Literature and Film on Schools and Learning

About Literature and Film on Schools and Learning

Many of the books reviewed here were recommended to us by transformative learning expert Aaron Stern, from the Academy for the Love of Learning. Others have come to us through friends, media, studies, and serendipity. They are listed here in alphabetical order, by author’s last name, and followed by short, subjective reviews. (Fuller reviews and descriptions can be found online.) Books marked by an asterisk are housed in the Academy for the Love of Learning’s library in Santa Fe, NM.


 *Bale, Jeff and Sarah Knopp, eds. Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation. Haymarket Book, Chicago. 2012. 

From the thoughtful folks at Rethinking Schools, this collection of seven essays offers a decidedly Marxist–yet somehow not outdated–perspective on what our schools are doing, and what they need. The authors view education as a political endeavor, above all, and schools as a social institution that must be wrestled from the hands of capitalists and put to service in creating a more equitable society. The essays present a serious and well-researched challenge to the corporate reform movement. Of particular interest are the final chapters. One describes how major teachers’ unions have been co-opted, and gives examples of ways teachers can unite, as workers, to present a real challenge to unjust power structures. The final chapter provides historical descriptions of how education and literacy were disseminated in the revolutionary eras in Russia, Nicaragua and Cuba. (SB)

*Birdsey, Tal. A Room for Learning. St. Martin’s Press, New York. 2009.

For those of us who are less than ecstatic about the advent of textbook tablets, online learning, and national standards, Birdsey offers a great narrative, with pitch perfect pre-teen dialogue, that reminds us that teaching is a messy, relational affair between human beings. With one computer and a drafty cabin somewhere in Vermont, Birdsey takes a handful of kids into the heart of genuine learning. (SB)

*Bloom, Benjamin, ed. Developing Talent in Young People. Ballantine Books, New York. 1985.

Ask any teacher about Bloom and they’ll explain to you about taxonomies of learning, but this book, recommended to me by  Eliot Washor of the Big Picture Org, has nothing to do with the difference between memorization and synthesis. Instead, it describes (in painstaking detail) the educational process by which exceptionally high-performing academics, doctors, athletes, musicians and artists develop their talents. Interestingly, school played little or no role in the talent development in most cases–and often was more of a distraction than anything else. (SB)

Bruner, Jerome. The Culture of Education. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. 1994.

Aside from the great cover photo of the psychology giant in his cluttered NYU office, the book offers a terrific, almost anthropological view on school and society. Of note are the concepts of”folk pedagogy”–the unexamined assumptions we all hold about how other people learn–and a defense of story-telling that makes us bookworms feel a little more important. (SB)

*Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis. Schooling in Capitalist America. Haymarket Books, Chicago, IL. 1976, 2011.

Two books that’ll leave you forever changed: Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road, which makes you feel like the worst could happen; and Bowles and Gintis Schooling, which makes you as though it already has–at least for our schools. “With some imagination,” they write, “teachers can feel they are making a difference,” but the irrefutable truth is that schools perpetuate, not alleviate, the gap between social classes. What’s this mean for us do-gooders with Ivy League degrees? Schools will never be the main vehicle to transform society, but they can be part of an economic restructuring that will create social justice. (SB)

Chamberlain, John. The Heart of the Matter: Diary of a School Year. Ginger Plum Press, Santa Fe, NM. 2001.

The next best thing to drinking a good homebrew with the witty Chamberlain is reading his well-written description of the little Fayette Street Academy he has run for thirty years on the westside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Highlights include a giant elm tree which children learn to climb, fully harnessed; activities based in neuroscience designed to transform brains and remove blockages; and multi-age level classes in which the students help each other through a spiraling curriculum. Chamberlain and his small staff place heavy focus on learning the classics–Latin and Greek, I mean, not The Outsiders–on creating high quality singing and musical performances, and on creating a comfortable, family-like feel for their students. He does not use textbooks, and does not have exceptional facilities or outlandish tuition, and makes a strong case for small, individualized schooling. (SB)

chomsky image

Chomsky, Noam: 20 minutes of common sense wisdom about the purposes of education, the value (or lack thereof) of technology and testing, and the strange idea of “the costs” of education. From the education organization, Learning Without Frontiers, out of England. (SB)



Counts, George S. Dare the School Build a New Social Order? Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale. IL. 1932. Republished 1978.

