Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Swerve in the Classroom

I haven’t taught World History in about 10 years, and I miss it. Although there are times when I go back in the midst of teaching Multicultural Studies to the histories of different parts of the world, it just isn’t the same. There’s something about teaching the stories of hundreds of years ago in distant lands that almost makes me think I am dusting off some scroll somewhere.

That’s exactly what happened to Poggio Bracciolini in 1417.

He is the subject of a book I just finished reading called, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt. It’s the story of a papal secretary who, after having his boss jailed, takes his time scouring Europe’s hidden monasteries trying to find, copy and share the writings of the ancient world. He belonged to a group of thinkers called Humanists, who all shared the same goals. Well, in 1417, Poggio stumbled across a scroll written ages ago by Titus Lucretius Carus, a Roman philosopher. It was called, On the Nature of Things – and surprisingly, the author of this book (The Swerve) came across Lucretius’s work in almost the same way, in a used book bin one day.

Greenblatt’s thesis is that the poem, On the Nature of Things, helped catalyze the changes going on in Europe during this period by challenging basic ‘truths’ that were violently enforced by Church dogma. Once other thinkers also read this poem, they were forced to look at the world in a different way as well. This meme would shape the Renaissance. So…

What does this have to do with the classroom?

In my time teaching, I’ve often wondered what creates that spark. What memes cross from me (or our research, lessons, activities, projects, debates, etc.) to my students? What ideas have the longest lasting power? Which ones stimulate the deepest pondering? What stories connect personally to students? Where is the swerve?

The title of the book was chosen to represent a central theme by Lucretius in his poem. He points out that the universe is made of invisible particles that do not move in a predetermined order. The smallest variations, combined and recombined infinitely, create what we know as free will. This swerve accounts for all awareness and wonder.

So, in the history class, is it justice? Does that idea move through students to focus awareness and wonder? Is it identity that personalizes the events and issues in history through the eyes of different, unique individuals? Is it the concept of time, binding cause and effect in a seemingly endless cycle?

Well, I’ve got some questioning to do. The wonder has begun…

In the Garden of Beasts

The new book by Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, is a compelling summer read.  It portrays a seminal moment in the history of the 20th century through the eyes of an unassuming college history professor who becomes the ambassador to Germany in 1933.  Many in the State Department have low expectations for Ambasador Dodd, and in the beginning, he strictly adheres to objective protocol – taking no sides in the growing chaos of the NAZI rise to power.  Over time, however, his views evolve.

He makes the decision to bring his family, as well as his beat-up Chevrolet, to Berlin. Finding a house along the main park in Germany – the Tiergarten (loosely translated as the place of animals, or the garden of beasts), Dodd begins to assume the roles of a diplomat, but his 23 year old daughter has other ideas. She is fascinated by the changes in Germany and the extravagance of the NAZI’s.  Initially, she gives the Hitler salute for fun, and begins to mesh herself into the social circles of the ruling military elite.  She dates NAZI’s, and is known for her sexual flings, but as time goes by, she looses the glamour of her initial assumptions.  This happens roughly at the same time as Dodd begins to see that there can be no impartial observation of the NAZI regime when there is deception, terror, and death pervading the streets and homes of people living in Germany.

Larson uses a familiar approach (to those who have also read his other best sellers: Isaac’s Storm, Devil in the White City, and Thunderstruck) in crafting his historical tale. One friend described it as narrative historic non-fiction. In this, Larson uses only primary sources for his dialogue in the tale, although he does not cite his sources while telling the book. Larson’s writings weave a story that is primarily based on the identification with a protagonist, not a chronological set of events. For the non-historical reader, it is much easier to identify with the emotions and conflicts that individual characters face than it is to go through a deeply contextual telling of events and the issues that form them, especially when footnotes become exhaustive.

While I am comfortable with the later, I find myself drawn to Larson’s method more and more. Perhaps with the advent of social  media and collaborative networking, we as an interconnected society are becoming more self-centered in our literature than the long and prominent ‘life work’ publications of historical non-fiction. Ironically, as a former college history professor at the University of Chicago, Ambassador Dodd’s sole life goal is to finish his multi-volume history of the Old South. When President Roosevelt gives him two hours to get an answer from his wife about accepting the position in Berlin, Dodd is forced to choose to surrender his academic life-long pursuit of researching and writing to become a figure in the center of a maelstrom building in Europe.  He embodies the shift from an esoteric writing of the past to one that places him in as the main character in a huge tragedy, even for himself personally.

