More from the Battleground Bookshelf

October 15, 2010

Since the last appearance of the Battleground Bookshelf I have discovered another ten books worth recommending to anyone interested in the themes covered by this blog:

Wasted – Why Education isn’t Educating” by Frank Furedi. The best critique of the English education system I have ever read. It spells out quite clearly the extent to which a collapse in faith in adult authority has left us with an education system dedicated to social engineering and therapy rather than to educating.

Goodbye Mr Chips” by James Hilton. A classic, short novel that illustrates the emotional pull of being a teacher, without ever suggesting that teaching is about anything other than causing children to learn. The scene where Chips refuses to comply with the latest trends in Latin teaching is a joy.

Perspectives on Plowden” edited by R. S. Peters. For those of you who don’t know, the Plowden Report was the result of an inquiry into primary teaching in the sixties. Its conclusions consisted of the same sort of progressive educational ideas that have dominated education for the following decades: dumbing down, group work, socialisation and “relevant” work. This short book written in 1969 ruthlessly critiques this orthodoxy from perspectives from the world of educational philosophy, sociology and psychology.  These are the people who should have been listened to at the time.

Between Past and Future” by Hannah Arendt. A collection of philosophy essays by one of the greatest political thinkers of the twentieth century, rather than a book about education, this earns its place in the list because of two of those essays. In “The Crisis in Education” Arendt responds to the progressive education movement by analysing its philosophical origins and astutely predicts (this book was first published in 1961) that progressive education will reappear with new “scientific” justifications for years to come. Another essay, “What is Authority” establishes clearly the nature of authority, including authority in education.

Radical Education” by Robin Barrow is an excellent demolition of the arguments of those who have argued against the authoritarianism of traditional schooling. Dealing with thinkers including Rouseeau, A. S. Neill, Ivan Illich and Neil Postman, this book analyses the coherence of their arguments and identifies a series of recurring logical errors in the work of those who believe that authority can be removed from education.

Escalante – The Best Teacher in America” by Jay Matthews. Recommended for anybody trying to teach A-level to students from a deprived background. This biography of algebra teacher Jaime Escalante is an excellent guide to how a teacher, through a combination of ruthless stubbornness and relentless emotional pressure, can create expectations for academic excellence that shame the rest of the education system. The same story was also told in the film “Stand and Deliver” which is worth watching.

Left Back – A Century of Failed School Reforms” by Diane Ravitch. A historical survey of the educational debate in America during the twentieth century. It establishes that many of the bad ideas we have encountered in the last decade in England, have been around in America for a very long time as part of the tradition of progressive education. And guess what? They didn’t work any better the first few times. Nobody who hasn’t read this book should be allowed any power over education policy.  However…

The Death and Life Of the Great American School System” by Diane Ravitch explains what happened next in the US. Politicians and ideologically motivated philanthropists turned to vouchers, charter schools, testing, performance related pay, and prescription of teaching methods, in effect all the bad ideas that we have encountered that weren’t covered by “Left Back”. And guess what? These didn’t work either.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” by Muriel Spark. Next time you hear the suggestion that teachers are responsible for forming the emotional repertoire of their students then this is the antidote. Miss Jean Brodie is progressive teaching personified. She is more concerned with her students’ feelings rather than facts, and socialisation rather than subjects. So plausibly is she described that I have seen professional development literature quoting her approvingly, apparently oblivious to what the book is actually about. The book suggests that it is totalitarian for an authority figure to determine what you are meant to feel, and Jean Brodie is, literally, a fascist who manipulates and exploits her students.

The Behaviour Guru” by Tom Bennett. I’m biased about this one, because I am thanked (among other people) on the first page. However, it is easily the best book on behaviour management I have seen in years: realistic, clever and scathing about the usual nonsense passed off as advice for teachers.



  1. Well, I am a bit surprised that you would be so fond of a former leader of a revolutionary communist group (Furedi).

    I usually enjoy his stuff but find this book (I am only half way through) a bit too Melanie Phillips for my taste.

  2. Might I recommend “Black Rednecks and White Liberals” by Thomas Sowell. I am not at all a fan of Sowell’s economics and political writing, but this book is fantastic.

    For all those clowns who try to tell us that we have to accommodate any kind of cultural excuse for failure to work or to succeed this book is mind-blowing. Only a few of the essays are directly relevant to education but I love the whole thing.

  3. Many thanks, OA. You should write one yourself, as I believe others have suggested. Unless you already have, under your Secret Identity…

  4. Thank you oldandrew. This would make a great list of nominations for our next bookclub meeting!

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