I’ve just spent a couple of weeks in Arizona, a first-flight of the fully immunized, and a chance to warm up, eat incredible takeout and be somewhere other than home. A vacation, to see our first-born, in a city that has hundreds of gorgeous outdoor dining patios.
I don’t read lots of sci-fi, so Robinson’s name wasn’t familiar to me, but I can understand why he has plenty of fans. As dystopian/utopian fiction, the story was pretty good, but what made it unforgettable was the other stuff that Robinson tucks in around the narrative: Observations, testimonies, riddles and mini-lectures on an array of systems impacting the way the world operates, now and possibly in the next few decades.
You would think living through a global pandemic would be the kind of event to jump-start that thinking.
We’ve all seen the Crisis = Opportunitymeme, but far too many outright crises—dangerous inflection points—have come and gone in these United States without any positive long-term outcomes. In the war against complacency and intransigence, we are losing.
Back in the late 1970s, I took a graduate course in Futurism. If I took one thing away from the class as reliable truth, it was this: the point of studying the future is not prediction—it’s planning. Goal-setting. The textbook we used (remember using textbooks in every class?) included, as an appendix, predictions about alternative futures from famous prognosticators.
Reading through those now is amusing—we have far outstripped where the predictions say we would be in 2020 when it comes to technologies, with our Jetsons phones and carrying the Library of Congress in our pockets. Other changes, however, were just a blip on the horizon 45 years ago: climate collapse, social unrest, the dangerous and growing gap between haves and have-nots. Defunding the police? The student loan crisis? Nobody was talking about those in 1978.
It goes without saying that nobody expected to spend four years of their future living under (and I chose that preposition deliberately) Donald Trump. Preventing another disastrous waste of time, resources and international goodwill like the Trump administration ought to be one of our goals as educators.
We have been talking continuously over the past year about re-thinking the purpose and mission of public education, but most of that talk has been about peripheral things—Zoom classrooms, hybrid models, and the damned tests.
Here’s the question we should be asking: What skills and knowledge do children and teenagers need to make sense of this world and give them agency?
Every young child, for example, should have a thought or two about why sharing with other people makes both of us happier. Every teenager should have experience with service work, and understand the difference between a law and cultural norm. Every single person on the planet ought to be able to distinguish between verifiable truth and burnished opinion.
This pandemic period will linger in the memories on American citizens. What have we done to prepare our world for other, inevitable turning points? Have we trained our children to understand the impact of governance and policy creation? Or does that fall into the caption of ‘Social Studies’ and get swept aside in our eagerness to ‘get back to normal’ and pursue high scores in math and reading?
The Ministry for the Future begins with an unimaginably disastrous, climate-related event that kicks an international team of scientists, political leaders and thinkers, a remnant of the Paris Climate Accord, into action. Each well-considered step they take is designed to, literally, save the planet. Some things work well. Others fail. But all make obvious that we can’t just keep on keepin’ on. We have to change.
Ministry is one of those books that drops a lens in front of the reader. It goes like this: Knowing what I know about the health of the planet and well-being of my fellow citizens, what do I observe about daily life that makes me hopeful? And what do I observe that makes me cynical or afraid?
Delta’s policies struck me as smart and in-control. Lots of annoying things—rude passengers, late flights, inefficient plane loading, and the drunken seatmate—were not in evidence. The airports were clean and quiet, and absolutely everyone was masked. Old white men doing the ‘not MY nose’ mask thing were publicly corrected. People who failed to check a big, heavy suitcase were corrected, too, when the flight attendant wouldn’t assist.
I could get used to flying masked, and touchless check-in, forever. Air travel is also hard on the environment. Maybe what we all need to get used to is staying home, until air travel is carbon-neutral.
I am mostly on the Cynical and Fearful team, and I put a great deal of the blame on my own nation. On the other hand, I believe there is still inherent in America an opportunity to lead globally. But it means tapping into the talents and resolve of young people. You know–education.
There are a thousand policy ideas about positive change in schooling leading to an engaged and productive citizenry. But first, we need to have a common vision. I have always liked what Neil Postman said about public schooling and the commons, back in 1995. He understood the future of education, a quarter century ago.
“The question is not, Does or doesn’t public schooling create a public?
The question is: What kind of public does it create?
-A conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers?
-Angry, soulless, directionless masses?
-Indifferent, confused citizens?