Finally, it is a very compelling book about appeasement and terror. One does not have to wonder far about the connections to the present day. We live in dangerous times. Can the compelling stories of average people become the stuff of plot-driven narrative historic non-fiction? Time will tell.

To End All Wars

I am a prisoner of the Great War.  I am terrified by the magnitude of suffering, but also humbled by the individual stories of character and integrity that is demonstrated by the most common soldier.  I am more angry at this war than any other.  The futility of direct assault and the crime of attrition seem to me to be dangerous indicators of humanity’s basest weakness: man’s inhumanity toward man.

My feelings about World War 1 were validated in a new book by Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion 1914-1918.  In reviewing the book, Christopher Hitchens writes in the New York Times Sunday Book Review,

“In his previous works, on subjects as diverse as the Belgian Congo and the victims of Stalinism, Hochschild has distinguished himself as a historian “from below,” as it were, or from the viewpoint of the victims. He stays loyal to this method in “To End All Wars,” concentrating on the appalling losses suffered by the rank and file and the extraordinary courage of those who decided that the war was not a just one. Since many of the latter were of the upper classes, some of them with close relatives in power, he is enabled to shift between the upstairs-downstairs settings of post-Edwardian England, as its denizens began in their different ways to realize that the world they had cherished was passing forever.

No single narrative can do justice to an inferno whose victims still remain uncounted. Hochschild tries to encompass the global scope of the disaster, and to keep us updated with accounts of what was occurring at a given time in Russia and the United States, but his main setting is England and his chief concern the Western Front. In this hecatomb along the minor rivers of Flanders and Picardy, the British people lost the cream of their working class and the flower of their aristocracy. The poems of Wilfred Owen and Rudyard Kipling, in their contrasting ways, still have the power to touch the tragic chord of memory that Hochschild strives to evoke.

Part of this is the chord that I try to evoke myself in the classroom when teaching the Great War.  I use clips from the powerful documentary, The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, to provoke ethical problems to address as well as practical military strategies to resolve, but the war is so encompassing that I almost never feel I do it justice.  One of the most thought provoking narratives that Hochschild highlights is that of the dissenter, specifically English anti-war activists and conscientious objectors.

On a few occasions, I have moved in this direction, by having students focus on the reasons for war and its negative impact on the individual by using segments from the documentary, Soldiers of Conscience and its POV coverage (with lesson plans), which addresses current soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who have chosen conscientious objector status.  On other occasions, I find even myself trapped by the excitement of the war.  Gas attacks, new weapons, aerial bombardments, and epic battles almost intoxicate me.  In the words of Australian soldier Cyril Lawrence, I see this same sentiment when he reflected powerfully in his diary…

“This is a marvelous war, you know, when you think it over.  Life will be awfully tame afterwords.  Really, I do not know what we shall do for excitement.  Where shall we see such things as a bombardment at night, with a thousand of gun flashes stabbing the air everywhere?  The indescribable din and noise, the thrill that comes with the sight of a balloon coming down in flames, the excitement of a gas attack, when you spend hours in a helmet and the whole atmosphere is deadly, the awful mud and the constant struggle against difficulties, danger and death.  I can never forget that none of us when we went on leave could sleep that time. The quiet disturbed us.”

How much of any lesson on war in a history class reflects this dichotomy?  Hochschild does begin a debate on the balance of dissent in war, and I applaud him for his careful and complete research on the subject, but I struggle with these same questions when facilitating any instruction on war in my class.

And then there’s my students.  Does the quiet of their life disturb them now?  Is this one of the reasons we, as an aspect of our common humanity, are drawn to conflict, as well as its resolution?

I have many questions to ponder, but for me and my teaching philosophy, I would have it no other way.  That is what I bring to my students.

