Sunday, July 31, 2011

Wendell Berry's Wild Spirit, by Erik Reece

Wendell Berry's Wild Spirit
by Erik Reece

Wendell Berry's Wild Spirit
Guy Mendes


Wendell Berry's Wild Spirit

Counting songbirds and talking about the land with legendary conservationist, farmer, and writer

(Click here to see five Wendell Berry books you must check out as well as more photos from this story)

It is eight in the morning on the last day of the world. We are standing, six of us, alongside the county road that cuts across Wendell Berry’s farm near the small Kentucky town of Port Royal. To our right, the Kentucky River has retreated back inside its banks after a tempestuous spring. In the lower pasture, a single llama guards Wendell’s sheep against coyotes. Up on the hill to our left stands the Berrys’ traditional white farmhouse as well as several busily occupied martin houses. The birds are what bring us here each May, but radio preacher Harold Camping’s doomsday prediction that the world will end tomorrow, May 21, has lent today a kind of cosmic, I mean comic, significance. “Well,” Wendell says, wearing khaki work pants and a team sweatshirt from one of his granddaughters’ high schools, “if this is our last day, we might as well have as much fun as we can.”

“No better place to do that,” says botanist Bill Martin, and we all nod our agreement. Besides Bill, our coterie consists of wildlife biologists John Cox and Joe Guthrie, me, Wendell, and his retired neighbor, Harold Tipton. Wendell, Bill, and Harold are of one generation; John, Joe, and I are of another. Some semblance of this group has been congregating here for the past eight years. The official nature of our business is to count and identify birds—migratory warblers and summer residents. But our pursuits might better be described in terms of what Wendell calls a “scientific quest for conversation.” As much as anything, we come to hear and to tell stories.

Wendell has been telling the story of this land for nearly five decades. A few hundred yards upstream from where we have gathered stands his writing studio, an approximately sixteen-by-twenty-foot room that overlooks the river and was the subject of an early essay, “The Long-Legged House.” Sitting atop tall stilts, the “camp,” as Wendell calls the studio, slightly resembles a great blue heron standing silently on the riverbank. It has no electricity, but natural light flows in through a large window, over a long desk where Wendell has written more than fifty books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and in the process has become known as a leading writer on the subjects of conservation and land stewardship. “It is a room as timely as the body,” Wendell wrote in a recent poem,

As frail, to shelter love’s eternal work,
Always unfinished, here at water’s edge,
The work of beauty, faith, and gratitude
Eternally alive in time.

In tumultuous and uncertain times, it is worth being reminded that these fine things—beauty, faith, gratitude—still lurk eternally beneath history’s dark veneer, and that an artist working alone in a room beside a river may catch a glimpse of them and render them into a lyric poem, a short story, or an essay.
Because of that work, President Obama awarded Wendell the National Humanities Medal in March at a White House ceremony. As he was presenting the award, the president told Wendell that reading his poetry had helped improve his own writing. It is an impressive remark, given that Obama is one of the best writers, along with Jefferson, Lincoln, and Grant, we’ve ever had as president.

For today’s excursion, we load into Wendell’s pickup and drive a few miles to Harold’s farm. A green heron is wading in the creek that runs alongside the road. John and Joe, who are the group’s best birders, identify the songs of thrashers, kingbirds, and waterthrushes as we pass through these lower reaches. Then Wendell’s reluctant truck climbs a nearly washed-out road until we pull into a field in front of a log cabin, hewed out of large oak logs in the 1800s. Wendell’s wife, Tanya, and Harold’s wife, Ida, have sent along lunch for us. Harold stows our provisions inside the cabin, and the six of us, each armed with a pair of binoculars, set off through high grass and occasional ironweed. Phoebes, towhees, and prairie warblers are singing in the trees at the edge of this meadow. Joe records their names in a small notebook. Having no destination, only this will to wander, we move slowly. What’s more, Wendell announces that in response to our culture of instant messaging, he has just founded a new cause, the Slow Communication Movement. Certainly we embody that spirit today, and it feels good. It is a more leisurely, more deliberate form of communication, and it isn’t limited to 140 characters.

