Reading List 2011 (8/80)

Recent reading:

  • Worth Dying For, Lee Child
  • How the University Works, Mark Bousquet
  • The Informationist, Taylor Stevens
  • Honeybee Democracy, Thomas D. Seeley
  • The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch
  • The Devotion of Suspect X, Keigo Higashino
  • The Lost Art of Reading, David L. Ulin
  • Degrees of Inequality, Ann L. Mullen

As you can see, I’ve been reading up on the current state of American education- both K-12 and higher education. Considering how depressing that’s been, it’s probably a good thing I’m lightening things up with some delightful thrillers. Bonus: a book about bees that reminded me why I’m a researcher.

All four of the educationally oriented books – Mullen, Bousquet, Ravitch and Ulin – were excellent and important. However, they were not all equally readable. Ulin led the pack here, with a thoughtful investigation of how people read. He uses his son’s Great Gatsby reading assignment to reflect on the role of reading outside of school, and how schools both create and reshape students’ attitudes to reading, along with about three dozen other things. Of course, he’s also an essayist rather than an academic; he brings together a lot of interesting ideas, but without the rigor of the other three.

That’s why I was especially impressed with Mullen, who managed to create an engaging book out of an academically rigorous study comparing students at Yale and Southern Connecticut State. She looks at how class, race and gender shape the ways that students prepare for college, choose which colleges to apply to, select majors, engage in classes and more generally, conceive of what college is for. She interviewed fifty students from each school, and supplements their stories with quantitative data about the populations of each school. Her conclusions, unfortunately, are quite depressing. Class and racial segregation takes hold early, not only in the practical opportunities available to students but also in terms of what ideas they develop about education and about their own educational capacities. A sense of “that isn’t for me” is much harder to overcome than the logistics of access! Gender segregation appears primarily in the selection of majors rather than in college choice, but also includes a very different internal model of education. What I found especially interesting is that women at Yale were the group most likely to consider learning important for its own sake. This is, of course, wonderful – who doesn’t admire the liberal ideal of education? – but also depressing, as it seems to have more than a little bit to do with an unspoken idea that someone else will be providing for them. Yes, some days I just hate the world.

Bousquet and Ravitch, unfortunately, were a bit more of a slog. This is especially unfortunate as they are both making compelling and important arguments about education and educational policy. On the other hand, they’re dense because, given the arguments they’re making, they really have to be. They’re not being pompous academics! Ravitch’s book has more of a narrative through-line, if you care about that kind of thing. She talks about her experiences shaping No Child Left Behind, and how over time she has become convinced that the policies she once supported (school choice, charter schools) are actually harmful for American education. Her analysis of why it’s far more difficult for the federal government to mandate curriculum standards than performance standards is brilliant, though too long to replicate here. But to make a long story short, she believes that we need better curricula and less obsessive testing – and that we’re not likely to get it. Bousquet analyzes the current state of college teaching, and doesn’t come up with a cheerier analysis. He focuses on labor issues in the academy – both how professors are being turned into contingent labor, and how student learning is often secondary to labor. The best chapter of the book, “Extreme Work Study,” is available on his site as a pdf; if you find that relatively readable, you might want to check out the rest of it. (Unless you’re a future academic, in which case it’s a must.)

If you’re a future academic, you should also go read Honeybee Democracy. It’s a fascinating little book about bees and how they choose hive sites, but you don’t have to give a damn about bees to learn from this little gem. Seeley does a brilliant job of showing you the life trajectory of a researcher and academic. He writes about how he chooses questions and how he designs experiments to answer them, and how those answers have come together over the course of his life to make a coherent argument about how bee decision-making works. Anyone working in the sciences – and, I’d argue, in any experimental or observational discipline – should read this as a model for how to have a successful intellectual career.

The other treasure of this bunch was The Devotion of Suspect X. I have no idea how I came across the book, but it’s a fantastic psychological thriller. A single mother commits murder (mostly in self-defense), and her brilliant but troubled neighbor helps her cover it up. The cops seem constantly on the verge of catching her, and each stage of the neighbor’s plan is incredibly satisfying and cool as it gets revealed. The woman’s own psychological journey is also well-handled; the book ends with her making a major life decision, and I found her choice believable and compelling for the person she’d become. Acquire this! Read this!

In other news, Jack Reacher (Child’s ex-military-policeman hero) continues to be a giant badass. He spends the first third of this book badly injured, which provides some nice constraints for the story. As usual, I can’t wait for the next one. The Informationist was narratively implausible as all get-out. On the other hand, it did a nice job of evoking about a dozen different social worlds across multiple countries, and had an awesome plot twist I kind of saw coming but was even twistier than I’d predicted. It’s perfect airplane reading, and I hear there’s a sequel in the works.

Shabbat shalom!

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