“There is the fallacy,” Counts writes, “that the great object of education is to produce the college professor, that is, the individual who adopts an agnostic attitude towards every important social issue, who can balance the pros against the cons with the skill of a juggler, who sees all sides of every question and never commits himself to any, who delays action until all the facts are in, who knows that all the facts will never come  in, who consequently holds his judgment in a state of indefinite suspension, and who before the approach of middle age sees his powers of action atrophy and his social sympathies decay.”

This classic book, a slim transcript of speeches given by the influential George S Counts at a national education conference in 1932, is one of the few education books I read every few years, when I feel myself wondering why I got into education in the first place. Progressive, child-centered educators beware: Counts will make you consider the value of old-fashioned indoctrination. (SB)

*Cowan, Donald. Unbinding Prometheus. The Dallas Institute Publications, Dallas. 1988.

Cowan was a physicist, university professor and staunch defender of the value of a liberal education. He’s also a very good writer, if a bit old-fashioned in style, which makes this collection of essays worth a read. He frames education in terms of human archetypal myths: Prometheus transgressing against the cosmic order by gifting intelligence and technology to humanity, Faust’s foolish quest of know-how instead of wisdom, and King Prospero’s education on the island in The Tempest. I found his chapter on the “Three Moments of Learning” particularly relevant to school re-form: like Alfred North Whitehead and Benjamin Bloom, Cowan posits that learning begins with a “love-at-first-sight” experience, the awe and pleasure of grasping, on an emotional level, some new idea or image. What follows is a sort of “mapping” stage, in which a learner loses himself in the study of a field, attempts to master its various elements and learn all that has been studied before.

But this study is not enough: “Learning,” he writes, “must cause a metamorphosis of the person, not merely elevate him–must make him into something different from what he was before. The evidence for this change comes in the third moment, the moment of making. Something new must issue from the learner, something he has not been taught…” It could be argued that conventional schooling focuses only on the middle “moment,” the study of skills and knowledge, and ignores the passionate first stage, as well as the creative third stage–thus offering an incomplete and ineffective learning model. (SB)

Christensen, Clayton M., Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson. Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. McGraw Hill, New York. 2008.

Christensen’s theories about how business are “disrupted” by innovations is interesting, and seems to make a lot of sense when applied to computers or airplanes. The main thesis of his book is that monolithic classroom education is being “disrupted” by a more individualized type of schooling, which will largely be made possible by on-line coursework.

I agree that having one teacher deliver set curricula to age-grouped students is no longer appropriate pedagogy for the world we need to create. I’ve used some online courses, and in some cases, with some students, found them helpful. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think technology will solve our educational woes, anymore than it will solve climate change or cure us of all our health problems.

Christensen, et al, paint a scenario in which children pick and choose from a variety of online courses, each with various learning modes so they can find the right way to learn. But they fail to consider that schools may have a larger role to play , beyond giving kids easy access to information. I’m not alone, I don’t think, in wanting our schools to foster wisdom, critical thinking, and creativity; to promote a deeper understanding of how to relate to and create with others. Online course are no more guaranteed to promote this type of collaboration than is traditional teaching.

The authors give a useful critique of educational research in Chapter 8, explaining how it works by exploring average rates of success and failure–of little use to a teacher or school who is interested not in success for the “average” student, but success for all. But then the authors suddenly take a frightening turn toward fascism, calling for an end to democratic decision-making in our schools. School reformers, they say, should follow the lead of authoritarian decision makers like Tito, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, and GE CEO Jack Welch. “The tools of power and separation, though they seem foreign to leaders who have been schooled in consensus, are key pieces of the puzzle of education reform.” Little surprise Christensen’s a big fan of Mitt Romney, who campaigned on privatizing school through vouchers. (SB)

*Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly and Isabella Selega Csikszentmihalyi, eds. Optimal Experience.

Aaron first mentioned this book to me in the summer of 2011, when he shared with me his dream of catalyzing a national–even global–shift in the way people think about learnings, and thus the way we go about educating children. This book is one of many written (or in this case, edited by) Csikszentmihalyi, and gives a theoretical explanation and compelling examples of activities that invoke a state of pure concentration, from rock-climbing to farming to racing motorcycles through Tokyo. He introduced the idea of this “flow experience” in a 1975 book called Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. The premise is simple, and compelling: there is a fourth source of motivation for human activity, beyond the typical drivers (power, pleasure, or participation). That motivator is the desire to be in a state in which you lose yourself in the activity at hand–the writing of a novel, knitting, conversation, skiing, those activities that so engross us we lose track of time. The question arises, then: how do we bring “flow consciousness” into our schools? Is it possible? (SB)

Darling-Hammond, Linda. The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future. Teachers’ College Press, NY. 2010.