Or a public imbued with confidence, a sense of purpose, a respect for learning, and tolerance?
The answer to this question has nothing whatever to do with computers, with testing, with teacher accountability, with class size, and with the other details of managing schools.
The right answer depends on two things, and two things alone: the existence of shared narratives and the capacity of such narratives to provide an inspired reason for schooling.”
I was so struck by the totally American nature of this language—We Must Compete! No remediation for us!—that I googled the company’s motto and found that there are several pre-packaged learning systems and books using the same theme and jargon.
If your kids have been moping around, griping about not seeing their friends and the head-banging monotony of Zoom lessons, it’s logical to be a little anxious about what they have not learned in the past year. Things that might have been not only interesting or challenging, but important for future coursework and plans. It’s OK to worry about their emotional health, their need for exercise and socializing.
But while I have absolute faith in well-prepared, caring teachers to do their best to move students forward, there are still a lot of balls in the air. Will enough people, old and young, be vaccinated in time for a new school year? What curve balls might the virus still be capable of? How will we re-evaluate most critical uses of instructional time with our overstuffed core curriculum—and how much permanent impact will a year of uncertainty and danger have on what ‘school’ looks like, this fall and all future school years?
Hard to say, but I am fairly certain that simply prescribing acceleration rather than remediation is an example of rhetorical flourish over substance.
My Masters degree is in Gifted Education. In my introductory courses, the foundational thinking in every article and text was that there were two basic streams of instructional practice designed to address the needs of gifted children—enrichment and acceleration. In short, going deeper or going faster. Or a combination of both.
The drawback of enrichment was that providing unique challenges for very bright kids meant you had to diversify learning, custom-tailoring lessons for differing ability, something that has always been available, but is a classroom management challenge. With acceleration, you could move children through existing structures faster—taking HS Algebra in 6th grade, for example. If you were willing to put your 11 year old in a class with high school freshmen, that is—and had a plan for what happened when her ability to the do the work outstripped her emotional maturity.
Working in the field of gifted education, it turned out that most parents didn’t care much about going deeper. What they wanted was not in-depth exploration but getting ahead of other students. Accelerating. The idea of extensive, hands-on digging into something Bright Child was passionately interested in was not appealing, especially if there were no tangible identifying markers of giftedness in the process.
I don’t remember much about elementary school, but I clearly remember my reading instruction in 5th grade. Instead of traditional reading groups, we were using brand-new SRA reading kits, color-coded 8 x 11 cards featuring stories or non-fiction articles. You moved up through the colors by passing little comprehension tests at the end of each card, until you reached aqua (or maybe it was gray). Then you started at the beginning of the next box.
You could accelerate by acing colors quickly. Miss a few questions, however, and you were stuck in purple for weeks. I remember scanning the room, or meeting someone at the box to exchange a card and noticing, hmmm—too bad, she’s on orange.
My teacher, Mrs. Wildfong, let me breeze through the first box. Then one day, instead of starting me on the 6th grade box, she pulled me into a corner of the room and showed me a small bookshelf. Quietly, she told me that for the rest of the year, I could read anything I liked on the lowest shelf. After I read the book, I was supposed to write a page in a small spiral-bound notebook about what I’d just read. There were no questions about POV, themes or characters—just my opinion, or what I’d learned.
I read every book on that shelf and filled several notebooks. After that, I had a permanent pass to the library, and permission to go during reading class whenever I needed new reading material. I read completely through the Beany Malone series, the Cherry Ames series, and a group of biographies with blue covers featuring black silhouettes. I also recall that other kids in the class wondered, with some resentment, why nobody else got to go to the library whenever they felt like it.
I remember the year, and Mrs. Wildfong, with great fondness. I tell this story not because I was ‘gifted’—I wasn’t—but because Mrs. Wildfong improvised enrichment, tailoring my reading curriculum without shorting her other students. For the rest of the day, I was doing long division and coloring maps with everyone else. Deeper, not faster.
In the 6th grade, I started at the beginning of the SRA box with everyone else, and when I started moving ‘too fast,’ my teacher made me stay for weeks in one color, reading all the yellow cards then all the brown cards, because heaven forbid any child should outstrip The SRA Box. I did not resent this—I really loved my 6th grade teacher—and my parents did not go to school to complain, to demand that a child reading at the 12th grade level be given special privileges, blah blah blah.
There are lessons in this completely ordinary story.
