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Book review: “Schools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice”

Originally written for NACADA Journal, July 6, 2016:

The melodramatic title of Nikhil Goyal’s new educational “manifesto” denotes that he will deliver a scathing piece of journalism, an exposé that will indict the American educational system. The sub-title then promises solutions for fixing this “malpractice,” in case readers missed the judicial metaphor of the main title. Unfortunately, what he provides are large passages of paraphrased or directly quoted documents and studies, interspersed with awkwardly written journalistic descriptions of modern-day people who are working hard to create the free, democratic, nontraditional schools that are the ostensible solutions to the schools on trial.

Every chapter follows a maddening pattern. The author will put forth a canned-feeling platitude or indictment: “[W]e should craft institutions that are grounded in the attributes we want to see in citizens in our society and designed to foster critical thinking and lifelong learning” (p. 134). Then, instead of providing a systematic and thoughtful plan as promised in the subititle, he will merely launch into a magazine-style description of an autonomous, project-based school and reports to us a “day in the life” of the school and its founder or creator. He almost always begins with a sentence like this: “A short-sleeved plaid or solid-colored shirt tucked into blue jeans held up by a belt is Simon Hauger’s classic garb” (p. 194).

Early on, the author broadens his central trial metaphor in favor of one depicting war crimes: “Schools have also committed systematic human rights abuses” (p. 21). In one four-page stretch in chapter one, he even “provides” (an action that in this book is synonymous with “over-quotes”) eight teachings from Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity and immediately lists no fewer than four articles from the Geneva Conventions. That’s right, American schools should be prosecuted according to “the rules concerning the treatment of captured or wounded soldiers in war” (p. 21).

All of these (non) structural tendencies leave the reader exhausted and unintentionally create a self-important and pious tone. Consider this proclamation from early in Chapter Six: “Thousands of years ago, in the opening to the Metaphysics, Aristotle stated, ‘All men by nature desire to know.’ He was right” (p.113). Goyal, writing as an extremely well-read undergraduate college student, sounds like he is bestowing his approval on one of history’s greatest thinkers and philosophers.

In fairness to the author, however, the book is not without merit. If readers can move beyond all the aforementioned shortcomings—and also have little to no knowledge of education-related history and basic theories—they will get a quick and reasonably detailed overview that would be a good starting point for further study. Aristotle notwithstanding, they’re all here to varying degrees: Dewey, Bloom Vygotsky, and even today’s Ken Robinson, whose Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative (2001) is a much more engaging read (and whose “Do schools kill creativity?” TED Talk is required viewing for anyone in education).

With regard to academic advising, the redeeming quality and best feature of the book is undoubtedly Chapter 8, “Enrolling in the Real World.” Thankfully, its thought, structure and tone are far superior to the other chapters. Here, Goyal discusses MOOCs (massive open online courses) and does a very good job of both describing their origins and of cautioning readers about how MOOCs can sometimes (often?) border on fads that have the real potential to “exacerbate inequality and sustain the most oppressive elements of education” (p. 217). The author also intelligently (and less radically) discusses alternatives to “traditional” liberal arts, including such models as fellowships, apprenticeships, and (computer) coding schools that may be of interest to more non-traditional students and their academic advisors.

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