At seventy-seven, Wendell is unapologetically out of fashion, though there really never was a time when this wasn’t true. A friend of his, the writer Ed McClanahan, tells the story that, years ago, when Wendell’s agent called excitedly to say Robert Redford was giving as Christmas presents copies of Wendell’s landmark book The Unsettling of America, Wendell turned to Tanya and said, “Queeny, who the hell is Robert Redman?” He famously doesn’t own a computer and has written all of his books in longhand.
And yet, after the economic collapse of 2008, Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News wrote a column arguing that, in such a moment of crisis, it was finally time we listened to, of all people, Wendell Berry. It was Wendell, he argued, who “stood steadfastly for fidelity to family and community, self-sufficiency, localism, conservation and, above all, learning to get by decently within natural limits”—in other words, all of the things that could have staved off a financial crisis driven by rapaciousness and centralized power. The point is that progress doesn’t move inexorably in one direction, toward a technological future, and it doesn’t always look like progress. In an age of toxic agribusiness and climate crisis, it might look more like a family farm, powered by sunlight.

To make this point, and more specifically to protest the mountaintop-removal strip mining that is destroying eastern Kentucky, Wendell joined in a sit-in at Governor Steve Beshear’s office in February. The protesters’ plan was to get arrested and call attention to the cause, but the governor’s staff quickly realized it didn’t want any pictures of Wendell in handcuffs hitting the papers. So no one was arrested and the protesters spent the weekend in the capitol building, before emerging on Monday to a rally of supporters.

Knowing Your Place

We stop at a lone honey locust tree standing in the middle of the field, and Wendell calls our attention to its mildly fragrant catkins. Bill holds up a small magnifying glass to the tiny flowers. Such is the nature of this outing—trying to pay attention to the things most of us ignore or simply don’t take the time to notice in our daily comings and goings. To see the natural world, after all, either through a magnifying glass or a poem, is the first step toward wanting to preserve it. John points to a song in the crown of the tree and says, “Flycatcher.” Joe writes that down.

We walk on, past a thicket where two male indigo buntings, flashing like the bluest shards of stained glass, duel over a female hidden in the brush. Then we stop to watch an orchard oriole (much rarer than the Baltimore variety), perched above the swirling buntings.

Wendell is speculating on the brain of a bird, on what a bird can know. “It has the intelligence to adjust its archetype to its place,” he finally decides.

“You mean its environment,” Bill says.

“I don’t use that word,” Wendell replies. “It’s an abstraction. It separates the organism from its place, and there is no such place.”

“Well, what do you say then?” demands Bill, who likes to needle Wendell.

“I name an actual place. I say Harold Tipton’s farm.”

It was in fact this attention to the particular that prompted our first walkabout. Eight years ago, a colleague of mine at the University of Kentucky, Dave Maehr, suggested to Wendell that he should catalog all of the migratory songbirds that passed through his farm each spring. Wendell liked the idea very much, and we spent the first few years walking those wooded slopes and fields, set only a few miles from where Wendell was born, in 1934.

His father was a country lawyer who helped start the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association during the Depression—an act that was instrumental in keeping small farmers on their land. In 1958, Wendell went off to Stanford to study writing with Wallace Stegner, then in 1962 he accepted a teaching position at New York University. After a few years in the city, he was ready to come home, back to Henry County. Friends in New York advised him against it; they said returning to Kentucky would be literary suicide. “But I never doubted that the world was more important to me than the literary world,” Wendell wrote in his early essay “A Native Hill,” and so he and Tanya bought Lanes Landing Farm in 1965. Wendell worked the farm, raising tobacco, cattle, and later Highland sheep.

Back in Kentucky, Wendell wrote, “I began to see, however dimly, that one of my ambitions, perhaps my governing ambition, was to belong fully to this place, to belong as the thrushes and the herons and the muskrats belonged, to be altogether at home here…. It is a spiritual ambition, like goodness. The wild creatures belong to the place by nature, but as a man I can belong to it only by understanding and by virtue.” To know a place intimately means to belong to it more fully, and to take responsibility for its preservation.

One year on Wendell’s farm, at the peak of the neotropical warbler migration, we counted more than one hundred different birds. Each year, Dave Maehr would type up the list and send a copy to Wendell, who in turn encouraged Dave to take up a more activist stance toward irresponsible logging practices in Kentucky. Dave responded, and in doing so made some enemies within his own forestry department at UK. As a wildlife biologist, he studied large mammals, or “charismatic megafauna,” of which Dave was certainly one demonstrative example. He was brash and voluble and generally considered the country’s leading expert on the Florida panther. I could tell Wendell found him to be very good company indeed.