Darling-Hammond is one of our nation’s premier education policy experts. She served as advisor to Obama during his first presidential campaign, though it’s hard to tell: this book argues convincingly in favor of a massive investment in teacher development in the US. (Obama’s education policy, with Secretary Arne Duncan, has been focused more on rewarding output, like test scores, than investing in input, like teacher development.) She offers a useful overview of the state of our school system, focusing largely on inequities between poor schools and rich schools, but the real meat of her book comes in the middle chapters, when she gives powerful, researched examples of how nations, states, and districts have achieved excellence by creating a corps of highly-professional teachers who are collaborators and learners. I used this book as the basis of this column in the Santa Fe Reporter. (SB)

Dewey, John. The School and Society; The Child and the Curriculum. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 1902  and 1915. Reprint. Originally published 1956.

Review forthcoming.

Edwards, Gandini and Forman, eds. The Hundred Languages of Children. 2nd edition. Ablex Publishing, Westport, CT. 1998.

A dense but important collection of essays describing what may be the most exciting trend in education of the latter 20th Century, the preschool program that has grown out of the ashes of WWII in Northern Italy. Teachers in this program are collaborators (two to the class), documenters (filming, taking pictures, recording conversations), and dialoguers (leisurely one hour lunches–with 4 year olds!). No program I’ve read about has more potential to truly professionalize teaching–compare how Reggio teachers work to the corporate training methods being pushed forward in major school districts in the US. (SB)

Esteva, Gustavo, Prakash, Madhu S, and Dana L. Stuchul. From A Pedagogy for Liberation to Liberation from Pedagogy. [Available at link below.]

Love Freire? Check this article out. Mexican Gustavo Esteva, founder of the professorless Uni-tierra in Oaxaca, suggests that Freire’s insistence on textualization of problems is essentially elitist. And check out the Swaraj University in India while you’re on their page. (SB)

*Fox, Matthew. Confessions: The Making of a Post-denominational Priest. Harper, San Francisco. 1996.

Highly readable and personal look at Matthew Fox’s unsuccessful struggle to find his place in the Dominican movement of the Catholic Church, a journey that ultimately led him to expulsion as he embraced a more humanistic, live-loving version of Christianity called Creation Spirituality (see below).


*Fox, Matthew. Original Blessing. Penguin, New York, 1983. (Reissued in 2000).

What does Matthew Fox’s groundbreaking work on spirituality have to do with school?


Dr. Fox is the Academy for the Love of Learning’s visiting scholar for good reason: he offers, through this book and his life, a new vision of society, one that rejects the “dualisms” that are so deeply ingrained in the Judeo-Christian  worldview (you are good or you are bad, you are a sinner or you are saved). Instead, Dr. Fox introduces the concept of “creation spirituality,” a new  (actually ancient) way of thinking about religion as a way of celebrating life, embracing loss, finding expression through creativity, and pursuing justice and compassion.  These four ideas–celebration, loss, creativity and compassion–are notably absent from many of our lives, even the lives of the religious amongst us, and so are also absent from our schools.

I had the privilege of spending some time with Dr. Fox in Oakland in early 2012. I met him at a public school in a economically distressed neighborhood, where despite his international reputation, he was discreetly attending a community celebration of ecology and art. Over a free organic lunch in the cafeteria, we spoke about education and youth, and Dr. Fox’s own efforts to launch his A.W.E. after-school program, which sought to bring cosmos and creativity into the lives of young people. The program was struggling–typical non-profit woes–but Dr. Fox’s vision  of children learning with compassion and wonder was vibrant and inspiring. I kept that vision present as I read Original Blessing, which is rich with feminist and social justice interpretations of religion, and offers far and away the most beautiful perspective on Christianity and Christ I have ever read.

*Fox, Matthew. The A.W.E. Project.

Review forthcoming.

Gardner, Howard. The Unschooled Mind.

Review forthcoming.

*Greenberg, Daniel. Free at Last-The Sudbury Valley School. The Sudbury Valley School Press, Framingham, MA. 1987.

