Tag Archives: Books

What Does Reign of Error Mean?

reign-of-error2

 

Diane Ravitch has always been my go-to person for matters of American schooling.

Back in 2004, I was 25 years old and starting my fourth year as a history teacher. It was the year I decided to branch out and create a philosophy elective at my school. I wanted to enable my philosophy students to deconstruct the world around them. Since they had already spent a good portion of their lives sitting in American schools, I figured I would be derelict in my duties if I did not help them deconstruct the American school system.

Yet, I knew next to nothing about the history and structure of American schooling. It was an embarrassing knowledge deficit for a history teacher to have. Before I could break down the school system with my students, I would have to break it down for myself. This meant a spate of independent research for me. It was at this point when I first read Diane Ravitch’s work.

Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms was an honest, direct and well-researched survey of the American school system. Diane’s simple yet informative prose led me to read The Language Police and The Great School Wars as well in order to prepare for my unit on American schooling. Reading these books early on in my career, when I was thirsting for a deeper understanding of the institution in which I worked, meant that Diane Ravitch would have a major impact on my teaching style and educational outlook.

Yet, I was still largely unaware of this phenomenon known as “education reform” and Diane Ravitch’s role in it. I was also unaware of the fact that I was teaching in a system that was considered one of the hubs of this education reform:  Bloomberg’s Department of Education. What I did know was that Diane was appointed by two different presidents from two different parties to the Department of Education. In my mind, this not only made her even more of an authority on American education but also signaled to me that she must have a great deal of integrity. She did not carry water for any party’s agenda.

This was all back in 2004, before Diane had totally broken from this education reform movement. Even in her reformer days, Diane Ravitch was honest about her beliefs, persuasive in her arguments and informed about what goes in America’s schools. It was the education reformer Diane Ravitch who had such a deep impact on my career when I was a fourth-year teacher. She helped me construct the meaning and context of American schooling.

So one can imagine my excitement years later when I finally matured enough to understand the lay of the current educational landscape and Diane’s role within it. What disturbed me was not how she had changed her mind about education reform, but how so many people criticized her for it, as if it was a sign of opportunism or dishonesty. Being familiar with Diane’s work beforehand, I knew that neither of those accusations were true. It is the mark of intellectual integrity to change one’s mind about an issue after reviewing new evidence, especially if one does so publicly so millions of people know about it. I could not wrap my mind around those people who seemed to believe that “integrity” meant sticking to an idea no matter how wrong or destructive it is.

Now that I am in my 14th year of teaching and about to start my 35th year of life, I understand things a little bit more clearly now.

Reign of Error demonstrates, in typical Ravitchean fashion, how people are able to cling to ideas long after facts have passed them by. Many people much more able than myself have already written reviews of Diane’s latest book. What I hope to do instead is to locate this book in the context of the history of American schooling. What does Reign of Error mean as an historical event?

Critics of Reign of Error have already been trying to answer this question, even before they have bothered to read it. Most notably, Arne Duncan supporter Peter Cunningham wrote a hit piece this past summer in which he expressed sanctimonious outrage over a quote in the New York Times where Diane Ravitch questioned the Common Core’s focus on college readiness:

“We’re using a very inappropriate standard that’s way too high… I think there are a lot of kids who are being told that if they don’t go to college that it will ruin their life… But maybe they don’t need to go to college.”

The obsession in America’s schools with getting kids into college has always been questioned by Ravitch, even in her reformer days. Yet, it is only now that reformers like Cunningham see fit to try to twist her point into something that it is not:

“When Dr. Ravitch says, ‘But maybe they don’t need to go to college,’ who exactly is she referring to? It’s certainly not rich white kids. It’s definitely not the children of middle class parents, who view college for the kids as one of the core pillars of the American Dream. That leaves low-income and minority children. It includes the children of immigrants who come here with an 8th grade education and desperately want their kids to do better than them — the kind of parents you meet at a graduation who speak little English and can’t stop crying for joy.”