Then, one Sunday morning a month after our fourth excursion to Wendell’s, I picked up the Lexington paper to read that Dave was dead. He had been down in Florida, conducting an aerial survey of black bears, when the single-engine plane he was in stalled, then nose-dived, killing Dave and his pilot instantly. We were all stunned, and John, his student and best friend, certainly took it the hardest. A few months later, Wendell wrote me a letter suggesting that we could best honor Dave’s memory by continuing our annual avian rite of spring, and that we should give it a name: the Dave Maehr Memorial Bird Walk.

The Best Noise in the World

So here we are, this time up at Harold’s farm, honoring Dave with our peripatetic ritual of walking the fields and forests of Kentucky. It reminded me of another passage from one of Wendell’s poems:

There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

This seems to me the fundamental premise undergirding all of Wendell’s work—that the natural world is sacred, not a “resource” to be desecrated by the extractive industries that fuel our economy. For more than forty years, Wendell has been telling Americans that we cannot survive the economist’s dream of infinite economic growth on a finite planet. And certainly some have listened. The Unsettling of America redirected the way we think about food and agriculture in this country to the point that the farmer’s market is currently the fastest growing part of the American food economy. But obviously not enough people have listened, and so Wendell keeps writing his jeremiads against industrial hooliganism, and he keeps writing his poems that fulfill what the philosopher Martin Heidegger called the role of poetry—to praise the whole in the midst of the unholy.

Our meanderings take us down a logging road shaded by oak and ash trees. Bill is telling a joke that involves farm boys and amorous sheep. When he gets to the punch line, Wendell’s laughter crescendos all around us, and I remember something the poet Jane Kenyon once said—that Wendell laughing is “the best noise in the world.”

That might come as a surprise to readers of Wendell’s polemical tracts, where humor is seldom on display. But Wendell seems to balance his justified sense of outrage at the industrial economy with the pleasure that he takes in the natural world he is fighting to preserve, and in the stories that perpetuate the human comedy.

The first year I came along on the walk, I felt anxious that I wasn’t nearly as good a birder as Wendell and the others. We were crossing a stream on Wendell’s farm when he suddenly turned to me, pointed skyward, and said, “You hear that, Erik?”

“Uh, well, I’m not sure, uh…what is it?”

“That’s the hairy-chested nut-scratcher!” he said, then slapped his thigh in a burst of laughter.

Now we dip farther down into an older forest, walking among spleenwort ferns and mayapple. The birds have grown quieter as the morning has stretched out, and Wendell has turned his attention from the sky to the ground. He bends down, brushes away some leaf cover, and starts digging with one hand. “Look how rich this soil is,” he remarks, then glances up as the rest of us watch him dig. “The way these old abused hills have been reforested is inexhaustibly interesting to me.”

The trees and the ferns and the wildflowers have formed a reciprocal community here on this hillside, based on natural laws that Wendell calls “mutualistic.” Nothing lives here in isolation.

“That’s the problem with modern science,” Wendell begins, rising up. “It isolates a problem and offers an isolated solution. To the problem of depleted soil it offers nitrogen fertilizer. And the problem with that is a huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico because of all that nitrogen runoff.”

Conversely, the solution to that botched solution is to better observe the workings of the natural world. For that reason, Wendell often points to the visionary experiments of his friend Wes Jackson, who at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, is creating a new kind of perennial agriculture that mimics the workings of the Midwestern prairie.

“Look at all this,” Wendell says, standing and gesturing to the trees. “This isn’t wild. This is domestic. What’s wild is what’s out of control. That’s what we mean by wild. And we are the ones that are out of control. We are the ones creating that dead zone.”

Wendell probably knows he is preaching to the converted, but he also probably knows that one reason we come down each spring is to hear what’s on his mind.

Of course, because of such talk, critics have often dismissed Wendell’s writing as “naive.” He knows this well enough and has a reply for defenders of the status quo: “The word inevitable is for cowards.”

It is nearing noon and Joe’s list has almost reached sixty. We start back toward the cabin, where Harold soon has a pot of barbecue simmering. We heap portions of it onto sandwiches, then take our seats in the center of the cabin’s one room.

