7 must-read books on education, a rare look at Antarctica from 1911, Jonathan Harris on the storytelling of life and more.

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7 Must-Read Books on Education

What the free speech movement of the 1960s has to do with digital learning and The Beatles.

Education is something we're deeply passionate about, but the fact remains that today's dominant formal education model is a broken system based on antiquated paradigms. While much has been said and written about education reform over the past couple of years, the issue and the public discourse around it are hardly new phenomena. Today, we round up the most compelling and visionary reading on reinventing education from the past century.


Earlier this year, we featured a fantastic Bill Moyers archival interview with Isaac Asimov, in which the iconic author and futurist echoes some of own beliefs in the power of curiosity-driven, self-directed learning and the need to implement creativity in education from the onset. These insights, and more, are eloquently captured in The Roving Mind – a compelling collection of 62 edifying essays on everything from creationism to censorship to the philosophy of science, in which Asimov predicts with astounding accuracy not only the technological developments of the future but also the complex public debates they have sparked, from cloning to stem-cell research. While intended to encourage young people to pursue a career in science, the book is both a homage to the inquisitive mind and a living manifesto for freedom of thought across all disciplines as the backbone of education and creativity.

Once we have computer outlets in every home, each of them hooked up to enormous libraries where anyone can ask any question and be given answers, be given reference materials, be something you're interested in knowing, from an early age, however silly it might seem to someone else... that's what YOU are interested in, and you can ask, and you can find out, and you can do it in your own home, at your own speed, in your own direction, in your own time... Then, everyone would enjoy learning. Nowadays, what people call learning is forced on you, and everyone is forced to learn the same thing on the same day at the same speed in class, and everyone is different." ~ Isaac Asimov


Sir Ken Robinson's blockbuster TED talks have become modern cerebral folklore, and for good reason – his insights on education and creativity, neatly delivered in punchy, soundbite-ready packages, are today's loudest, most succinct rally cry for a much-needed revolution. That's precisely what he does in The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything – a passionate celebration for the wide spectrum of human ability and creativity, which current educational models consistently limit and try to fit into predetermined boxes, extricating rather than encouraging young people's unique abilities and talents. From Paul McCartney to Paulo Coehlo to Vidal Sassoon, Robinson demonstrates the power of properly harnessing innate creativity through fascinating case studies and personal stories, and offers a powerful vision for bringing this respect for natural talent to the world of education.

We have a system of education that is modeled on the interest of industrialism and in the image of it. School are still pretty much organized on factory lines – ringing bells, separate facilities, specialized into separate subjects. We still educate children by batches. Why do we do that?"

For an excellent complement to The Element, we highly recommend Robinson's prior book, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative – re-released last month, it offers a thoughtful and provocative analysis of the disconnect between the kinds of "intelligence" measured and encouraged in schools and the kinds of creativity most essential to our society moving forward.


In A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown approach education with equal parts insight, imagination and optimism to deliver a refreshing vision for the relationship between education and technology, where the two progress synchronously and fluidly – a vision that falls somewhere between Sir Ken Robinson's call for creativity in education paradigms and Clay Shirky's notion of "cognitive surplus." The book touches on a number of critical issues in digital learning, from the role of remix culture to the importance of tinkering and experimentation in creating, not merely acquiring, knowledge. Central to its premise is the idea that play is critical to understanding learning – a notion we stand strongly behind.

We're stuck in a mode where we're using old systems of understanding learning to try to understand these new forms, and part of the disjoint means that we're missing some really important and valuable data." ~ Douglas Thomas

Our full review here.


To understand where formal education is going, we must first understand where it came from and what role it served in the cultural context of society. Clark Kerr's The Uses of the University: Fifth Edition, originally published in 1963 and based on his Godkin Lectures at Harvard, is arguably the most important work on the purpose of educational institutions ever published. Kerr, an economist with a historian's sensibility, coins the term "multiversity" at the dawn of the free speech movement of the 60s and examines the role of the university as a living organism of sociopolitical thought and activity. The book, as US Berkley's Hanna Halborn Gray eloquently puts it, "describes the illnesses to which this organism might be prone, together with diagnoses and prognoses that might prove useful."