Notice how, in typical Waiting for Superman fashion, he invokes the imagery of teary-eyed minority families to push his own agenda. If Cunningham would have read Ravitch’s book, he would know that she calls for America to invest more heavily in the schools of those teary-eyed minorities. Not only does this mean smaller class sizes and more materials, it also means vocational training. These things are of course expensive but, as Diane points out in her book, we somehow have the political and financial will to pour money into testing companies and for-profit online schools thanks in large part to Cunningham’s hero, Arne Duncan.

Vocational training is good enough for countries with stronger education systems. It was good enough for Americans 60 years ago. Many of our grandparents, including the grandparents of reformers like Peter Cunningham, could go to high school to learn a trade, then go out into the world and support themselves and their families by plying that trade. This was because we invested not only in education but in our economy and our workers. We provided more options for our young people than just retail and fast-food work. We had strong unions to ensure a measure of job and salary security. These are all things for which Ravitch passionately calls in Reign of Error.

Cunningham’s faux outrage is the stock-in-trade of the reformer movement. As Ravitch discusses in Reign of Error, reformers set themselves up as new age civil rights heroes fighting for the dispossessed and disenfranchised. Yet, their solutions involve pouring billions of public dollars into private pockets and breaking unions. Our anemic economy and impotent political leadership has led to the greatest rates of childhood poverty and infant mortality in the western world. Reformers like Cunningham are completely silent on these matters. In fact, their enthusiasm for union busting only ensures more childhood poverty and infant mortality. They want to tinker around with schools, pretend as if they are the new millennium’s version of Martin Luther King and then do and say absolutely nothing to improve the material conditions of the teary-eyed minority children they are so fond of invoking.

Another reformer who has criticized Diane Ravitch is the financier and human spambot Whitney Tilson. Tilson starts by citing the hit piece written by Peter Cunningham. He goes on to cite a Teach for America alum by the name of Grant Newman, who expresses the same sanctimonious outrage as Cunningham regarding Diane’s comments about college :

“Her line of thinking perfectly demonstrates the out-of-touch mentality of anti-reformers, who because of privilege (race, class, educational opportunity, health, etc) can make statements that demean the capabilities of all students without any retribution or questioning. Dr. Ravitch’s notion that ‘they don’t need college’ speaks volumes about what she will never understand–teachers CAN and ARE capable of dramatically impacting the lives of their students.

The sad irony however is that the students Dr. Ravitch writes off as possibly not having the potential to reach college are exactly the students who need that opportunity for any chance at upward mobility. Rich kids from Scarsdale can do fine in life through connections and experiences that grant them solid jobs and clear options.

My students in Bushwick, Brooklyn have little chance of reaching the same success as that peer from Scarsdale unless they get the most extraordinary education to somehow level the playing field. While she consistently says she is a supporter of teachers and students, it is clear that she actually doesn’t think either group can do much and instead should settle for maintaining the current state of affairs.”

Notice, once again, how the reformers invoke the image of minority children, this time from Bushwick, Brooklyn. In Reign of Error, Diane explains how the students in Scarsdale have experienced teachers. Yet, here are these children in Bushwick, Brooklyn who have a teacher who was trained for 5 weeks over the summer. In fact, Whitney Tilson says that Newman “taught for 4 years at Achievement First in Brooklyn”, meaning that he probably no longer teaches there or anywhere else. This makes Newman’s final paragraph about “my students in Bushwick, Brooklyn” misleading to say the least. He should have said “my former students”. Accuracy like that would only confirm Ravitch’s observations about TFA that she makes in Reign of Error. Not only are TFA teachers poorly trained compared to their more experienced counterparts, not to mention fellow rookies who went through an accredited teacher’s college, there is no evidence they do any better than any other teacher, and some evidence to suggest they do worse. What TFAers like Newman excel at, on the other hand, is using the schools of these poor minority children in Bushwick as springboards to other, more remunerative, employment. Newman is now either selling bonds on Wall Street or running a school somewhere in which he continues to push inexperienced teachers on the children of poor people.