One is that the pandemic, for some children, may have been like my reading shelf and library pass—a chance to do something educational that they’re good at and enjoy, without the constraints of a large classroom full of kids who are good at and enjoy vastly different things, and a teacher trying to maintain order.
Another lesson is that some—again, just some—children will move forward on concepts or skills they normally would have encountered in the previous year very quickly, once they are given a bit of personal attention from a teacher who is not trying to teach 15 live children and 15 tiny, boxed heads on a screen simultaneously.
This is not about ‘acceleration’—it’s about a caring adult who has experience teaching this particular skill to children. We need teachers (and, importantly, school leaders) willing to dump pacing charts and incessant testing in favor of knowing their students–their personal goals and challenges, not their test scores. We need to reinforce skill- and knowledge-building, confidence and healing after a very rough year. There is no need to ‘set a high bar’—kids have always cleared learning bars at their own pace and feeling OK about yourself is a prerequisite.
A third lesson is that public education has increasingly become a consumer product, and advertising for that product now uses commercial language and advertising techniques. This doesn’t bode well, and probably lies under the insistence of many education nonprofits that standardized testing be done now, so the ‘data’ generated allows them to present a picture of deficient kids who need to go faster rather than deeper.
Let’s stop asking about learning loss and catching up. It’s not a race. Let’s provide the resources to move kids forward.
A lot of educational practices that are labeled ‘dumbed down’ are merely—changed. Evolved. Altered. Less—or more—important to learn than 50 or even 20 years ago, because the world has changed. When it comes to curricula and instruction, the heart of what we do in school, change is essential. Because the world changes, educators must also change. This is a hard concept for a lot of people to understand.
I taught school in five different decades. In my experience, the school curriculum has never once, during that time, been gradually less challenging or dumbed down, overall. In fact, I would argue that most of what is taken as evidence of diminishing academic accomplishment and expectations has roots in excessive testing, a radically altered view of who should be pursuing higher education, pushing curriculum down so far that it’s developmentally inappropriate for the students who are supposed to master it—and shifting demographics.
We’re not dumbing things down. We’re realigning our priorities, while rowing upstream, against strong currents. Why are we doing this? So we can better teach the kids sitting in front of us.
The first time I ran into the internet shorthand ‘tl;dr’it was a direct insult. The person who wrote it was ranting about one of my blogs, based on a title that my publisher had given it. Because I think dialogue is the only reason to put your thoughts out on the net, I pointed out that he was accusing me of saying pretty much the opposite of what I’d written in the blog. I took a half hour out of my life to go point-by-point in telling him why (there were some nasty accusations in his comment). I tried to remain calm.
He commented back—oh, I didn’t read it—tl;dr.
The blog was just under 800 words. Most bloggers know what 800 words looks and feels like. They also know that shorter pieces get more eyes. (So do pieces with numbers in the title—speaking of genuine dumbing down.) I started wondering: just how long is tl?
The experience also made me start noticing how often my friends (real friends, people I actually know and respect) would share something with a comment like ‘long but worth it’ or ‘read all the way to the end—the last paragraph will break your heart.’ If a friend shares something, I presume they’ve read it, and there’s something worth absorbing in the piece, whether it’s 200 words or 2000 words.
Even more disconcerting: I frequently post my own writing on other sites and have had readers tell me that my responses to comments are ‘not what the blogger meant.’ When I point out that I AM the blogger, they’re surprised. Where do people think free content comes from?
I know we live in a Twitter media culture, where tweets (the grandchildren of sound bites) are burnished for sharing, or linked in boxcar-like threads, 15 thoughts representing a thesis with supporting evidence. I also know that our, umm, former guy ran an entire first-world nation—some would say into the ground—using mainly random misspelled nuggets of braggadocio and bias. He paired them with rambling, often nonsensical speech-rants to large crowds. And people seemed to like them. In fact, one of the most frequent man-on-the-street comments about Former Guy was: He tells it like it is. God forbid.
So here’s what I don’t get: FG’s speeches frequently ran well over an hour, and were given to people standing outside. In the cold.When you look at transcripts, they’re pretty much an amalgam of incoherence laced with sporadic insults. The exact opposite of toastmasters recommend—short, pithy and laced with humor.
Here are my questions:
Are we reverting to an oral culture, where long-form reading is mostly abandoned?