Teacher Bookshelf

Aiding the development of the NBLA has been dozens of authors who have led the way in their fields.  Whether studying how differentiated instruction combines with Understanding by Design or studying small school models, the teachers of the NBLA design team have collected a large bookshelf of resource materials.  We’d like to share these books with you and explain how each book has contributed to the NBLA design. [Note to other teachers: I’ve used Son of Citation Machine at for the MLA format.]

  • Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. 2nd. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005.
  • Tomlinson, Carol Ann and Jay McTighe. Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design: Connecting Content and Kids. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2006.
  • Wagner, Tony and Robert Kagan. Change Leadership: A Practical Guide to Transforming Our Schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2006.
  • MacGregor, Mariam. Building Everyday Leadership in All Teens: Promoting Attitudes and Actions for Respect and Success. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing, 2007.
  • Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe. Schooling by Design: Mission, Achievement and Action. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2007.
  • Lee, Valerie and Douglas Ready. Schools within Schools: Possibilities and Pitfalls of High School Reform. New York, NY: Teachers College Press, 2007.
  • Feldman, Jay. Choosing Small: The Essential Guide to Successful High School Conversion. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2005.

Lords of Finance

As I’ve done over the last couple of years, I go to a bookstore in the beginning of the summer and look for the Pulitzer Prize winners in non-fiction.  This year, it was Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World.  Ah, it was going to be another book comparing the crisis we are in with the Great Depression.  Or at least that is what I thought when I picked up the book.  Ironically, it was given some kind of ‘best book of the year’ by Goldman Sachs.  Hm.  If the current bankers who broke this world thought this was a good book about past bankers who broke their world is a good read, I thought I would give it a try.

Because I have read a heavy amount of books about different issues, events and individuals in history, I usually can determine how and why it was written from the first chapter.  Journalist-historians have a powerful narrative to tell.  They are great at weaving together different facts to make the story a fun read, but usually without much depth of research.  Academic historians are a bit more stuffy.  They love the research and can’t wait to share the two or three hundred footnotes they’ve collected after a decade of basement-dwelling and document reading.

This was a surprising blend of the two.  It reminded me of Timothy Egan’s powerful book on the Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time, and how it was written.  In this case, the story focused on the leaders of the central banks in the nations of the United States, Great Britain, France, and Germany and their role trying to preserve the gold standard and prevent the economic damage caused by World War 1 from destroying their collective economic wealth and prosperity.  By their misplaced actions, they helped strongly to contribute to the same collapse they dreaded.  One voice stands out among this crowd, almost arrogant, but definitely prophetic – John Maynard Keynes.  As a nay-saying economist he more than anyone else saw the dangers of these actions and warned the world about them – to naught.

Another surprise was that the book was written before (actually, part of it was during) the collapse of Lehman Brothers – the rock that began the avalanche.  As with all good lessons in history, this book teaches us our mistakes.  Hopefully we can learn and avoid them in the future.

Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon

Every year I check out the Pulitzer Prize winners in non-fiction as well as those from the National Book Award.  No matter what the subject, these books usually have two things in common that I love.  First, they are incredibly well researched.  The endnotes themselves tell a story about an author sitting in basements, sorting through thousands of newspaper micro-reels, conducting hundreds of hours of interviews, and plowing through the Library of Congress archives.  They are almost always written by journalists or historians – people who don’t mind diving into a mystery in order to find a story worth telling.  They are also usually people who don’t give up easily on a story – sometimes dedicating themselves to decades of searching for the missing pieces of a puzzle.  The other characteristic of these award winning books is that they usually change your perspective by challenging what you thought you knew about the subject that is the center of the story.

This book does both extremely well.  I’m almost done with it and I am very impressed with the way the author challenges one of the most common understandings about our nation’s past: that slavery ended.  It didn’t.  As a historian, I always knew about the Jim Crow laws of segregation, but I never knew the extent that those racist codes, as well as the underlying assumptions it was based on, created a system where African Americans could be randomly arrested on completely false charges and then sent to prison.  The prisons would engage in a ‘convict-leasing’ system, selling their prisoners to mining companies or plantation owners and then beaten, whipped, chained, worked naked, and even killed – without anyone wondering about it.  The author’s webpage introduces this topic and invites the reader to learn more about these atrocities.  Along with the Without Sanctuary website (concerning lynching), this information is really disturbing, but something very important to include in the study of American history.

Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel

One book leads to another.  That’s the way it goes.  Since I was a child, I allowed myself no gaps between the end of one book and the beginning of another.  In many cases, there would be direct causal connections to the choices.  Sometimes there would be jumps and starts, but overall, themes would build and become supported by a continuum of developed and borrowed ideas.

This is the case with Godel.  As stated below, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Anathem, by Neal Stephenson.  I was also deeply impressed with the process that Stephenson constructed and consolidated philosophical parallels between our world and his (in his story).  This was done, in part, because of the work in mathematics and logic by Kurt Godel.  Of course, intent and outcome are rarely coincidental.   As a result, I was attending a very fun and beautiful wedding in New Jersey and one of our friends sitting at the table took out a book and proclaimed that it was one of her favorites and that she had just had it returned to her from a friend.  She wanted to pass it around the table, and since we had just returned from the buffet line and were beginning to eat, it increased the potential for deep conversation at such a festive event.  Most people politely looked at the book (pictured above) and nodded silent approval while moving it passively around the table.  When it got to me, I exclaimed, “GODEL!”, which drew the attention of everyone at our table and the near vicinity.  Being somewhat introverted but also somewhat intellectually isolated with my friends, I pounced on the opportunity to bring a philosophical conversation to the surface.   As a result of my display, I came away from the wedding with a pleasant night of smiles and memories, and a book on Godel.

Trying to understand Godel is another thing entirely.  I needed to build a language in order to understand the concepts while also trying to construct a context to fit that language in.  This is very difficult, since the theories on which Godel’s logic is based call into question how we are able to know that anything is true at all.  Wittgenstein and other colleagues (Einstein for one) also shaped Godel’s thoughts.  Currently, I am still in the process of reading the book, deconstructing my philosophical neural-networks, and replacing them with something that adds ‘incompleteness’ to the logic of existence.  Wish me luck.

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

cvrsml_anathemAnathem, by Neal Stephenson, is an incredible book.  It examines an alternate world in which two societies have developed coexisting, but apart from, one another.  In one society – the Saecular – politics and culture is very similar to our own.  In the other – the Avout – live in seclusion and division from the mainstream society, but have devoted themselves to the perfection of thought by examining different philosophies, arts, technology and more.  The avout live in seclusion, divided by the order to which they belong.  The main character of the story is a young man named Fraa Erasmus.  Through a richly developed story, Erasmus becomes involved in saving his world from the arrival of aliens.  Rather than simply borrowing themes from previous science fiction classics, Stephenson develops his story around the changes brought to each society by their preexisting and currently altered philosophies of existence and reality.  Stephenson develops his own history, philosophy, sociology, and language (even of mathematics and logic) into his story.

According to Publisher’s Weekly:

In this follow-up to his historical Baroque Cycle trilogy, which fictionalized the early-18th century scientific revolution, Stephenson (Cryptonomicon) conjures a far-future Earth-like planet, Arbre, where scientists, philosophers and mathematicians—a religious order unto themselves—have been cloistered behind concent (convent) walls. Their role is to nurture all knowledge while safeguarding it from the vagaries of the irrational saecular outside world. Among the monastic scholars is 19-year-old Raz, collected into the concent at age eight and now a decenarian, or tenner (someone allowed contact with the world beyond the stronghold walls only once a decade). But millennia-old rules are cataclysmically shattered when extraterrestrial catastrophe looms, and Raz and his teenage companions—engaging in intense intellectual debate one moment, wrestling like rambunctious adolescents the next—are summoned to save the world. Stephenson’s expansive storytelling echoes Walter Miller’s classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, the space operas of Larry Niven and the cultural meditations Douglas Hofstadter—a heady mix of antecedents that makes for long stretches of dazzling entertainment occasionally interrupted by pages of numbing colloquy.

Neal Stephenson’s webpage explains much of the thought that went into writing the book in his Acknowledgments section, but there is a movie trailer, video of the author reading the book, excerpts and more.  It’s definitely worth checking out.   There is also a wiki to the book as well.