September 2011


Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

I am delighted to tell you about my book Nothing to Envy because I wrote it with students in mind. I was, at the time, on a fellowship at Princeton University where I also taught an undergraduate journalism course called “Covering Repressive Regimes.” My students were curious about North Korea, a country they knew almost nothing about.

When I started telling them the stories—about a country where televisions and radios were locked on government propaganda, where you couldn’t travel to the next town without a permit, where you were required to wear the portrait of the founder Kim Il Sung at all times on your clothing and that you celebrated the birthdays of the leadership rather than your own—the students were incredulous. It was not that they doubted my word; they were unable to grasp that a state as repressive as this one could persist into the 21st century. (more…)

Outcasts United by Warren St. John

For the better part of a hundred years, Clarkston, Georgia—a community of 7,100 on one square mile of land east of downtown Atlanta—was a mostly white town where little of interest happened. In the early 1990’s, the town was designated as a resettlement center for refugees from around the world, and refugees poured in from Southeast Asia, the Balkans, Africa and the Middle East. In less than a decade, little Clarkston, Georgia transformed into one of the most diverse communities in the country.

Outcasts United is the story of this town, told through the lens of a soccer team of refugee boys called the Fugees, a team founded and coached by an American-educated, Jordanian born volunteer named Luma Mufleh. The team and its remarkable coach ultimately provide the rest of us with powerful lessons about how to create community in places where everyone is different. (more…)

Not Quite Adults by Richard Settersten and Barbara E. Ray

by Richard Settersten, co-author of Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood, and Why It’s Good for Everyone (Bantam, 2010)

One of the inescapable burdens of being an educator relates to this simple truth: We grow older, but our students are forever young. Yet, as new students file into our classrooms each year, we’re aware of a complementary truth: Just because our students are always young doesn’t mean they’re always the same. Recent years have brought a seismic shift in the kinds of students we face.

Anchored in nearly a decade of collaborative research conducted by an interdisciplinary team of scientists assembled by the MacArthur Foundation (myself included), Not Quite Adults provides an intimate look at today’s young people.

Writing this book with my co-author, Barbara Ray, has changed how I teach and relate to my college students. Here are a few lessons that will be helpful for high school teachers, too: (more…)

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden

by Sarah Glidden, author of How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less (Vertigo, 2011)

When I used to think about growing as a person, I visualized my life as a sort of graph: a steadily climbing, sometimes dipping line that would crawl forward over time until a certain age when the graph would plateau into a stable flatness. The way I looked at it, one’s teens and early 20s are all about discovering who you are and what you think about the world. At some point, all my opinions, beliefs, and values would become fixed into a solid identity that I would carry with me into the future like an amber shield.

This fantasy carried over into the way I approached other topics, such as history and politics. I had been interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for some time but felt fatigued by it; I was itching to just figure it out and then move on. I was familiar with the “two sides” of the conflict in American discourse. Conservatives blamed the Palestinians, calling them “terrorists” and “monsters,” while liberals maintained that the Israelis were occupiers and thus the real monsters. While I had always identified more with the latter camp, there was something unsettling to me about defining a conflict as a struggle of “good vs. evil.” I wanted to truly understand the mess in the Middle East. I had read plenty on the subject, had gone to lectures, and had watched many documentaries. The only step left was to visit the country to see it with my own eyes. The finish line was in Jerusalem somewhere, and all I had to do was to get there.  (more…)

Feel-Bad Education by Alfie Kohn

The four years that students spend in high school are excellent preparation for the real world—assuming that they plan to live in a totalitarian society. To the detriment of students as well as teachers, most American high schools continue to embody the sort of traditional, and antidemocratic, practices that I call into question in Feel-Bad Education: And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling.

In this new book, as in my earlier work, I try to ask the radical questions—by which I mean those that get to the root of what we’re doing rather than looking for ways to tweak the status quo. For example, why do most 15-year-olds have less to say about how they spend their time in school (what they’re learning, and how, and when, and with whom) than do most 5-year-olds in kindergarten? Why do high schools seem designed to make sure that kids won’t feel part of a caring community and won’t really come to know, or be known by, any adults? (more…)

The Social Animal by David Brooks

Several years ago I did some reporting on why so many kids drop out of high school, despite all rational incentives. That took me quickly to studies of early childhood and research on brain formation. Once I started poking around that realm, I found that people who study the mind are giving us an entirely new perspective on who we are and what it takes to flourish.

We’re used to a certain story of success, one that emphasizes getting good grades, getting the right job skills and making the right decisions. But these scientists were peering into the innermost mind and shedding light on the process one level down, in the realm of  emotions, intuitions, perceptions, genetic dispositions and unconscious longings.

I’ve spent several years with their work now, and it’s changed my perspective on everything. In this book, I try to take their various findings and weave them together into one story. This is not a science book. I don’t answer how the brain does things. I try to answer what it all means. I try to explain how these findings  about the deepest recesses of our minds should change the way we see ourselves, raise our kids, conduct business, teach, manage our relationships and practice politics. This story is based on scientific research, but it is really about emotion, character, virtue and love.

We’re not rational animals, or laboring animals; we’re social animals. We emerge out of relationships and live to penetrate each other’s souls.