants flexible workplaces and career tracks, more pay and respect for caregiving professions, and a shift in attitudes and policies to truly value caregiving, and not just pay lip service to it.

I found myself nodding along with the book frequently, agreeing with Slaughter’s analysis almost always. She studiously avoids gender essentialism while acknowledging historical inequities between men and women’s experiences of work and home. She places the blame for our current situation primarily on institutions and cultural narratives rather than on individuals, while advising women and men on how to deal with today’s reality and work toward improving things for everybody.

My main critique is just that Slaughter is perhaps too pro-capitalist. In my opinion she’s overly enthusiastic about freelance work and companies like Uber and Thumbtack, especially in the absence of national health care, which she acknowledges we need. I think flexibility is not enough, and would prefer companies and clients simply to require less slavish dedication of workers. Slaughter buys in too wholeheartedly to the necessity of overwork, accepting too readily the idea that long hours are necessary to advance in most fields. She doesn’t even bring up ideas for slowing the pace of work for everybody, for example, by disabling after-hours email, outlawing overtime, or limiting the work day to six hours, as some European countries and companies are experimenting with now. But these critiques are perhaps a little radical.

Slaughter worked for the State department under Hillary Clinton, reporting directly to her and calling her a great, understanding boss. Had Clinton won the electoral vote, and not only the popular vote, Slaughter would almost surely have had the president’s ear and might have been able to advance these ideas toward creating concrete policies that would help families. But now, even if Democrats win the next congressional and presidential elections, it might be too late for me to enjoy more generous family policies, like paid parental leave. This is one of the many things I continually mourn  as we watch the current administration’s plans unfold.

Playing Big

Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message by Tara Mohr

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This women’s career self-help book is focused on women who have not quite reached their high potential. It’s a much more inclusive, less corporate version of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Mohr strikes a delicate balance–asking women to take responsibility for their success while acknowledging the pervasiveness of discrimination, the double bind, and other factors that limit them. She explains the difficult situation we find ourselves in, and gives solid advice for motivation and confidence. She also includes a lot of examples of women diving into hobbies and activism as a way of “playing big,” decoupling women’s ambition from striving for prestige and money in the business world. Her advice is mostly focused on building confidence and on encouraging women to take bigger risks. She hopes to inspire women to stop constantly putting off focusing on their goals, to refuse to settle for mediocrity. Along with The Confidence Code, I’d say this is my new favorite self-help book targeting women and their careers.

Mohr does discuss parenting and the ways that family plans change and limit women’s careers. But she doesn’t talk about how for many women, getting married and/or having children is itself the way that they “play big” and reach for their dreams. Planning a family and making the decision to conceive a child or buy a house could be the thing that makes them excited, that gives them the feelings of awe and excitement that Mohr names pachad and yirah. Maybe that’s controversial to say, but it’s a feeling I have had and that many women share. It’s hard to talk about family-making as a dream without implying that all women will be totally content, with their ambitions completely satisfied and their talents fully utilized, by the work of raising children. Maybe Mohr believes that women don’t need as much encouragement to leap wholeheartedly into plans for family as they do for career and personal development. I’d agree with that, so or that reason I can understand why Mohr focused instead on career and creative pursuits. She wrote this book at an interesting moment in her life–as she was pregnant with her first child. I will be interested to see how motherhood influences Mohr’s later writing.

Reading the Election

Sometimes when an issue is preoccupying me, I see it everywhere. Almost everything I’ve read in the past month or two, I’ve read in light of the election. I’m looking for explanations, solutions, and sometimes just escape. Here are some books that feel especially relevant right now.

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Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 by Charles Murray

This book describes how Americans have isolated themselves from each other, based mostly on class and politics. He focuses a lot on coastal elites who live in a few “super ZIPs,” ZIP codes populated by the wealthy, many of whom also attended the same schools and work in the same industries, and who have a disproportionate influence on national policy and culture. His analysis seems extra important as a way of understanding the difference between urban and rural voters and what it would take to overcome these differences. Murray is pretty conservative, so some of the points he uses his data to make are definitely determined by his ideology. It’s also just interesting to think about the cultural touchstones that make up these different American subcultures. Here is a quiz you can take to see if you live in a bubble or not.  I scored 45, which puts me pretty solidly in the middle of the middle.

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Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha Nussbaum

This book makes a passionate argument for why broad education in the liberal arts widens our perspectives in ways that seem needed today more than ever. Putting aside the intrinsic values of the arts and humanities for improving individuals’ lives, she focuses on how the widespread study of literature, history, and philosophy creates a population capable of sustaining democratic institutions. The lack of this kind of education is probably why we are in the situation we’re in. I found a further explanation for our current predicament in her examination of child psychology, especially her discussion of the narcissism of children and their shame in their essential helplessness. Nussbaum’s prescription is for critical thinking taught by Socratic pedagogy, and lessons on empathy and compassion toward those who are different or far away, using the arts and play. In this way, we can overcome narrow us/them thinking, learn to identify with others, and become educated for global citizenship.