One thing Whitney Tilson and Grant Newman are not doing right now is helping to ameliorate the poverty and suffering of children in Bushwick or anywhere else in America. If teachers do have as much of an impact on the lives of students as Newman suggests, then TFA and the rest of the reformers would have ended poverty a long time ago. As Ravitch mentions, the reformers are the status quo. TFA has been around for 20 years and yet inequality has just gotten worse. Could it be that wunderkins like Grant Newman are not as great as they think? Or could it be that the Wendy Kopps of the world are merely selling snake oil?

Tilson ends his post against Diane Ravitch by citing this “balanced” review of Reign of Error in the Atlantic written by a charter school teacher. Some of the criticisms the author has with Reign of Error are in the following passage:

“Ravitch presents Reign of Error as an overture to dialogue with opponents, but her subtitle suggests otherwise: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Her tour of the research is littered with bumper-sticker slogans—she indicts, for example, the “Walmartization of American education”—likely to put off the unconverted. The book reads like a campaign manual against “corporate reformers.” The first half challenges the claims of their movement; the second offers Ravitch’s alternative agenda. Her prescriptions include universal pre-K, smaller class sizes, better teacher training, and more measures to reduce poverty and school segregation.

These are worthy goals—and not one of them is necessarily incompatible with many reformers’ own aims. Yet Ravitch doesn’t address competing priorities or painful trade-offs. Further reducing class size in better-off suburban districts, for example, may leave less money for more urgently needed early-childhood programs in poorer communities.”

While seemingly “balanced”, the author betrays his own biases with phrases like the book “is littered with bumper-sticker slogans… likely to put off the unconverted.” My reading of Reign of Error did not uncover any bumper-sticker slogans. The one example he gives of such a slogan, the “Walmartization of American Education”, is not a slogan at all and certainly does not make for a good bumper sticker. How such a phrase is likely to put off the unconverted the author never explains.

The trade-offs the author mentions in the last paragraph are not trade-offs at all. How might reducing class size in one district leave less money for another district? Again, the author never explains his thinking behind this. Reign of Error is more than just a call for greater investment in our public schools. It is a call for greater investment in our communities. Ravitch shows that poverty and scholastic achievement are heavily linked. It is a statistical fact that the reformers themselves have failed to disprove, either through alternative statistics or through examples of their reforms in action. As Ravitch points out many times, a charter company or private organization has yet to take over an entire impoverished school district and show the rest of us how their reforms can overcome poverty.

So, if poverty is the greatest predictor of achievement in school, does it not stand to reason that ameliorating poverty would help boost achievement? This is one of the central arguments of Reign of Error. While reducing poverty is not necessarily at odds with what the reformers want, it is something on which they have been silent. What is worse, their insistence that poverty is merely an “excuse” downplays the impact poverty has on learning. In short, the reformer agenda acts as a smokescreen for the very real and very structural problems that exist in our economy.

The author goes on to try to quote Ravitch’s earlier writings to shed light on Reign of Error and demonstrates he has misunderstood both:

“Ravitch the counterrevolutionary may be right that the reformers’ cause is primed for derailment. But Ravitch the historian once foretold what typically follows a contentious drive for school improvement: ‘It was usually replaced,’ she observed in 2003, ‘by a movement called back to basics, or ‘essentialism,’ which didn’t herald new progress but rather ‘a backlash against failed fads.’ Ravitch herself is the ‘essentialist’ now, urging that we go back not to basics but to a past when issues of equity and adequate funding dominated debates about education. At a time of growing income inequality, this correction is overdue.

