This is a book about the education America owes to its children, why its education system is in poor condition, and what might be done to give that system both energy and quality. In diagnosing the current practices and priorities of American education, the book presupposes a collective public interest in creating a well-educated next generation. While focused on public schools, the book addresses the education of all of America’s children: What should well-educated future citizens learn in school?
David Steiner is Executive Director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and Professor of Education at Johns Hopkins University. He previously served as a member of the Maryland State Board of Education and as Commissioner of Education for New York State. He holds degrees from Oxford University (B.A. and M.A.) and Harvard University (Ph.D.).
Prolegomena: The Collective Good of Education
Chapter 1: The Unmet Goals of American Schooling
Chapter 2: The Great Distractors
Chapter 3: What Works—And Why We Don’t Do It
Chapter 4: The “Main Idea” in K-12 education
Chapter 5: Learning to Think
This is a truly important book: Readers may not agree with all of Steiner’s arguments – but they are worthy of deep engagement and should provoke thoughtful reflection. Steiner offers keen insights about our current K-12 education system with facts, powerful vignettes, and passion. His call for a re-imagining of American public education grounded in academic rigor and more compelling instruction is both inspiring and challenging.
Only a writer and thinker of David Steiner’s erudition and empathy could deliver a book that lands simultaneously as both stirring encouragement and a stinging rebuke. He forces even those of us who believe we stand for high academic standards and lofty expectations for students to examine those beliefs, often uncomfortably. His message, both unsparing and optimistic, is not only that we must do better by America’s children, but that we can.
David M. Steiner’s book, A Nation at Thought, challenged me to recognize the pablum that too often passes for education in the U.S. today, especially in our middle and high schools; explains how we arrived at this dismal state; and poses a vision for education that offers students access to happiness through a pathway of thought. Steiner’s vision provides rich examples of the type of teaching and learning students would experience if only we were brave enough to undertake the mammoth work of redesigning U.S. education to provide instruction that is “ethically inspired, aesthetically rich and academically compelling.” Only then would students—and indeed, all of us—reach the state of human flourishing.
In a day when schools are called on to serve every social and political mission our nation’s leadership can conceive, David Steiner has issued a clarion call to restore public schooling to its essence. An education, Steiner insists, is meant to build knowledge and to foster thoughtfulness. Its aspiration is for people to be wise and to be virtuous. An education system playing this role must thus have the focus and capability to emphasize learning and, yes, academic work. Steiner is unapologetic about the intellectual role schools play and about the value of intellect to a nation. His call to restore the centrality of thinking to America’s schools is a challenge to those who would use schools as vessels for all other things, from politicians to academics themselves. If you’re dissatisfied with thin, polarized debate on the direction of public education, read this book to see a better, if difficult, path forward.
There is so much wisdom to be found within these pages. Commissioner Steiner has examined our education system from so many perspectives throughout his life and career: as an Englishman and as an American, as a respected academic and from the Commissioner’s seat as a practitioner, as someone with deep respect for traditions and with a keen eye for what’s on the horizon. Here he does what he does best—interweave research, experience, and stories from schoolhouses into a compelling treatise.
With A Nation at Thought, David Steiner guides us through the valleys and the shadows of our current system of education, urging us to honestly confront its many disappointments and failures. But he doesn’t leave us there. By drawing on the insights and examples of great teachers, writers, and philosophers, Steiner encourages and exhorts us to climb to the heights and to take our students with us toward an education rich in wisdom and beauty which is supported by a sturdy foundation in academic excellence. We would do well to follow his good counsel.
The school system imagined in A Nation at Thought would be a light unto nations, a city upon a hill, inspiring to us all.