Does this have to do with the way we have pushed reading instruction down into kindergarten, short-circuiting the love of stories and language that turns children into eager readers?
Is tl;dr evidence of the real dumbing down?
You tell me. And in case you’re wondering, 766 words.
One of my favorite things to do with my largely unstructured pandemic days and nights is read, then talk with people about books. Online. I’m always looking for new titles, recommendations of someone’s old favorite—and also thumbs-down reviews, especially when they’re about books everyone seems to be reading or praising (lookin’ at you, Bridgertons).
I’ve never been good about choosing my 10 favorite anything as the year turns over. But I did do a lot of intentional reading in 2020 (meaning I had to order library books online and wait three months for them to become available for curbside pickup—or purchase them). While some of these are new titles, some are recommendations from friends that I finally got around to.
Non-fiction fell into three categories—that big bucket of reading about bias and prejudice, “school stuff” and (unfortunately) books about Donald Trump. The only book I read this year about our Crime Boss President that might have lasting utility was Hiding in Plain Sight: The invention of Donald Trump and the erosion of America (Sarah Kendzior). Kendzior has been absolutely prescient about all of Trump’s behavior. I’m almost scared to re-read it, because she got so much of this right, back when there was still hope that cherished institutions would save the day. On January 6th, she was proved right, yet again.
I read Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The epic story of America’s great migration, which made me understand my own hometown and why people lived where they lived, in that town—plus so much more. And I just finished Oluo’s Mediocre: The Dangerous legacy of white male power. While her earlier book is a straightforward invitation to keep talking about race, dense with good ideas but written from a personal vantage point, Mediocre covers more scholarly turf. It’s a broad-ranging collection of evidence that white men don’t like it when you challenge their authority and power. If you’re either a woman or a BIPOC, you’ll find plenty to relate to. Oluo keeps the focus on making her case—but if you read this book, as I did, during the lead-up to the insurrection at the Capitol, she makes a terrible and prescient argument for what just happened. Highly recommended.
Now for the fun part—fiction. I am completely unsnobbish about fiction (as you will note). If it’s a good story, I’m in. Here are nine books and two authors I have enjoyed immensely during the Great Lockdown.
It’s a particular kind of irony that I read A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles) during the pandemic year, as the aforementioned gentleman spent a long time (50 years?) in a single hotel, by government decree. I can relate. All the people who recommended the book were right—it’s a classic.
Chances Are (Richard Russo) is a minor novel by a major author, but I loved this one best of all his books. It involves a mystery and a weekend meeting, 50 years later, of three men who were in college together, in the late 1960s. In other words, three characters the same age as me—which is, of course, why I loved this book so much. By the book’s ending, we’ve been dragged through American history, and asked if any of us, given a chance to do it over again, would have made different choices.
The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern) If all fantasy books were like this, I would read nothing else. Imaginative, spooky, colorful, mysterious—with the lingering scent of caramel corn.
The Overstory (Richard Powers) I admit that I had to read this in chunks, with periods for digestion. But every time I went back, there were amazing new things to consider, mostly about my role in the ecology of my home, my world and my life. Truly a transformative book; worth the effort.
The Searcher (Tana French) This one is getting lukewarm reviews, but I am a huge Tana French fan, and if this book stretches beyond her usual Dublin Murder Squad m.o. it’s fun to see what she can do with a more introspective, character-driven mystery. Besides, there’s a wonderful kid in this book—Tana French has nailed a 13-year old better than anyone I’ve read in years.
Olive, Again(Elizabeth Strout) With the possible exception of Stewart O’Nan, nobody writes stories about old ladies better than Elizabeth Strout. If you liked Olive the first time, you’ll like this one, too.
Normal People(Sally Rooney) I am actually surprised I liked this book so much. Rooney’s earlier stuff was kind of tedious, mostly millennial relationship angst, in beautiful prose. But this book—although still about relationship building among young people–had an aching poignancy around the two central characters that anyone who was ever 18 and itching to be loved will recognize.
Sourdough(Robin Sloan) This was just a delightful read, a story with a moral as well as great characters, twisty plotting and a magic sourdough starter. The idea that a colony of micro-organisms could change your life was utterly believable in 2020.
One series I will always pick up is John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport books, which are reliably 4-star reads, with the occasional 5-star designation. Masked Prey, the latest, makes that cut. The plot centers around keeping a senator’s teenage daughter safe from a right-wing looney whom she has attracted by becoming an ‘influencer.’ The parallels—intended and unintended—between the storyline and the actual news were eerie.