But let’s not get too nostalgic about those old debates. There’s a reason the younger Ravitch was impatient decades ago to discover new choices for families in America’s worst-off districts. I hope I’m not alone in searching her new book for traces of the writer who, as recently as 2010, could still see beyond a politicized landscape to understand what draws many hard-pressed parents to charters. They’re not set on this curriculum or that pedagogy, as some reformers suggest. They’re looking, as Ravitch appreciated, for academic ‘havens’—which is what parents at the inner-city school where I teach, once nominally parochial and now a charter, often tell me. They want a place where their children can join peers already driven to achieve in school—a search with another bleak trade-off. The departure of these students leaves other peers, without parents resourceful enough to find better alternatives, stranded in schools that become all the harder to improve.”

Ravitch’s analysis that waves of school reforms are usually followed by waves of “back to basics” referred to pedagogical fads. It is one of the driving themes of Left Back. Throughout the book, she never explained whether she preferred one wave to another. To Ravitch, that was just the ebb and flow of American schooling.

Yet, Reign of Error does not discuss pedagogical fads. The reforms to which she refers in Reign of Error are fundamental disruptions to the way schools are governed and how they are funded. In Left Back, the reformers she mentions usually meant well but either misunderstood how children learned, how teachers would receive their recommendations, or both. In Reign of Error, some reformers mean well while others are out to ruthlessly push their agendas in order to benefit themselves. In Left Back, the worst the reformers ever did to public schooling was foist on it some fuzzy-headed curriculum. In Reign of Error, the reformers are destroying the public school as an institution.

Diane Ravitch is not a “counterrevolutionary”, as the author states. A counterrevolutionary implies that one is an old mossback bent on bringing back the status quo ante bellum. Diane Ravitch is nothing of the sort. Reign of Error is revolutionary. It is revolutionary in the sense that she calls for the amelioration of poverty and inequality. It is revolutionary in that she wants society to make a serious investment in the schools of the disadvantaged. It is revolutionary in the sense that she calls for the children and parents of the poor to get adequate medical and prenatal care. It is revolutionary in the sense she calls for the elevation of the teaching profession. To call Diane Ravitch a “back-to-basics” counterrevolutionary is to imply that America has already done these things at some previous point in our history.

The author says that Ravitch has “politicized” the education debate. This assumes that the debate was not already “politicized” by the reformers themselves. This assumes that a discussion about education policy or practice can at all be separated from politics. Education is political. The education system is a reflection of the political, social and economic priorities of the nation. This is a point Diane Ravitch argues with great eloquence in Reign of Error.

Ironically, the author of the review quoted above confirms Ravitch’s point about charter schools skimming the best public school students. He says parents send their children to charters because they want them to sit in classrooms with other motivated students.  This is because charters, by and large, do not want to teach students with special cognitive or emotional needs. They do not want to educate children who come from other countries and are still learning English. They find inventive ways to bar or expel these types of students, something public schools cannot do.

Public schools cannot do these things because public schools are public, in that they belong to all of the people. Charters take the students who are easiest to educate, siphon money away from public schools and then dump a whole bunch of private money in on top of it. Despite these advantages, there is no evidence that charter schools outperform public schools. Therefore, what kind of education are the children of these parents who are fleeing public schools actually getting? With inexperienced teachers, militaristic discipline codes and an obsession with test prep, charter school children on the whole are not getting educated much at all.

What Diane Ravitch has accomplished in Reign of Error is a distillation of everything that is wrong with what has been dubbed education reform. All of the facts and arguments are laid out in plain language backed up with compelling evidence, or “data”, as the reformers love to say. She has hoist the reformers with their own petard by measuring their failures with the same yardstick with which they have been measuring public schools: test scores. In 100 or 200 years, Reign of Error will be an invaluable primary source about this episode in America’s educational history. She has rolled up into one convenient book the spirit of our educational times. This is why the criticisms of Reign of Error that have been proffered impotently melt away when one starts analyzing them. Their view is to push a narrow agenda now. Ravitch obviously wrote this book with one eye on the long view of things, both the history of the past and the history of now that has yet to be written.

