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Best Education Books of All Time

Book shelf

With the blog now averaging almost 200 views per day, I think it’s time to find out how many people are actually reading it. So after I tell you my list of all-time favorite books and why, I’m going to ask you to do the same. Then I’ll compile everyone’s picks and post an expanded list.

An idea I’ve always had for a book is How Reading Summerhill Changed My Life. It would be a collection of the stories of all the wildly different people I’ve met over the years—from taxi drivers to chimney sweeps—who said they were never the same after reading Neill. It was certainly true for me, a lost college freshman who happened to stumble upon Summerhill in the unlikeliest of places, the bookstore at the last remaining all-male university in the U.S. It was definitely a bad business move on their part—I sat down in the aisle and read the book instead of buying it, and decided soon after to drop out at the end of the year. If seven-year-olds are capable of determining their own fate, why not me? P.S. I highly recommend the revised edition edited by Albert Lamb because it contains a lot more of Neill’s writing than the earlier American version.

An extremely close second is all ten of John Holt’s books, from How Children Fail in 1964 to Teach Your Own in 1981. I say all because John understood children as well as anyone and wrote about them with such unadorned clarity. Also because it’s the best way to follow the considerable evolution of his thinking until his life was cut short by cancer at 62, at which point he found himself the philosophical leader of a homeschool movement gone viral.

Speaking of philosophical leaders, next up is Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich. Illich was probably one of the deepest thinkers of the 20th century and had a profound influence on writers like John Holt. It was Illich who first warned us about the insidious effects of institutionalized education, not the least of which is how our minds become schooled, meaning that they become dependent on the outside validation of  our thoughts and ideas. Worse still, schooling takes learning out of its living context and turns it into both an abstraction and an article of consumption. One has to “get” an education in order to succeed in life. Illich also coined the term “hidden curriculum” long before John Gatto popularized it in his iconic book, Dumbing Us Down. If you have anything left after you finish Deschooling Society, also check out Tools for Conviviality.

You’ll have to excuse my free school bias while I put Lives of Children next. George Dennison was such an elegant writer, and his bird’s-eye view as a teacher in his wife Mabel’s wild and wooly First Street School on Manhattan’s Lower East Side enabled him to bring educational ideas and issues to life in a way unlike any other. Dennison was a deep thinker too. For instance, he was the one who wrote “the principle of order rests within the children themselves.”

Elizabeth Ferm’s Freedom in Education reveals still more of my free school bias. Elizabeth was the founding  director of the Modern School in Stelton, NJ, and she wrote the book in the early 1920s. Stelton was a colony of anarchist activists who migrated to the country from the Lower Seat Side that included a free-form “school” for the children. Thank God when women write about education. Here are the book’s first three sentences: “If human life had been left to reveal itself, there would be no need to consider the question of education. Education, free from outside interference, would flow as normally through human life as the sun, moon and stars move on their way and so fulfill their use and destiny. I am not using the word education loosely; I am using it in a definite, particular sense, i.e., as one and the same as creative evolution.”

Next up is Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paolo Freire. A little obtuse at times, Freire is worth the struggle. His seminal literacy work with Brazilian peasants gave him rare insights into the relational dimensions of learning and the importance of meaning. It was Freire who referred to conventional education as a “banking model” because of the way it treats the student as an empty vault into which the teacher deposits knowledge. Also make sure to read Pedagogy of the Heart, which contains one of my favorite quotes: “Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other. …The naming of the world, which is an act of creation and re-creation, is not possible if it is not infused with love.”

Then comes Organic Education: Teaching Without Failure, by Marietta Johnson. In 1907 Johnson  joined the Fairhope Colony, an intentional community near Mobile, AL somewhat similar to Stelton, so that she could start a school for its children. Known as the School of Organic Education, it served over 200 kids k-12 at the height of the colony’s baby boom in the 1920s. Johnson was very Deweyan in her thinking, although she came to the majority of her ideas on her own. For instance she believed that children shouldn’t begin any serious engagement in “book learning” until age ten. Before that play, exploration, and concrete experience are meant to be the primary vehicles for learning. After John Dewey profiled the school in his book on progressive education, Johnson became a much sought after lecturer and used her speaking fees to keep the school tuition-free.

As they say on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” it’s time for the big finish. My next pick is Maria Montessori’s The Absorbent Mind. Montessori needs no introduction, and in this book she synthesizes the best science of her day to bolster her theory that children are perfectly equipped to orchestrate the unfolding of their own intelligence.

Then in the 1963 classic, Teacher, Sylvia Ashton-Warner bears personal witness to the folly of an imposed curriculum and the power of children’s imagination and curiosity to do exactly what Montessori said they are capable of doing.

Then Grace Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook, which Grace wrote when she was a young adult who totally understood the teenage mind.

Then A Dynamic Systems Approach to the Development of Cognition and Action, by Esther Thelen and Linda Smith. Don’t try to repeat the title ten times fast, but do fight your way through their use of the Martian language if you want to understand the science behind the reality that learning and development are one and the same self-directing, self-organizing process.

And last but not least, John Gatto’s Underground History of American Education, if you want to know the whole sordid story in all its inglorious detail.

Okay, now send me yours, even if it’s only the title of the one book that has meant the most to you.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tim McClung #

    Dennis Littky’s The Big Picture: Education Is Everyone’s Business

    Chapter 22 of Tom Peter’s book, Re-Imagine, which focuses on education – 13 pages and he says it all.

    Compulsory Mis-Education, Paul Goodman

    December 3, 2013
  2. Frank Smith: “The book of learning and forgetting” should be a classic as well. Deep insight into the origin of madness we live in!

    December 10, 2013
  3. The latest book from Summerhill is ‘Summerhill and A.S.Neill’, published by Open University Press. Edited by Mark Vaughan, MBE.

    It has some of Neill’s original writing plus a more up-to-date view of the school.
    Great blog, by the way!

    All The Best, Zoë

    December 15, 2013
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Nice to hear from you Zoe and thanks for the tip on the book. I have ordered a copy so that I can review it for Education Revolution magazine and maybe the blog too.

      December 20, 2013
  4. One of the books that had the most influence on my thoughts and ideas about education and learning is Paul Goodman’s “Compulsory Mis-Education and the Community of Scholars” from 1964. I continue to be impressed by the books from the 60s and 70s that detailed so insightfully the many problems with education, and astonished that so little has changed.

    Thanks for the post, Peter

    March 31, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Thanks for this very important addition to the list, Peter. Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd also influenced me very powerfully.

      April 2, 2014

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