The barbecue is delicious, the company fine, the weather perfect. All of this seems to inspire Wendell to reveal his plans to found another subversive cabal: the Society for the Preservation of Tangibility. The tangible—that which has actual form and substance. In a culture of avatars, electronic friends, and financial “products” that have no basis in reality, such a fundamentally human society sounds attractive indeed.

We all immediately ask if we can join. “Anyone can join,” Wendell replies. “There are no dues, no meetings, no fund drives, no newsletter.” There is only a state of mind, a desire to preserve what’s authentic, what holds substance, what aspires to the whole.

The possibility that a broken world can be made whole seems to be what calls Wendell down to his riverside desk every day. “A man cannot despair,” he once wrote, “if he can imagine a better life, and if he can enact something of its possibility.” To imagine—it is perhaps the most powerful moral force we possess because it maps a future that is worth finding. It has been Wendell’s life’s work.

Outside the cabin door, a Carolina wren starts to sing.

City Management 101: by Ray Botch, Jr.

City Management 101

I am a second-generation city manager, and until my retirement in 2005 there had been a city manager named Ray Botch employed in either Oregon or Illinois since 1950. My dad was the recipient of the 1978 ICMA Distinguished Service Award.
During my 35 years as manager of Mt. Vernon, Illinois, and Westmont, Illinois, I gained helpful hints that can make a difficult job easier—at least they did for me.


  • The Boss says “I.” The Leader says “we.”
  • The Boss inspires fear. The Leader inspires enthusiasm.
  • The Boss commands. The Leader asks.
  • The Boss drives people. The Leader coaches people.
  • The Boss takes credit. The Leader gives credit.
  • The Boss sees today. The Leader sees tomorrow and beyond.
Maintain an open door policy with the public. Limit the amount of time your office door is closed. You do not need an irate citizen showing up at a council meeting and announcing: “I went to see the city manager but the door was closed.”
Recognize that civil media relations are essential. Try to establish mutually accepted ground rules with members of the media. There will be negative stories. Do not attack the reporter; it shows you are upset. Reporters, especially young reporters, love to make you sweat. Keep your cool and disarm them with kindness.
Remember that you were hired to run the city or county, not each individual department. Don’t micromanage. Coach the department heads to become better managers. Also, treat people with respect. Yelling and cursing turn people off.
Know your employees and the departments where they work. Get out in the trenches. Visit and be seen. Calling employees by name will make you a hero.
Discipline employees privately. Stress their positive points as well as the negative. Together, come up with a plan of action that will prevent a negative incident from recurring. Employees try harder when they know you care.
Be a good listener. Hear what people are saying. When responding, look directly at the person to whom you are talking.
Don’t let problems fester. Attack them head on. The ostrich theory of management does not work.
Don’t keep people waiting. Their time is valuable, too. Plus, it shows poor manners. Follow up on telephone calls and citizen complaints immediately.
Budget your time wisely. There will be demands for your time from elected officials, citizens, staff members, news media, and civic and professional organizations. You must learn to delegate.
Make sure reports to elected officials are concise, detailed, and easily understandable. Put yourself in the council’s place and ask “how would I vote on the manager’s recommendation?” If you have done your homework, the only unanswered question should be “when do we start?”
The annual budget scares most governing bodies even though the budget is only dollars in and dollars out. The budget should be the manager’s best friend. The manager should prepare the major portion of the budget because that will provide the manager with an excellent opportunity to know in detail the workings of each of the departments without micromanaging.
In essence, the budget message is the manager’s state of the city report. It should, in financial terms, cover three areas: (1) where we are, (2) where we need to go, and (3) how we are going to get there!
Remember that local government’s purpose is to provide services, not jobs. Eliminate or consolidate unnecessary jobs. The least painful way is to have the elected officials declare a hiring freeze.
Make your local government more efficient and frugal through the elimination of duplicate or unnecessary services. Look at mutual aid agreements, intergovernmental agreements, joint purchasing, mixed-use facilities, consolidation, or even public referendum.
Be active in your state municipal league.
Get to know your state and federal legislators and school and county officials. The best way to get the pulse of your city is to become actively involved in such organizations as the chamber of commerce, civic and social clubs, school groups, and the religious community.
Deal with the fact that councils look for conflict. They do not feel they are doing their job if they are not solving some problem. A manager who spends time with councilmembers individually and listens to their concerns and goals reduces potential conflict.
Keeping elected officials well informed is extremely important to a manager’s professional well-being.Simply put, your job is to make the elected officials look good!
Thank employees when they make you look good. It shows appreciation and that you are not taking all the credit. You can demand respect, but you will not get it if you do. You earn respect through your work ethic and fairness.

