Education: A Very Short Introduction by Gary Thomas

I feel like I should title this post “Yes, I actually read an adult nonfiction book once again,” since I’ve been neglecting not only my personal reading but also my nonfiction. Lately, I’ve been reading picture books, biographies of American historical figures geared toward youth, and other such interesting, but not mind-boggling reading.

Education by Gary Thomas (Oxford University Press, 2013) is one of the newest additions to the Very Short Introduction series, a series I’ve spoken highly of in the past simply because each book does such a wonderful job of introducing a topic, the issues surrounding the topic, and the people involved without overburdening the reader. Education is no exception. In 120 slim pages, Thomas introduced me to a general history of the processes of education, the people involved in various philosophies, the different schools of thought in education, and the contemporary issues that surround the complex topic.Continue Reading

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

In early nineteenth century Russia, one’s status is decided based on how many enslaved workers (serfs) under your name. Likewise, property owners do not pay taxes on the land own but rather on the number of serfs assigned to them at the last census. Even if a serf dies, a property owner must pay taxes on him or her until the next census rights it. In Dead Souls, Chichikov is an up-and-coming middle class man who has cleverly decided on a get rich quick scheme: buy dead serfs (called “souls”) from property owners to use as collateral in purchasing things for himself.

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (published 1842) is a complex satire. And yet, supposedly Gogol did not intend it to be a satire. In all seriousness, he wrote that this part of the novel (part 1 was the only part he completed; part 2 was unfinished and part 3 never begun) was representative of Dante’s Inferno. This is, to me, a stretch, but I can see it. With the humor in the text, however, I saw Dead Souls as far more than a look at the depredation of man’s soul in post 1812 Russia. I saw it as an amusing satire of Russian society in general.

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The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Edna Pontellier is a 29-year-old mother of two in late nineteenth century Louisiana. As befits a woman in her station, she has maids to clean, cooks to prepare her food, and a nanny to care for her young ones. As Kate Chopin’s novella The Awakening (published 1889) begins, she is spending her summer vacation at a lake, where she begins to see her husband’s treatment of her, her pointless “proper” behavior, and especially her own sexual identity in a new light. For the first time, she recognizes herself as more than the superficial image her era dictates her to be. As she develops a friendship with a young man, Robert, Edna becomes awakened to her own limitless possibilities for self-determination.

At once both a feminist tale and a sexual awakening story, The Awakening delves into the complex emotions of a woman searching for herself. Edna searches for ever-elusive happiness, and when society fails to meet her in her newly discovered self, she abandons the social mores and traditions for her self. Although The Awakening is short, I found it to be an intriguing look into society of the late nineteenth century American middle class, as well as a story that may unfortunately be all too resonant to women today.Continue Reading

1491 by Charles C. Mann

Because I’m beginning to teach a year of light American history for my son, I have decided to read some books on various subjects in American history myself. Where else to begin but with a review of life in the Americas before Christopher Columbus and his fellow explorers brought Europeans en masse in the late 1400s?

The book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann examines the evidences that we have in order to draw a picture of what the Americas were like before Columbus came. Relying on archeological evidences as well as historical records and geological studies, he draws a clear picture of how the native Americans may have lived. As he points out, much of his discussion is on life for the natives during the conquests, as the European reaction, descriptions, and memoirs are what we have as evidences of how life may have been before they appeared. I realize now better than ever that the native population of the Americas was huge, diverse, innovative, and talented. As a precursor to my own study of American history, 1491 was an essential introduction. Continue Reading