A Radical’s Bibliography: Ten Books All Educators Should Read

All great books are subversive. Think of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams or Joyce’s Ulysses. They teach you to see the world in a new way. They bring ideas into existence, and, like ripples in a pool, they alter everything around them.


Here’s a personal list of favorite mind-blowing books on education. Of course there are omissions – some of the big guns in the canon: Piaget, Dewey, Montessori, and a couple of hell-raisers: Postman and Weingartner. But we can’t have everyone, so let’s celebrate these ten.


1. Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire


Freire’s personal story is part of his legend. A middle-class light-skinned man teaches literacy to Brazilian peasants, thereby empowering them, and gets exiled by the military junta. An obvious and inescapable choice, Freire’s masterwork has influenced generations of teachers. Many of the concepts and terminology we use to talk about education today come from his work. He describes the banking method: the knower (teacher) deposits knowledge into the empty vessel (student); and he emphasizes problem-posing and dialogue. Pedagogy of the Oppressed isn’t an easy read – there’s a lot of philosophy in there – but stick with him and Freire will guide you for the rest of your teaching days.


2. Frames of Mind by Howard Gardner

Frames of Mind

The editor of ‘English Teaching Professional’ once told me that barely a day goes by when she doesn’t receive an article citing the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Gardner’s theory is both radical and brilliant: it states that there are many types of intelligence beyond the ‘book knowledge’ that gets you an A. His wide-ranging scholarship and his humility stand out. He introduces Kinesthetic Intelligence by describing the mime artist Marcel Marceau. He invokes another kind of intelligence by describing how twelve-year-old Puluwat boys in the Caroline Islands are chosen by elders to become master sailors, grappling with waves, stars, and treacherous coastlines. In other words, Gardner looks far and wide and, through a seemingly simple idea, enriches the lives of us all.


3. Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks

Teaching to Transgress

Hooks is a diamond. A black woman from a rough neighborhood in Kentucky, USA, she experiences ‘learning as revolution’, and sees her education as a political act because it was rooted in antiracist struggle. Her devotion to a life of the mind, despite numerous obstacles, is part of a “pedagogy of resistance” and she insists that real education must be the practice of freedom. Indeed, her life’s work has been to fight domination, whether by men, schoolteachers or governments. This book of essays is a tremendous testament to that work.


4. Teacher by Sylvia Ashton-Warner


For two and a half decades Ashton-Warner taught five-year-old Maori students in New Zealand, and during this time came up with a revolutionary method for literacy teaching. What words to teach? “Pleasant words won’t do. Respectable words won’t do … They must be words that are already part of the child’s being.” She rejected the pre-packaged, pre-chosen textbook involving the fictitious ‘Janet and John.’ She also rejected “the frame of an imposed culture.” In this age of mass-produced one-size-fits-all educational tools, her work seems as vital as ever.


5. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


Most of us have experienced it: that sense of pleasure, of time not mattering, as we focus on something so deeply that the rest of the world temporarily disappears. Some find this bliss in reading; others in sports; others in making music; and so on. And most of us had probably never put a name to it until Csikszentmihalyi examined the phenomenon and gave it shape and meaning. His book is not directly about learning, but anyone who reads Flow will see the immediate relevance to education because it’s only in a state of flow that we truly learn anything.


6. Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich

Deschooling society

A superbly conceived book, Deschooling Society dissects modern education’s obsession with credentials and commodities. Illich claimed that schooling is based on the same structures as consumer society: top-down management controlling a powerless, disenfranchised workforce and offering a ‘product’ that is to be ‘consumed.’ In its place, he suggested self-directed education. Some of his claims, written in the 1960’s and 70’s, seem extraordinarily prescient: he argued for “educational webs which … transform each moment of [a person’s] living into one of learning, sharing and caring” and suggested that through ‘learning webs’, remote peers work together to tackle tasks.


7. Thought and Language by Lev Vygotsky

Thought and Language

Vygotsky’s ideas grow more relevant by the year. Among them is the so-called Zone of Proximal Development – the gap between what a learner can do with the help of a mentor and what she can do unaided (her goal). This idea finds adherents everywhere from policymakers in U.S. kindergartens to the authors of the language scales in the Common European Framework. Thought and Language also has groundbreaking things to say about inner speech, the relationship between thinking and speaking, and how children perceive words. A brilliant educational psychologist, Vygotsky died at the age of thirty-seven, but his work has survived and his ideas thrived.


8. Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol

Savage Inequalities

This is a devastating critique of education in the United States. Kozol lifts the lid on the world’s richest country and finds a morass of neglect: schools with broken windows and fields running with sewage, classrooms with buckets to catch the rain that falls through holes in the ceiling. No books, no heating, plaster walls literally falling apart. No wonder the teachers and students are demoralized. Kozol explores the relationship between racism, poverty, and greed that allows such a state of affairs to exist, and documents a vicious circle of dysfunction. As one teacher says, “pay now or pay later.”


9. Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing by A.S. Neill


Founded by A.S. Neill in 1921, Summerhill had one main principle: make the school fit the child (not the other way round). Lessons were optional, and school rules were made democratically by staff and students. Neill didn’t care about teaching methods: “the child who wants to learn long division will learn long division no matter how it is taught,” and visitors to Summerhill often couldn’t tell who was staff and who was pupil. His educational philosophy went against the modern trend, which he described as “lads and lasses stuffed with useless knowledge …they have been taught to know but have not been allowed to feel.” Throughout the book, it’s clear that Neill’s approach was based on love and trust. Forty years after his death, the school is still going strong.


10. Education and the Significance of Life by Jiddu Krishnamurti

Education and the Significance of Life

“The ignorant man is not the unlearned, but he who does not know himself.” “The man who knows how to split the atom but has no love in his heart becomes a monster.” “The teacher … of the right kind … will not depend on a method, but will study each individual pupil.” Much of what Jiddu Krishnamurti had to say is now taken for granted by educators. But when he was writing in the 1950’s, these were radical ideas. His vision of educating the whole person, of working to develop compassion in students rather than good grades, and his insistence that the young have no fear of failure were hallmarks of his philosophy. His work lives on in various foundations and schools that disseminate and practice his ideas.


One Comment on “A Radical’s Bibliography: Ten Books All Educators Should Read”

  1. aiyshah2014 says:

    ..Paulo Friere…The Pedagogy of the Oppresssed…(sigh)…I remember it well, such a hit in the 80’s under every chardoney socialist’s belt. Glad to see Sylvia Ashton Warner on the list and of course the untouchable ‘Summerhill’…these all need to be on any Teachers College list…They were in the 80s, hope they still are!

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