Raymond Botch, Jr., ICMA-CM
Retired City Manager
Mt. Vernon, Illinois

Theatre Ideas: Wendell Berry: 10 Hopes (Commencement Address)

Theatre Ideas: Wendell Berry: 10 Hopes (Commencement Address)

Wendell Berry: 10 Hopes (Commencement Address)

In 1989, Wendell Berry delivered a Commencement Address at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine that included not Ten Commandments but ten hopes. They are as follows (I highlight the ones that I feel are particularly applicable to the arts):

  1. Beware the justice of Nature.
  2. Understand that there can be no successful human economy apart from Nature or in defiance of Nature.
  3. Understand that no amount of education can overcome the innate limits of human intelligence and responsibility. We are not smart enough or conscious enough or alert enough to work responsibly on a gigantic scale.
  4. In making things always bigger and more centralized, we make them both more vulnerable in themselves and more dangerous to everything else. Learn, therefore, to prefer small-scale elegance and generosity to large-scale greed, crudity, and glamour.
  5. Make a home. Help to make a community. Be loyal to what you have made.
  6. Put the interest of the community first.
  7. Love your neighbors–not the neighbors you pick out, but the ones you have.
  8. Love this miraculous world that we did not make, that is a gift to us.
  9. As far as you are able make your lives dependent upon your local place, neighborhood, and household–which thrive by care and generosity–and independent of the industrial economy, which thrives by damage.
  10. Find work, if you can, that does no damage. Enjoy your work. Work well.

The Three Most Important Areas of Youth Development Are Not Taught in Schools | Building Personal Strength

The Three Most Important Areas of Youth Development Are Not Taught in Schools | Building Personal Strength

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Three Most Important Areas of Youth Development Are Not Taught in Schools

It's amazing what you see when you step outside the box. I've been focusing on the topic of parenting teenagers for over a year now, and I've been outside the box the whole time.

Inside the box, you understand that you need to sacrifice and save money for your child's college education, urge the child to study and get good grades, get the child tutoring for how to take the SAT, and help your child get admitted to a great school. And there's nothing wrong with any of this, even if getting admitted to a great school is no guarantee at all of success in life and work.

But outside the box I've seen something else...

1. The most important thing a kid can learn when he or she is a teenager is how to think - critical thinking skills, which are handled by the pre-frontal cortex. This area of the brain is "under construction" the entire period of adolescence, which lasts 10 or 12 years. It's a time-sensitive window of brain development, during which a person's foundation for critical thinking (understanding, evaluating, analyzing, relating, reasoning, problem solving, decision making, planning and managing) is established once and for all. At the end of the period, the window closes. Following the metaphor: construct a small foundation and you are limited to building a small house on it. The key is to construct an ample foundation. This makes a huge difference in your ability to gain "brain power" as an adult.

2. The second most important thing a teenager can acquire is personal strengths. These are behavior patterns that enable a person to do the hard things to deal with the challenges of life and work. In my work, I've identified more than 40 personal strengths, such as optimism, awareness, passion, focus, courage, composure, integrity, tolerance, and many more. You can see why personal strengths are so important.

3. Finally, there are people skills - interacting with people effectively. There are dozens and dozens of people skills, although in my work I focus mainly on a couple dozen of the more high-impact ones, such as listening, resolving conflict, dialog, guiding learning, stimulating thinking, and giving feedback. Nearly everything we do in relationships and work requires interaction with people; and when these are handled badly, there are adverse consequences.

These are the game-changers. Imagine how hard it would be to succeed in the world if a person was inept in all three areas!

By the time adolescence is over, most young people have left home and have started to make their way in the world. So prime time to start developing these areas is during the teen years.

But here's the amazing part. None of these areas of ability are taught directly in our education system. Not taught in high school. Not taught at the college level, either. No courses in critical thinking, no courses in people skills, no courses in personal strength. So how are people supposed to learn this stuff?

You don't learn it by reading about it. You learn it by doing it. All three areas - critical thinking, personal strengths and people skills - get stronger simply by exercising them repeatedly.