Liz Moore, who wrote Long Bright Riverand The Unseen World, deserves to be added to anyone’s list of authors to try. The two books are both delicious, even though they’re completely different. River is a cop story unlike other cop stories, and World is hard to describe—a mix of science fiction and a tender story about unusual people and families. Both are excellent.
And, finally, Donna Leon. Early on—last March—I was having trouble reading. It was difficult to muster up an attention span. Complaining about this on-line yielded a whole bunch of ‘what to read that will take your mind off the prospect of being locked up for months’ suggestions.
A guy I went to high school with suggested Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series (thanks, Doug), noting that it was set in Venice. Bingo. I read eight this year—again, reliably good, with a couple of them outstanding. The first book in the series is pretty good, but jumping ahead reveals that Leon has really honed her character and made her work richer. Feel free not to read in order.
It’s not a long book—217 pages plus another 40 pages of notes and references—and it’s eminently readable. It would be an excellent choice for anyone who cares about public education—parents and grandparents, policy-makers, teachers and school leaders—to use as concise handbook explaining what the hell happened to public schools over the last couple of decades. There’s a bit of history, a good look at failed-over-time policies, and a clear analysis of the intersecting factors that got us to this point.
Who wants to see public education die, and why? Berkshire and Schneider tell you, but like all interesting and disturbing stories, you have to trace backward first, to the origins and mission of public schooling and the conflicting values America assigned to education, as a start-up nation. This sounds tedious, but it’s not. In short, succinct chapters, the authors spend the first quarter of the book laying the groundwork for the rapid changes—the dismantling of a once-noble idea—we’ve seen in the 21st century.
Ernest Boyer once said that public school is a stage upon which Americans play out their most deep-rooted ethics, and the book deftly illustrates that principle. It takes us through the decline of labor unions, the elevation of the deregulated gig economy and ‘choice,’ and the overwhelming impact of technology on every aspect of American life, school included.
I have lived experience with nearly every theory, concept and action mentioned in the book, from teacher professionalism (or lack thereof) to the DeVos model of privatizing one of the few remaining public goods. Any teacher, at any level, who has been paying attention for the past couple of decades will be familiar with the carefully curated observations and supporting data presented here.
The great benefit of the book is that it connects hundreds of established dots into a flashing arrow: this is the end game, the crushing of once-healthy public schools, monetizing their resources and selling them off for parts. It accurately represents where we are, in the midst of a pandemic and constitutional crisis. The wolf is truly at the door.
Berkshire and Schneider are careful to remind us that the well-heeled will always have school as we know it. Their children will always have creative teachers and challenging curriculum and actual classmates, in a real-life setting, because that is, in the end, the optimum way for students to learn. The question is (and always has been) who’s paying for it, and who gets to share it. The primary goal has never been maximizing each child’s potential, contrary to the thousands of mission statements hanging in front offices everywhere. It’s been ‘What’s in it for my child?’
Although some of the data are optimistic—there is still strong support from parents for their children’s public schools, and for teachers’ demands for adequate funding and resources, even via walk-outs—the authors do not prescribe clearly defined solutions.
I don’t see that as a weakness. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the future is utterly unpredictable. In a time when we might be taking a breath, rethinking our values around what matters most in public education, and thanking public school teachers for doing their best under some pretty dire conditions, reformers are busily selling yet more glossy rhetoric (don’t miss the chapter on ‘personalizing’ education) and questionable data analyses.
So—read this book, whether you’re a veteran educator or a kindergarten parent. It’s accurate and sharp, the best education book I’ve read this year.
Shortly after George Floyd was murdered, openly, in front of the nation’s eyes, Tre Johnson said this, in the Washington Post: ‘when things get real — really murderous, really tragic, really violent or aggressive — my white, liberal, educated friends already know what to do. What they do is read. And talk about their reading. What they do is listen. And talk about how they listened.
What they do is never enough. This isn’t the time to circle up with other white people and discuss black pain in the abstract; it’s the time to acknowledge and examine the pain they’ve personally caused. Black people live and die every day under the burdens of a racism more insidious than the current virus that’s also disproportionately killing us. And yet white people tend to take a slow route to meaningful activism, locked in familiar patterns, seemingly uninterested in really advancing progress.’