I loved reading this description of the Framingham, MA, school, a radical 1960’s experiment that has stuck around, where kids (and teachers) do exactly what they like. Seemed like a brilliant idea. Then I visited. (SB)

*Greenberg, Daniel, Sadofsky, Mimsy, and Jason Lempka, eds. The Pursuit of Happiness: The Lives of Sudbury Valley Alumni. The Sudbury Valley School Press, Framingham, MA. 2005.

More on Sudbury Valley. Does it work just to let kids do what they want all day? These testimonies by alumnae don’t make a convincing case one way or the other, and one remains with the question, raised by George S Counts in the 1930’s, if schools ought not have a political agenda to critically analyze society and indoctrinate children with the desire to make the world a more just place. (SB)

41ox4FJj5qL *bell hooks. Teaching to Transgress. Routledge, England. 1994.

It was wonderful for me to reread bell hooks 20 years after I first came across her ideas while in college. Then, I was struggling mightily with my privilege as a white, upper middle class male, and in an elite college no less, and her clear-sighted descriptions of how power is used to perpetuate unjust systems left me partially shamed, and partially enraged. Now, her writings leave me more inspired than anything else. Particularly striking is her Freire-influenced concept of “engaged pedagogy,” in which the teacher is not hiding behind a desk, or behind a body of knowledge, but laboring alongside students as another learner, empowering students to speak up and become actors in their own education, rather than passive receivers. Also important are her discussion or eros (meaning a life-giving force) in teaching, her challenge to the mind/body split so prevalent in academia, and her views on how teachers get locked in the identity of being a teacher–and forget to teach. As Ron Scapp puts it, at the end of a chapter in which she dialogues with Scapp (a white professor): “being a teacher is being with people.

Illich, Ivan. DeSchooling Society. Perennial Library, New York. 1970.

Put this one in your pipe and smoke it: What Bowles and Gintis do with statistics, Illich acheived with rhetoric, making a convincing case that schools are an all-encompassing religion of sorts, “the advertising agency” for a world gone mad, making mindless, bored consumers of us all. His suggestion: free information exchanges at the local library. Written before the internet explosion, Illich’s ideas seem perhaps more feasible today, though just as revolutionary and anarchic. (SB)

Kapoor, Dip and Edward Shizha, eds. Indigenous Knowledge and Learning in Asia/Pacific and Africa. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. 2010.

  • Chapter 6: “Animals, Ghosts, and Ancestors: Traditional Knowledge of Truku Hunters on Formosa.” By Scott Simon. The tiny Asian Tiger island of Taiwan (named Formosa, or “beautiful,” by Portuguese explorers) is today ruled by China but for as many as 6000 years has been home to indigenous peoples, including the Truku. Anthropologist Scott Simon spent time with them and wrote this lovely, very understandable chapter describing the cultural values and traditional education of the Truku, which for males centers around hunting. They follow a moral code known as Gaya, which prescribes how they should interact with nature, with their dead ancestors, and with the living people in their community. “Hunting,” describes Simon, “is a sign of masculinity, a source of prestige, and proof of one’s moral standing.” Through hunting, values, language and knowledge are passed from one generation to the next. This practice continues even today, despite generations of persecution and dislocation at the hands of Japanese and Chinese colonizing governments, and more recent restrictions placed on hunting in the name of tourism and nature conservation.
  • Chapter 9: “Education, Economic and Cultural Modernization, and the Newars of Nepal.” By Deppa Shakya. Through interviews with twelve members of the Newar peoples in the hill region of Nepal, the researcher looks at how a centralized system of formal (book-based) education is steadily replacing the values and indigenous knowledge of this ethnic group. The Newars are not marginalized–many have risen to national prominence in law, architecture, education and other fields–but they do find themselves in a dilemma between embracing conventional education and jobs versus holding onto their indigenous knowledge and traditional vocations. Includes a brief description of how cultural values were transmitted though “learning by doing” in the past, via informal workshops, interaction with elders, and everyday use.
  • Chapter 12: “Voicing Our Roots: A critical Review of Indigenous Media and Knowledge in Bengal.” By Sekhar Roy and Rayyan Hassan. A fascinating look at two non-school-based ways cultures in South Asia have transmitted values and knowledge between generations: the Jatra folk drama, which is something of a popular theater that has been around, in some form, since the 1300’s; and the mystical Baul music, which proposes that “a person has to look inside oneself to comprehend the idea of divinity” since “all the knowledge and secrets reside within the human body.” The authors indicate there has been some efforts to revive these forms as a way of resisting the cultural homogenization that comes with globalization.