It's possible to pick up some of these patterns indirectly and by chance. For example, one of my colleagues told me that the most important person in her youth was her economics teacher. When I asked her why, she said, "He taught me how to think." Lucky her.

Team sports are fine opportunities to build some of the personal strengths, even though that's not high on the agenda of most coaches, who have their hands full teaching athletic skills, conditioning and winning. And a kid can get some experience with interacting with people by socializing and participating in extracurricular activities.

But these developmental opportunities are unstructured, random, spotty, and depend on luck. It's kind of like "street knowledge." Kids pick up things hit-or-miss - the good, the bad and the ugly - hanging out with their friends. It's no wonder that most people become adults with a lot of unlearning and catching up to do. Which most people never do - they just get by within the boundaries of their limitations.

Isn't it amazing that something so important is unrecognized by parents and the education system?

It doesn't have to be with this way. That's why I developedProStar Coach and why I'm writing an ebook for parents - to make them aware of these crucial areas of development and recommend ways they can help their teens grow stronger.

The purpose of parenting a teen is to help a young person prepare for the challenges of adult life. Imagine: by coaching a teen in certain ways, you could help the child learn to connect the dots quickly, do the right and the effective thing in adverse situations, and handle people masterfully. Whoa.

Can you think of a better way to give a kid an edge in life?

The Three Foundations of A Great Life, Great Leadership, and A Great Organization by Michael Jensen :: SSRN

The Three Foundations of A Great Life, Great Leadership, and A Great Organization by Michael Jensen :: SSRN

7 must-read books on education, a rare look at Antarctica from 1911 and more

7 must-read books on education, a rare look at Antarctica from 1911 and more

7 Must-Read Books on Education

What the free speech movement of the 1960s has to do with digital learning and The Beatles.

Education is something we're deeply passionate about, but the fact remains that today's dominant formal education model is a broken system based on antiquated paradigms. While much has been said and written about education reform over the past couple of years, the issue and the public discourse around it are hardly new phenomena. Today, we round up the most compelling and visionary reading on reinventing education from the past century.


Earlier this year, we featured a fantastic Bill Moyers archival interview with Isaac Asimov, in which the iconic author and futurist echoes some of own beliefs in the power of curiosity-driven, self-directed learning and the need to implement creativity in education from the onset. These insights, and more, are eloquently captured inThe Roving Mind – a compelling collection of 62 edifying essays on everything from creationism to censorship to the philosophy of science, in which Asimov predicts with astounding accuracy not only the technological developments of the future but also the complex public debates they have sparked, from cloning to stem-cell research. While intended to encourage young people to pursue a career in science, the book is both a homage to the inquisitive mind and a living manifesto for freedom of thought across all disciplines as the backbone of education and creativity.

Once we have computer outlets in every home, each of them hooked up to enormous libraries where anyone can ask any question and be given answers, be given reference materials, be something you're interested in knowing, from an early age, however silly it might seem to someone else... that's what YOU are interested in, and you can ask, and you can find out, and you can do it in your own home, at your own speed, in your own direction, in your own time... Then, everyone would enjoy learning. Nowadays, what people call learning is forced on you, and everyone is forced to learn the same thing on the same day at the same speed in class, and everyone is different." ~ Isaac Asimov


Sir Ken Robinson's blockbuster TED talks have become modern cerebral folklore, and for good reason – his insights on education and creativity, neatly delivered in punchy, soundbite-ready packages, are today's loudest, most succinct rally cry for a much-needed revolution. That's precisely what he does in The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything – a passionate celebration for the wide spectrum of human ability and creativity, which current educational models consistently limit and try to fit into predetermined boxes, extricating rather than encouraging young people's unique abilities and talents. From Paul McCartney to Paulo Coehlo to Vidal Sassoon, Robinson demonstrates the power of properly harnessing innate creativity through fascinating case studies and personal stories, and offers a powerful vision for bringing this respect for natural talent to the world of education.

We have a system of education that is modeled on the interest of industrialism and in the image of it. School are still pretty much organized on factory lines – ringing bells, separate facilities, specialized into separate subjects. We still educate children by batches. Why do we do that?"

For an excellent complement to The Element, we highly recommend Robinson's prior book, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative – re-released last month, it offers a thoughtful and provocative analysis of the disconnect between the kinds of "intelligence" measured and encouraged in schools and the kinds of creativity most essential to our society moving forward.


