Reading around ELA, second quarter 2018

I started more nonfiction books than I finished this quarter. Two or three that I began turned out to be not what I was looking for or too much of what I was looking for. Those I set aside until I am less pressured.

The four I finished are an historical memoir, two books on education, and a book about self-directed learning in business settings. (If you’re interested in my fiction reading for the quarter, those reviews are posted at GreatPenformances.)

Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918

Armenian Golgotha was written by Grigoris Balakian, an Armenian Apostolic Church priest who was in university in Berlin on Aug. 1, 1914 when Germany declared war against Russia and, by extension, on Russia’s allies.

photo of Grigoris Balakian on Armenian Golgotha cover

Less than a year later, Balakian was arrested in Constantinople along with other leaders of the Armenian community, as the Ottoman Empire under the Young Turks began to systematically eliminate the Armenian people from Turkey’s borders.

Thousands of Armenians died or were slaughtered over the next four years. Balakian survived, promising that he would tell the world what happened to his people as civilized nations averted their eyes.

I couldn’t read much of Armenian Golgotha at one time. Even in translation the memoir is harrowing. Pushing on despite feeling revulsion, one risks becoming deadened to the horror.

Translator Peter Balakian, nephew to Grigoris and a noted author in his own right, and the late Aris Sevag, a prolific writer on Armenian history, provide time charts, maps, and photographs. The paperback volume from Vintage Books, 2010, is beautifully laid out and printed on high quality paper, a stark contrast to the events it relates.

I highly recommend this memoir. You won’t enjoy it, but the whole point is that you dislike it enough to protest when history repeats itself.

Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham

This is the third book I’ve read by Daniel T. Willingham, who writes about the implications of cognitive science for the classroom in a highly readable style not often associated with academics.

silhouette of child fleeing school desk is on cover of Why Don't Students Like School

Willingham starts out by saying, “People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.”

The rest of his book is devoted to exploring how classroom teachers can overcome their students’—and their own—disinclination to think. The content is not just thoughtful; it’s useful, too.

Unfortunately, nothing about the physical book makes for comfortable reading. It’s a good thing Willingham writes well, or I wouldn’t have gotten through the book. The typeface appears to have been chosen by someone whose hobby is engraving the Bible on the heads of pins, and the text is printed on cheap, thin paper that rapidly mellows to budget-apartment beige.

If your eyes are up to the challenge, you’ll find useful information in a refreshingly human delivery in Why Don’t Students Like School? (Jossey-Bass, 2009)

All Learning Is Self-Directed by Daniel R. Tobin

On front cover, figures run toward learning

Published by ASTD in 2000, this paperback by Daniel R. Tobin is geared toward leaders of large organizations who even then were shedding their training function and attempting to shift the those responsibilities to employees.

Although the book is geared toward businesses, Tobin’s main points apply to schools as well.

Tobin argues that although employees have to do their own learning—learning isn’t something someone else can do for you—the organization must take responsibility for

  • identifying its needs,
  • creating an environment that values learning,
  • encouraging diverse types of learning situations, and
  • facilitating employees’ ability to take engage in learning experiences.

Tobin’s text shows its age, but his general points are still valid and worth consideration in today’s public schools.

Someone Has to Fail by David F. Labaree

Someone Has to Fail (Harvard University Press, 2010) is a historical sketch of American education with David F. Larabee’s running commentary about the winners and losers in each successive reform from the early years of the republic to the present.

The book’s subtitle is The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling, which sums up Labaree’s assessment of the present state of education in America.

In group photo, one student's face is hidden by the word FAIL.

Larabee, a professor of education at Stamford University, asserts that American schools have historically done a lousy job of educating students, but they have been more successful at schooling students. Credentials mean only that students are trainable, Larabee says; credentials don’t imply that even those with advanced degrees have job skills.

He also says that America does not need—and has never needed—large numbers of people who have mastered the academic curriculum. What America needs, Larabee says, can be obtained by going to school quite apart from learning curriculum:

What school teaches that students need

School teaches [students] how to juggle priorities, how to interact effectively with both peers and superiors, and how to manipulate an institutional context in a way that serves their own individual ends. The best preparation for life, in short, may not come from getting an education but from doing school.

Larabee’s book is stuffy and highly repetitious. Moreover, his argument that schooling per se is valuable even if the schooled acquire neither knowledge or skills seems quaint. If businesses below Amazon-size ever really happy having to train highly credential employees for their first jobs, they aren’t any more. Even the rationale being given for combining the federal Departments of Education and Labor is that education should be focused on skill development for the workplace.

Nevertheless, I recommend taking a look at what Laramee has to say about America’s compulsion to treat every social problem by applying a poultice of education. I suspect that tendency won’t disappear regardless of changes  at the Cabinet level and it is an impulse that makes itself felt right down to the school janitor.