Just like Diane Ravitch helped me construct my view of American schooling almost 10 years ago, she has helped deconstruct what education reform is about. Moreover, she has pointed the way towards how to reconstruct our public schools.

Great Teachers Series: Michel Foucault

2. Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Michel Foucault is my avatar. He is the bald-headed man you see when you visit this site and the Facebook page that goes with it. There are many reasons why I chose Foucault, reasons that should be clear by the end of this post. Years ago, as I was sitting in the teacher’s lounge during a relatively light day, I started reading my copy of Madness and Civilization on which I had been working for a while. Before I could get into a sentence, a young teacher sarcastically said “oooh, you’re reading Foucault”, as if I had taken out the book to impress her. I did not bother to explain that Foucault’s work was the type of stuff I just read for pleasure, the same way people read Twilight or Harry Potter.

I chose Foucault as my avatar just in case she, or people like her, are reading this blog. It is an indication of who I am, or at least strive to be. It is also a foreshadowing of the types of ideas one will encounter upon reading the posts here. That is because Foucault’s dense historical works have worn deep channels in my brain. Foucault represented to me the final frontier. He brought my two favorite intellectual pursuits, history and philosophy, together in a way no other thinker could begin to touch. It was initially a maddening experience. My first encounter with the world of Foucault was The Order of Things, which starts by describing in painstaking detail Diego Velazquez’s famous painting, Las Meninas. Interlaced with these details were allusions to how it all fit in with the topic of the book, which was nothing less than how the western world has organized the human sciences. After 5 or 6 attempts to make it through the introduction, I threw the book down in disgust, convinced that Foucault was a nutcase with nothing really to say.

That all changed a few months later when I picked up a free copy of Discipline and Punish. Thankfully, there were no giant, esoteric metaphors through which to wade before getting to the actual book. Although tough going at first, I was able to catch the flow of his writing, allowing me to ride the wave all the way to the end. Until this day, I count it as the second most important book I have ever read.

Discipline and Punish is ostensibly about the history behind the European prison reforms of the 1800s. Before that time, prisons were places where society exacted revenge on the people who had violated its laws. Prisoners would be stuck in dark cells and neglected, oftentimes as a prequel to some sort of physical punishment. Then along came the enlightened reformers. They believed prisons should be places where criminals are rehabilitated. This led to more humane treatment of prisoners and fairer standards of sentencing. The success of the reformers pretty much gave us the template for the prisons of today.

But there was much more behind the efforts of the reformers than just a concern for prisoners. As the book progresses, Foucault ties in their agenda to wider changes overtaking the western world at the time. The 1800s represented a fundamental rupture in historical time, an era when the entire power structure of the western world was shifting. Europe was changing from a monarchal world, where power was concentrated in a dynasty, to a capitalist world where power was diffused throughout a democratic marketplace. The efforts of the reformers were in step with this new power structure.

The new regime exercised discipline through many different channels. Rather than just the state, discipline began to be exercised by entities outside of the state: hospitals, schools, banks and anything else that dealt with masses of people. Its goals were not necessarily to enforce laws, but to enforce norms. Norms are determined by the bell curve. When your doctor tells you that you are overweight, it is because she is comparing your weight to the average of everyone else in your age or height group. When the school tells you that you are failing, it is comparing your grades to average grades of your peers. When a bank tells you that you have a bad credit score, they are comparing your score to an overall average. If found deficient in these areas, these institutions have ways of correcting you so that you eventually fall within that meaty part of the bell curve where most other people can be found. Doctors can recommend diet and exercise regimes, schools can provide extra tutoring and banks can refuse to give you a loan until you square away your other debts. This is what discipline looks like on an everyday basis.