‘while the crafters of anti-racist reading lists are mostly making an earnest effort to educate people, literature and dialogue cannot supplant restorative social policies and laws, organizational change, and structural redress. When offered in lieu of actionable policies regarding equity, consciousness raising can actually undermine Black progress by presenting increased knowledge as the balm for centuries of abuse.’
So—I realize that I am, relative to the antiracist discourse happening right now, at square one or two, and can’t read myself into full partnership. I have to act.
Mentioning things I used to do, in the classroom, would be nothing more than empty virtue signaling. Sharing whatever anti-racist initiatives I’m currently involved in? Ditto. I’m sick of wading through articles from academics analyzing racist and anti-racist literature, in their (white) opinions. I don’t want to be one of those (white) people who are content to take the slow route, because I can.
But I’m still reading. Because I read a lot. It’s my greatest pleasure, and lifelong habit, and it’s currently safe, unlike going downtown to protest, something I’ve promised my children I won’t do.
Last year, and this year—because of the dark cloud of white supremacy manifesting itself everywhere—I decided to read as many books as I could, over both summers, around themes of discrimination. For myself—and perhaps to share with other people who are looking for really powerful things to read. Fiction and non-fiction. How-to books and memoirs. While I understand that reading is not action—it won’t lead to change or redress—sharing what I’m reading might have value.
Because, in the particular place where I live, racism most often manifests as callous and clueless disregard of the history of the land we live on, I looked for books by indigenous writers and people who came here initially as migrant farmworkers. If you have suggestions, I’ll add them to my list.
And because I’m a teacher, I looked for books around discrimination and inequity in education. If there’s a window for important themes and transformative ideas right now, it’s here. We shouldn’t be pointing to Jonathon Kozol and Lisa Delpit and Gloria Ladson-Billings—or even Diane Ravitch—all of whom wrote seminal books on inequities in education. What we need now is new volumes, authors of color who don’t simply rehash the deceptive and racist policies that built our imperfect public education structures; we should, instead be gutting rigid curricula, experimenting with new instructional forms, re-examining the damage done to students by high-stakes tests, throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into demanding equitable access to devices and broadband for the kids who don’t have it.
Since February of 2019, I’ve read 26 books on how racism and discrimination manifest in the United States, through multiple lenses. Some thumbnails:
Two Books that Absolutely Blew My Mind:
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Isabel Wilkerson) This book is phenomenal. And it’s pointedly not about race, per se. It’s about caste–the societal decision to place its members in a constructed hierarchy, then arrange policies and habits to support that hierarchy over time, defining it as ‘natural’ or God-given. It’s a stunningly good book, and makes a great leap over skin color and the fact that race is a human construct (something that many other authors begin with)–to actual behaviors and policies and how they impact both dominant castes and suppressed castes. The experience of reading now, as the country suffers under a pandemic and its worst leader ever has been almost surreal. Wilkerson gets it–sees why we have failed, perceives what happened. Donald Trump, she tells us (and this is one of those places where she uses data effectively) is the logical endgame for a country that traditionally values and rewards its citizens in a rigid hierarchy–a deeply rooted caste system.
The last chapter, an epilogue, stands alone as the case for recognizing and rooting out caste. Other countries have done so–to their great benefit. Americans would similarly benefit, were we to see how our clinging to our bad habits and self-delusions have held us back from developing a just and democratic society.
So You Want to Talk about Race (Ijeoma Olou) This book hit me right in the solar plexus. It was like Ijeoma Olou was sitting across the table, answering questions—some embarrassing–and responding to ideas I’ve heard for most of my life, but never had the courage to ask or bring up. She’s not pandering to you, trying to make you feel virtuous or even well-meaning. Some of the things she says are painful. But she offers hope that things can get better if we keep trying to listen with an open heart. If you haven’t done much reading, this is the place to start.
Best Books by Scholars
How to Be an Antiracist (Ibram X. Kendi) This book is thick with ideas and intellectual challenges. It’s neither an easy nor quick read. I found myself re-reading paragraphs, to squeeze out the core ideas, which are not intuitive. At first, some ideas–racism is rooted in bad policy, not inborn hate and ignorance–don’t make sense. But read on. If racism is rooted in bad policies, those policies can be changed. Ah. And then better policies will change minds. It’s a hopeful idea. We can change.