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The Taming of the Queen by Phillipa Gregory

This historical novel is told from the point of view of Katherine Parr, the sixth and last queen of King Henry VIII. The parallels with Trump should be obvious here. The narcissism, the womanizing, the tantrums, the physical grossness. Henry’s policies are incoherent because he changes his mind so frequently, and purposely plays his advisers off each other. Katherine lives in fear as she watches Henry’s behavior toward her change and fall into the pattern of the way he acted toward Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard before he had them beheaded.

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The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

This book is told from the point of view of several immigrants from Central America. The main narrative is about a romance between high school age kids, one of whom is mentally handicapped because of a severe brain injury. It’s touching to see how the close-knit community of immigrants helps each other adjust and survive, and heartbreaking to watch them struggle with the language barrier and with bullying and intimidation. I wonder how much more uncertain and scary the characters’ lives would have been if it were set in 2017. Novels help us to empathize with people who are different from us and to see them as three-dimensional and fully human. If there were one book that I could make every Trump voter read, this just might be it.

Books on Home Decor

As I wrote last year, my family recently moved into a new house. With all the other changes in our family, it took us a long time to settle in. We wanted to take the opportunity to make our home more comfortable, functional, and attractive while everything’s in flux. So I did some reading about home decorating and organization.

However, I think I am naturally a horrible audience for these kinds of books. I have such a lack of interest or talent in these matters that small suggestions sound like mandates to me. I get overwhelmed and end up making mental lists of reasons why none of the suggestions will work for me. It’s hard for me to see any of this kind of material as ‘inspirational’ because it always seems primarily ‘aspirational’–all of it seems covered in assumptions about money and class. And if it’s not about money and class, then it’s about portraying an image of your family as together and happy and fun-loving in a facebook-photo, surface-y way. Every once in a while I find an idea that I like because it might actually make things run more smoothly or conveniently, or it’s a way to make an unattractive thing look better with little effort. But mostly reading this kind of material just makes me feel inadequate, poor, baffled, and frustrated.

I’m totally willing to own this reaction as a flaw in my own character rather than a problem with the genre or with any particular book. For the most part. Here are reviews of two books on the topic.

First I read:

Life’s Too Short to Fold Fitted Sheets: Your Ultimate Guide to Domestic Liberation by Lisa Quinn

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Of course I loved the title of this book. I was excited about the idea of liberating myself domestically by eschewing stupid chores as pointless and oppressive. I liked Quinn’s ideas about overcoming perfectionism, but found them hard to apply because she and I set our standards in such different places. When she talks about lowering her personal standards, she still ends up placing them somewhere that feels unreachable for me, so it actually ended up feeling disempowering, although I know the opposite was intended.

When Quinn suggested caviar as a pantry staple, she lost me for good.

And then I read this book:

Design Mom: How to Live with Kids: A Room-by-room Guide by Gabrielle Stanley Blair

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This book was suggested to me by A Practical Wedding, a blog community I like and trust. They said it was approachable and realistic, even when I pressed them that my idea of approachable and realistic is usually very different from that of someone who’s writing a book about home decor. So the fact that my reaction to this book was somewhat similar to the one I had to the first one tells me the problem is me, not the book.

My favorite suggestions were the ones that focused on function and convenience. Blair likes flexibility, durability, and fun stuff on the walls. She suggests which kinds of rugs, sofas, chairs, tables, floors stand up best to the messes of kids. This is useful if you’re building a house from scratch or buying all your furniture new all at once, but may be frustrating to read if you’re already locked into something that’s less than ideal.

Blair’s explanations for for her principles and ideas sometimes felt short and lacking nuance to me. Little things bugged me about the assumptions behind her suggestions. She said a dining room is pointless, assuming that all kitchens are big enough to hold a table, when fewer than half the homes we looked at while house-hunting had eat-in kitchens. She has a whole section on the living room and another one on the family room, and another section on what she called “the family office,” which means her book is meant for people whose houses are big enough to include dedicated rooms for these three functions (our old house wasn’t). She had a page about how she doesn’t allow any merchandised character clothing or decor in her house without explaining why this is important. She blithely dismissed problems that may come from siblings sharing rooms as no big deal, which seemed nonsensical to me based on my childhood experience.

I don’t claim to have much taste, but the pictured rooms didn’t appeal much to me personally. I guess this particular shabby-chic hipster-with-kids aesthetic isn’t my thing. Blair also has a thing for what she calls “industrial chic” and that’s also very much not me.

People who like this genre and already don’t feel overwhelmed and attacked by the mere suggestion of improving their space will probably like this book. One interesting aspect of the book is its asides on parenting tips, giving ideas for things like movie nights, one-on-one check-ins with each child, and chores.