In order to keep track of your progress, or lack thereof, each of these institutions treat you as a case. Your doctor has a file on you, the school has a permanent record and the banks have your credit history. These institutions have the facts of your case because they each exercise a certain type of power over you. Doctors can strip you naked and invade your body with any type of device they see fit. Schools can demand that you take a test to prove what you know. Banks can access your bills and other sensitive information. In short, they all have their own forms of examination. These examinations require that you expose certain parts of yourself to what Foucault calls a “normalizing gaze”. In a sense, your most private effects are constantly on display for these institutions, all so they can determine if you need some sort of correction.

The normalizing gaze is part of a society of surveillance. There are eyes on us constantly. Cameras and wiretaps are only the most explicit forms of this surveillance. The goal is always the same. We are under watch so much that we begin to behave as if even our most private actions will always be seen. In this way, we discipline ourselves so society does not have to. It is an efficient way to keep society under control.  It is a far cry from the type of discipline exercised in a monarchal regime, where secret police and informants watch our physical actions and the punishment for wrongdoing involves something done to our physical bodies. Hence the poor conditions of prisoners in such a regime. Hence also the efforts of the prison reformers of the 1800s. They represented not so much a more humane alternative to punishment as they did a more efficient alternative. It was the perfect form of punishment in a capitalist society obsessed with cost-effectiveness. Their prisons were not better because they aimed at rehabilitation but because they folded up all of the devices of the surveillance society under one roof.

The panopticon, from the perspective of a prison cell.

The modern prison combines all of the forms of discipline found in the outside world. Foucault uses the example of the panopticon. The panopticon comes out of the work of the English thinker Jeremy Bentham. In the middle of the prison floor there is a tower on top of which there is a compartment where one guard can see out but nobody can see in. Surrounding the tower are all of the cells of the prison. The prisoners in each cell have no way of telling whether or not the guard is watching them at a particular moment, so they must assume they are being watched at all times. In this way, they are forced to internalize the camera that they did not internalize in the outside world. On top of this, prisoners can count on the normalizing gaze of psychotherapists, doctors, educators, religious activists and everyone else that can be found in the outside world. The modern prison is the single most complete place of surveillance anywhere. It is the ultimate manifestation of an entire society structured around the panopticon.

In these modes of discipline and punishment, we see the fingerprints of the two greatest developments of modern western civilization: democracy and capitalism. Democracy is represented by the bell curve. Where most people can be found is considered “normal”. Capitalism is represented by the ruthless efficiency of our disciplinary regime. There is no need to employ armies of Cossacks to watch and terrorize the population in the name of the monarch. Instead, people can be trained to discipline themselves with a just a small investment on society’s part. There is more bang for the buck, so to speak. Foucault ends up by calling attention to the parlance surrounding modern day criminal justice. Someone who is incarcerated is said to be paying their “debt” to society. A trial can expect to uncover not only the facts of a case, but the character history of the defendant as well. Everyone who has had, or can have, a normalizing gaze on the defendant is called in to testify. In this way, not only can the judge discern the severity of the crime, but the severity of the dysfunction within the criminal. Like money changers, the years they mete out must be roughly equal to the crime and the criminal. They weigh everything on the scales of justice to ensure both society and the criminal get a fair deal. It is the convergence of the marketplace and the courtroom.

In all of this, we see the major tendency of all of Foucault’s thought. Ideas are more than just ideas. Ideas take hold or recede based upon power structures. The reformers were genuine in their humanitarian concern for the incarcerated. However, their brand of reform was only possible in an age that was becoming more democratic and market-oriented. Their agenda eventually won out because it was compatible with the power structure of the time. Looking at their words and deeds is a study in what Foucault would call archaeology. Words are artifacts that say something about the age in which they were conceived. We can examine them the way an archaeologist examines a stone tool or a piece of pottery from an ancient civilization. They give us a window into the culture of an entire historical epoch. Through examining the words of an era, we can say something about the societal forces that gave those words sense and made those words possible.