How the South Won the Civil War (Heather Cox Richardson) In our history books, we are taught that it was a stunning idea to overthrow the idea of a rigid class structure, the divine right to rule, and the pre-eminence of property (including human beings). When America won its independence, it settled on an extreme and fundamental change in the way it chose to be governed. But the founders were not 100% certain that all men were created equal. More like all white, male property owners. As for men in the rural South, dependent on slavery to retain their ‘natural, God-given’ right to manage the affairs of their women and enslaved workers, the concept of ‘all men are created equal’ was not only wrong, but loathsome. Richardson takes us through the Civil War, westward expansion and shifting political loyalties, and finds that, with Donald Trump, we have come full circle, fighting once again against the core principle of democracy, in favor of old, rich, white men and the rights of the individual over that of the community.
White Rage: the Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide(Carol Anderson) Anderson writes lucidly and persuasively about a 400-year old criminal enterprise, taking us through eras in American history–Reconstruction, the Great Migration, the ongoing battle for equity in education, the role of the courts and Congress in shutting off civil rights, the trashing of free and fair elections. The text is data-rich and, while very readable, scholarly. These are not Anderson’s opinions–they are documented facts. And they’re damning. She’s right–it’s white rage that matters as we ask who is to blame for rebellion in our streets.
White Fragility (Robin DiAngelo) This book has recently taken a beating in the book-reading press. And it shouldn’t be the only book you read, if you’re choosing to read about bigotry and intolerance—you need multiple perspectives. But DiAngelo made sense to me, laying out a clear sociological framework for white fragility. It’s not easy to read her deconstruction of why all white people are, inherently, racist–and how that manifests in our behaviors and words, even as we think we’re trying to be open and affirming. She uses examples from her work as a diversity trainer, the things white people say and do that reveal their deeply held biases. She teaches readers who want to learn to recognize those defensive and reflexive responses, and deal with them, even learn from them. There’s value in that, even if it’s an imperfect primer.
Best Books for YA and Student Readers
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You(Jason Reynolds) What a wonderful, energizing, lively book–not descriptors you generally find describing a book about racism. Reynolds uses casual, breezy language in explicitly laying out the 400-year old roots of racism in America–without losing the no-shit seriousness of the topic. I would love to be in the classroom (any classroom) right now; this book could supplement a history text. Let me re-state that: this book would slyly correct, then poke at any American history text. Here’s what The Man (and all the books you ever read in school) say–but let’s examine it from another viewpoint. Reynolds rolls in media, from ‘Birth of a Nation’ to ‘Planet of the Apes’ to ‘The Cosby Show’, illustrating how white racists, time and again, marshal all their resources to push black people and black culture down.
Me and Carlos (Tom Perotta) This is a 50-page novella, but Perrotta packs a lot of teenaged confusion and rationalizing into a well-told story. Digger is the perennial second-stringer, who can’t quite rise above some petty resentments. Told in his voice, you can see what’s coming, the point at which male jostling and a re-arranged pecking order will lead to something really bad. Perrotta, always a good writer, adopts Digger’s voice and makes the reader uneasy. The novella feels breezy—a young adult-ish story. But I found myself thinking about all the layers—unearned privilege, the blithe male entitlement that high school jocks seem to adopt, jealousy, ethnic discrimination and how the country we live in supports these.
Red at the Bone (Jacqueline Woodson) The book has a YA feel to it, in spite of the ‘adult’ subject matter (which isn’t really adult, at all). There’s no padding–it’s all raw feeling, five different perspectives on a teenage pregnancy, and how family is at the center of both survival and happiness. Woodson’s language is evocative, and all the characters feel very real.
Richest, Most Illuminating Fiction
Salvage the Bones(Jesamyn West) broke my heart. You don’t know it’s going to break your heart, at the beginning of the book. Life in Bois Savage, at Esch’s home, feels chaotic and half-assed. There are four children, and Daddy–Mama died, giving birth to the youngest–so everything, from eating to washing sheets to taking care of Junior, is disorganized and unpredictable. And Esch, 15, and believing she’s in love with one of her brother’s friends, has a terrible secret. Right from the beginning, however, the language used to tell the story is almost poetry. There is beauty in everything, for Esch–the simple curve of her little brother’s skull, her older brother’s jumpshot, and her brother Skeetah’s dedication to his pit bull, China. Gradually, we see how tight this family is, how bonded they are, how forgiving of each others’ sins and failings. How they hold each other up, through unimaginable horror. How brave they are. How faithful. The book will break your heart, too.