In A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown approach education with equal parts insight, imagination and optimism to deliver a refreshing vision for the relationship between education and technology, where the two progress synchronously and fluidly – a vision that falls somewhere between Sir Ken Robinson's call for creativity in education paradigms and Clay Shirky's notion of"cognitive surplus." The book touches on a number of critical issues in digital learning, from the role of remix culture to the importance of tinkering and experimentation in creating, not merely acquiring, knowledge. Central to its premise is the idea that play is critical to understanding learning – a notion we stand strongly behind.

We're stuck in a mode where we're using old systems of understanding learning to try to understand these new forms, and part of the disjoint means that we're missing some really important and valuable data." ~ Douglas Thomas

Our full review here.


To understand where formal education is going, we must first understand where it came from and what role it served in the cultural context of society. Clark Kerr's The Uses of the University: Fifth Edition, originally published in 1963 and based on his Godkin Lectures at Harvard, is arguably the most important work on the purpose of educational institutions ever published. Kerr, an economist with a historian's sensibility, coins the term "multiversity" at the dawn of the free speech movement of the 60s and examines the role of the university as a living organism of sociopolitical thought and activity. The book, as US Berkley's Hanna Halborn Gray eloquently puts it, "describes the illnesses to which this organism might be prone, together with diagnoses and prognoses that might prove useful."

What the railroads did for the second half of the last century and the automobile for the first half of this century may be done for the second half of this century by the knowledge industry: And that is, to serve as the focal point for national growth." ~ Clark Kerr


As big proponents of self-directed learning – the empowering pursuit of knowledge flowing organically from one's innate curiosity and intellectual hunger – we're all over Anya Kamenetz's DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education – an ambitious, albeit slightly alarmist, look at the American higher education system and the flawed economic models at its foundation. Passionately argued and rigorously researched, the book exposes the greatest challenges to education reform and offers a glimmer of hope for new, more open and accessible models of education that transcend the institutional "credential mill" of traditional academia.

The promise of free or marginal-cost open-source content, techno-hybridization, unbundling of educational functions, and learner-centered educational experiences and paths is too powerful to ignore. These changes are inevitable. They are happening now. [...] However, these changes will not automatically become pervasive." ~ Anya Kamenetz


Waiting for "SUPERMAN": How We Can Save America's Failing Public Schools is the companion text to the excellentdocumentary of the same name, which wefeatured last year. It explores the human side of education statistics, following five exceptionally talented kids through a system that inhibits rather than inspires academic and intellectual growth. Unlike other fault-finders who fail to propose solutions, the narrative both mercilessly calls out a system full of "academic sinkholes" and "drop-out factories," and reminds us of the transformational power that great educators have to ushers in true education reform. More than a mere observational argument, the book offers a blueprint for civic engagement with specific ways for parents, students, educators and businesspeople to get involved in driving the movement for quality education, including more than 30 pages' worth of websites and organizations working towards this shared aspiration.

In America right now, a kid drops out of high school every 26 seconds. These drop-outs are 8 times more likely to go to prison, 50% less likely to vote, more likely to need social welfare assistance, not eligible for 90% of jobs, are being paid 40 cents to the dollar of earned by a college graduate, and continuing the cycle of poverty."


Sociologist Howard Gardner, one of our all-time favorite nonfiction authors, is best-known as the father of the theory of multiple intelligences – a radicalrethinking of human intellectual and creative ability, arguing that traditional psychometrics like IQ tests or the SAT fail to measure the full scope and diversity of intelligence. In Five Minds for the Future, Gardner's highly anticipated follow-up published more than two decades later, the author presents a visionary and thought-provoking blueprint for mental abilities that will be most critical in the 21st century as we grapple with issues of information overload and creative entrepreneurship. Perhaps most notable, however, is Gardner's insistence that the five minds he identifies – disciplined, synthesizing, creating, respectful and ethical – aren't genetically encoded givens but, rather, abilities we actively develop and cultivate with time, thought and effort.

The synthesizing mind takes information from disparate sources, understands and evaluates that information objectively, and puts it together in ways that make sense to the synthesizer and also to other persons. Valuable in the past, the capacity to synthesize becomes ever more crucial as information continues to mount at dizzying rates." ~ Howard Gardner