Kohl, Herbert. The Open Classroom. A New York Review Book, New York. 1969.

Gotta love Herbert Kohl. This book is dated, describing one of the many pedagogical outliers that emerged from the experimental (and economically stable) 1960’s. But the ideas are practical for the teacher: get rid of your desk, and let the curriculum emerge in dialogue with the students. The Italians have mastered this idea with the young’uns in Reggio Emilia, and many progressive teachers have found ways to implement aspects in their classrooms. (SB)

*Littky, Dennis. The Big Picture. Education is Everyone’s Business.

Review forthcoming.

Murdoch, Iris. Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues. Open Road. NY. 1986.

A fascinating philosophical look at art and religion as told through fictional Greek Dialogues. Socrates is a wise 60 year-old-man and Plato a brooding, emotional 20-year-old, engaging with a group of Greek men that include the young and earnest Acastos. Says Socrates: “We are all artists–we are all story-tellers. We all have to live by art, it’s our daily bread–by what our language gives us, by what we invent for ourselves, by what we steal from others. And we should thank the gods for the great artists who draw away the veil of anxiety and selfishness and show us, even for a moment, another world, a real world, and tell us a little bit of truth.”

*Perry, John and Kathy Perry. The Complete Guide to Homeschooling. Lowell House, LA. 2000.

I was interested in homeschooling until I read this book, which helped me understand that homeschooling, for many, is little more than running your kids through the same, stale, non-critical thinking curricula that’s created this whole mess we call modern life. Unschooling is another story…. (SB)

Petrash, Jack. Understanding Waldorf Education: Teaching from the Inside Out. Gryphon House, Inc. Beltsville, MD. 2002.

Review forthcoming.

*Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. New York, Basic Books. 2010.

A convincing exposé of the people who claim to be our generation’s “reformers.” Ravitch knows her education history–was part of it, on the federal policy level–and shows through stats and analysis how the insane “accountability” drive from the private sector achieves little but the demoralization of teachers and principals, and lucrative contracts for smug consultants. Like Jane Jacobs’ book on cities, Ravitch’s book is not quite progressive enough for me, and sentimentalizes her own happy experience in the big American high school, forgetting that for many people, high school was boring, if not traumatic. But her point is irrefutable: we need to improve teaching and learning in our schools–we don’t need to make them into little Microsoft corporations. (SB)

Richards, Theodore. Creatively Maladjusted: The Wisdom Movement Manifesto. Hireath Press, Danvers, MA. 2013.

Described in Post 19: Education Reinvented in Chicago.

*Seidel, Sam. Hip Hop Genuis: Remixing High School Education. Rowman & Littlefield Education. Lanham, MD. 2011.

Seidel is a thirty-something who’s used the Hip Hop culture to reach out to youth in many settings, including incarceration. This book describes how educators can take the principles of Hip Hop–particularly the idea of “mixing” the best and most engaging ideas from various school reform movements–to create a fresh and innovative school. He describes the St. Paul High School of Recording Arts, a charter school in which some 200 inner city students work on projects, largely but not always based in Hip Hop recording and production, as they gather the credits for a high school diploma. The school operates as a non-profit with a fully functional recording studio as a for-profit arm. (SB)

Steiner, Rudolf. The Education of the Child and Early Lectures on Education. Anthroposophic Press, Barrington, MA. 1996. Originally published in German in 1907.

Review forthcoming.

Steiner, Rudolf. The Kingdom of Childhood: Seven Lectures and Answers to Questions. Anthroposophic Press, Barrington, MA. Translation 1982. Based on lectures delivered in Torquay in 1924.

*Stevenson & Haberman. Ten Theories of Human Nature. 

Review forthcoming.

*Vilanova, Manena and Paula Agudelo. Espacio y Cuerpo: Laboratorio de Investigación y Creación, Zona Pacífico, Chocó 2008-2009. Colectivo Arte de la Investigación Infantil. 2010. [IN SPANISH]

A highly theoretical look at a program by which two artist-pedagogues worked with teachers in one of Colombia’s poorest regions to help them rethink their role as teachers. Based in the Reggio Emilia approach, the teachers were encouraged to rethink the way they interacted with children, to invite the children into a more dialogical relationship and help them reinvent the physical and intellectual “spaces” that they occupy. Agudelo does a lot of work around the concept of “trash,” and how it can be reclaimed to create works of beauty. (SB)


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