The Night Watchman (Louise Erdrich) This book grew on me, as I read it, and the stories of the people, and how life had treated them, began to weave together, powerfully and even tragically. Erdrich always speaks plainly and truthfully, and the story here is greatly enhanced by knowing that she’s writing about her grandfather and his quest to keep the Turtle Mountain Tribe from being ’emancipated’–cut free–from the government that has already taken the best of their land (and, not coincidentally, their people).
Washington Black (Esi Edugyan) A rambling adventure, populated by a young, enslaved man (George Washington Black) and his master’s brother, an abolitionist and world-class eccentric. And many other unique characters, in a world–the 19th century–where slavery is both dying out and accepted as natural. Edugyan makes this world come alive, slipping into the mind of an 11-year old boy who has never lived outside the cruel confines of a sugar plantation in the British West Indies. How to understand the odd words and actions of the plantation owner’s brother? How to understand what real freedom is?
Jubilee (Margaret Walker) Written in 1966, Jubilee presents story of the Civil War from the eyes of one of the enslaved people. Walker goes far deeper in the minds and motivations of all the people in the typical plantation story, covering things like slave owners’ predilection for sexually abusing and impregnating the people they enslaved, the biblical and ‘moral’ rationales they employed, how slaves were terrorized into submission, the lack of information about the real world given to enslaved people–and an introduction to the evils of Reconstruction.
The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead) Outstanding, on many levels. The writing is perfectly styled for the story–the shorthand sentences and the plain thinking of the Nickel boys and their captors, reflecting both the times and the rotten values of the criminal justice system. And the characters are carefully drawn, by an unsympathetic narrator, who lets Elwood and Turner speak for themselves, instead of explaining what makes them tick. The plot is heart-tugging, driven by the boys who found themselves, by hook or crook, living in a version of Hell. And the epilogue is wonderful–it made me cry.
There, There (Tommy Orange) There’s almost too much in the book–the entire history of the Urban Indian, back to the 16th century, the myths and dreams, the horror, compacted in a few pages. There’s so much in it, history and backstory and rationale, that at times, it’s hard to find the story–the intriguing tale that keeps you reading to find out what happens. The book is rich with characters (none of whom feels much joy or hope), and very cleverly structured. You can see what’s coming a mile off, and feel powerless to stop it. And just when you want to know the specific outcomes, Orange pulls the plug. It’s easy to see why he did this–American ‘civilization’ has been doing this for 400 years. It’s a lesson to the reader.
Memoir and Essays
Becoming (Michelle Obama) The book is a festival of little, very human moments: Running to the corner store to get her mother a pack of Newports. Piano lessons. Her teenage boyfriends. Excruciating moments from the campaign. And, of course, what it’s like to love a man with Obama’s fierce intelligence and ambition. The tone is casual, a conversation with a friend—the book reads almost like a novel. A masterpiece of political biography.
All You Can Ever Know (Nicole Chung) As a (white) adoptive parent of a Korean son, the book rang my chimes on many levels. Chung notes, deep in her narrative, that some transracial adoptees do not experience the feelings of being an outsider or the persistent search for identity that she did, and I think that’s true. Each adoptee’s emotional journey is unique. Nonetheless, I think the issues Chung raises are vital, well worth reflection on the part of all parties, including adoptive parents. I learned from her story, which gave me many insights to chew on.
Thick and Other Essays (Tressie McMillan Cottom) Cottom’s essay on being considered ‘incompetent’ in the birth and subsequent loss of her infant daughter will rip your heart out. Her essay on why David Brooks gets to be a full-time writer while producing columns about deli meats, and the NYT and WaPo don’t (or didn’t, at the time) have a full-time black woman op-ed writer is hilarious and spot-on.
Born a Crime (Trevor Noah) The first half of the book is little stories about growing up in South Africa, small examples of cultural differences from a vastly different world. Taken together, they present a picture of what it was like to be Trevor Noah–and what it’s like to live in a world with alternate boundaries and beliefs. It’s a good memoir, easy to read. It gets better, as Noah looks at apartheid, crime, gender dynamics, and so much more. The chapter entitled ‘Cheese Boys’ is brilliant-and his explanation of why South American families call their sons ‘Hitler” was a revelation. The book would make a worthy addition to any course on cultural perspectives.