Some people have criticized Foucault for making too much of power. They have taken his ideas to mean that change can only happen if the ruling elite of the time allow it. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called Foucault “the last rampart of the bourgeoisie.” He believed Foucault ended up supporting a power structure that crushed free will and human agency.

Yet, Foucault was one of the most actively progressive thinkers of the 20th century. He marched in the streets for prison reform and believed in what he called “unmasking” all of the forms of discipline that existed throughout society. More than most thinkers, Foucault joined philosophy and action together. He believed activism to be more than just a struggle for social justice. Instead, activism was the way we made new ideas real and new historical epochs possible. One of his more famous quotes illustrates this:

“We have to be there at the birth of ideas, the bursting outward of their force: not in books expressing them, but in events manifesting this force, in struggles carried on around ideas, for or against them.”

While philosophers loved irresistible logic, Foucault understood that ideas were messy affairs, forged in the fires of historical struggle and change. Rather than seeing Foucault as a supporter of the status quo, we must look at the example he set through his actions.

He believed people must live the change they want to see in society. This requires not only being aware of the type of change you want, but the type of society you want to change.

Thomas Pynchon and The Simpsons

One of the only known photographs of Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon is one of America’s great authors. His magnum opus, Gravity’s Rainbow, has bent minds and frustrated critics since its publication in 1973. He is the perfect model of post-modern literature, where every experience is disjointed and nothing is what it seems. You cannot make it through a Pynchon book and come out the other end trusting your senses. My favorite book from him is Mason and Dixon. It is set in colonial America, yet retains a palpable sense of modernity and “trippyness”. Only after you read it do you begin to understand what an accomplishment it is. I am proud to say that I made it through Gravity’s Rainbow as well, but not so proud to say that I can stand to read it a second, third and fourth time before I begin to understand it. There is still much more for me to read from Pynchon, but I am still recovering from my last venture into his world.

He is also very reclusive, rarely giving interviews and never showing his face. Again, this is the Pynchon irony. He writes books steeped in modernity, yet eschews the celebrity culture that defines a large part of that modernity. That explains the humor in the following clip from the Simpsons. Pynchon did the voice himself.

The Simpsons defines post-modern in 14 seconds:

Pynchon is the closest thing to an acid trip in American literature.

Readings in America’s Downfall

As an avid reader, I hope to share many recommendations right here on this blog and would love if you did the same. There are dozens of books I am dying to discuss but I have to be choosy. For now, here are a few great books that deal with recent, mostly American, history. They go a long way towards explaining how the United States got to where it is today.

Please note, there are many good books about the subject and it would be impossible to fit them all here. This is a sampling of a few great books from a field of study that gets more exciting every day.

Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore by James T. Patterson (2005)

This book has been criticized for being overly general and haphazard, reading more like a recap of major news events from the past 35 years. The truth of that statement is mainly the reason why I mentioned this book first. It is a good primer for people unfamiliar with the era, mostly younger people or those outside of the U.S. What it lacks in depth and focus it makes up for in clarity and fairness. In an age when every book about modern America is tinged with political partisanship, this book is a breath of fresh air. Despite the criticisms, Restless Giant does have its moments of depth and insight.

The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 by Sean Wilentz (2008)

The Age of Reagan is similar to Restless Giant in every way except two: a) It is tinged with political partisanship in favor of Democrats, b) It is more in-depth. Wilentz has an axe to grind with the Republican Party. The title of the book is basically a way to place blame for all of America’s problems today on Republicans (which is not very far from the truth). Wilentz defends Clinton and Gore, basically arguing Bill Clinton was the greatest president we ever had. If you can disregard such patent nonsense, then you will get a decent amount of depth on many important events of the past 35 years.

Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined Its Public and Privatized Its Citizens by Matthew A. Crenson and Benjamin Ginsburg (2002)

This is perhaps my favorite book of the bunch. Their central argument is that America has gone from a country where citizens work together for the public good to a place where consumers make decisions in isolation of each other. This has led to the end of genuine grass roots movements. Instead, special interest groups hire lobbyists to make back room deals. The closest thing they are to grass roots is receiving individual donations from supporters. People now express their politics by donating money to the groups of their choice. Political debate has taken a back seat to poll numbers which, as the authors point out, shape public opinion more than measure it. All of these developments have grown out of a corporate mindset that has influenced everything, including politics. People are treated like consumers, public institutions become privatized and ideas become sound bites. The book is a well-researched, well-reasoned sketch of the corporate takeover of our democracy.

The Roaring 90s: A New History of the World’s Most Prosperous Decade by Joseph Stiglitz (2003)

This book is a sleeper. Everyone knows Joe Stiglitz for his more popular works like Globalization and its Discontents and the Three Trillion Dollar War, not to mention his frequent contributions to online and television media. Stiglitz was a big player in the economic policy world in the 90s, being a member of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors and Chief Economist at the World Bank. Rather than celebrate the economic boom of the era, Stiglitz sees it as a cause for concern. The 90s saw the triumph of a supposed free market regime touted by a generation of economists who were “free market fundamentalists”. They called for the selling off of the public sector and deregulation of large corporations. At the same time, poverty has gotten worse and average citizens have no say in the system. There is a reason why Stiglitz is one of the most cited economists in the world and it is for readable and valuable books like this.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch (2010)

This book is of course a personal choice. It certainly does not need a lengthy explanation from me. Others have already explained the virtues of this book far better than I can. Simply put, it has been the single best refutation of education reform written to date. The only, very minor, criticism I have is that I wish Diane Ravitch connected the schooling debate to a wider context, like the triumph of corporate Neoliberal policies over the past 35 years. Otherwise, anyone who wishes to engage in the public schooling debate has to reckon with Ravitch.

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein (2007)

This one is an obvious choice. Naomi Klein has become one of the most celebrated intellectuals in the world today. Her work, especially The Shock Doctrine, was a major inspiration of he Occupy Wall Street movement. Klein’s thesis is simple: crises around the world have been used as excuses to implement reforms that benefit corporations. Where there is no natural crisis to exploit, one will be made up. (The “crisis” in public education comes to mind). It is a thesis that has only proven to be more true as time goes on, the economic crisis being another excuse to hand over trillions to banks. The intellectual source for all of these reforms is the late Milton Friedman, who trained an entire generation of economists in Neoliberal ideology. We are today living in the full bloom of the Neoliberal movement. The Shock Doctrine helps us make sense of it.

Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam by Gilles Kepel (2002)

Jihad is another sleeper. It deals with one of the most important issues of our time in a sophisticated, informed manner. Kepel does a masterful job explaining the rise of radical Islamic movements in the Middle East, reaching back into history to illustrate the forces that are shaping the Muslim world today. It is difficult to find books on this topic that are not either racist anti-Arab rants or saccharine paeans to peaceful Islam. Instead, this is a book for people who want cold straight facts on the Middle East presented in a comprehensive, illuminating and non-judgmental manner. It helps that Kepel is French and, therefore, not tainted by the way we discuss such things in America. His hopes that radicalized religious movements in the Middle East will die off naturally might be a little naive but it does not detract from the overall quality of the book.

Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America by Matt Taibbi (2010)

Surprisingly, there has not been a wh0le heck of a lot written on the financial meltdown that is worth reading. Besides Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, Griftopia is the biggest little book on the subject. Taibbi covers sub-prime mortgages, collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps in clear, fresh language. Not only does he describe the chain of events that led to the economic crisis, he explains the philosophy guiding those events. He brings out the unbridled greed and sense of entitlement guiding many of these firms. In so doing, he is not afraid to call it what it is: fraud. It does not matter what things are illegal and what things were not. The entire system is rigged against us.

Taken together, these books will give you a thorough sense as to where we are as a country. There were many more books that could be put on the list. If you have any recommendations, post a comment.