What the railroads did for the second half of the last century and the automobile for the first half of this century may be done for the second half of this century by the knowledge industry: And that is, to serve as the focal point for national growth." ~ Clark Kerr


As big proponents of self-directed learning – the empowering pursuit of knowledge flowing organically from one's innate curiosity and intellectual hunger – we're all over Anya Kamenetz's DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education – an ambitious, albeit slightly alarmist, look at the American higher education system and the flawed economic models at its foundation. Passionately argued and rigorously researched, the book exposes the greatest challenges to education reform and offers a glimmer of hope for new, more open and accessible models of education that transcend the institutional "credential mill" of traditional academia.

The promise of free or marginal-cost open-source content, techno-hybridization, unbundling of educational functions, and learner-centered educational experiences and paths is too powerful to ignore. These changes are inevitable. They are happening now. [...] However, these changes will not automatically become pervasive." ~ Anya Kamenetz


Waiting for "SUPERMAN": How We Can Save America's Failing Public Schools is the companion text to the excellent documentary of the same name, which we featured last year. It explores the human side of education statistics, following five exceptionally talented kids through a system that inhibits rather than inspires academic and intellectual growth. Unlike other fault-finders who fail to propose solutions, the narrative both mercilessly calls out a system full of "academic sinkholes" and "drop-out factories," and reminds us of the transformational power that great educators have to ushers in true education reform. More than a mere observational argument, the book offers a blueprint for civic engagement with specific ways for parents, students, educators and businesspeople to get involved in driving the movement for quality education, including more than 30 pages' worth of websites and organizations working towards this shared aspiration.

In America right now, a kid drops out of high school every 26 seconds. These drop-outs are 8 times more likely to go to prison, 50% less likely to vote, more likely to need social welfare assistance, not eligible for 90% of jobs, are being paid 40 cents to the dollar of earned by a college graduate, and continuing the cycle of poverty."


Sociologist Howard Gardner, one of our all-time favorite nonfiction authors, is best-known as the father of the theory of multiple intelligences – a radical rethinking of human intellectual and creative ability, arguing that traditional psychometrics like IQ tests or the SAT fail to measure the full scope and diversity of intelligence. In Five Minds for the Future, Gardner's highly anticipated follow-up published more than two decades later, the author presents a visionary and thought-provoking blueprint for mental abilities that will be most critical in the 21st century as we grapple with issues of information overload and creative entrepreneurship. Perhaps most notable, however, is Gardner's insistence that the five minds he identifies – disciplined, synthesizing, creating, respectful and ethical – aren't genetically encoded givens but, rather, abilities we actively develop and cultivate with time, thought and effort.

The synthesizing mind takes information from disparate sources, understands and evaluates that information objectively, and puts it together in ways that make sense to the synthesizer and also to other persons. Valuable in the past, the capacity to synthesize becomes ever more crucial as information continues to mount at dizzying rates." ~ Howard Gardner

Jonathan Harris: The Storytelling of Life

We love artist Jonathan Harris, who previously delighted us with the We Feel Fine project, World Building in a Crazy World, I Want You To Want Me, and The Whale Hunt. When he turned 30, he decided to start taking one photo every day and posting it to his site before going to sleep – a seemingly simple, private project that soon turned into a fascinating exploration followed by thousands of people around the world. Our friends from m ss ng p eces – you remember them, right? – are back with another lovely documentary, capturing the project and the vivid, earnest curiosity with which Harris approaches the world.

I wanted to find a way to be more in the moment, to be more in every day; to understand time more and to understand my life more, to have more memories – all of these things. Basically, to live more richly, as a human life, not just as a work life." ~ Jonathan Harris

No matter what you do in your life, what you create, what career you have, whether you have a family or kids, or make a lot of money... your greatest creation is always going to be your life's story. Because it's like this container that holds all of those other things. That was something I was really interested in with this project, thinking about life itself as a creation, as a story that you're writing." ~ Jonathan Harris

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5 (More) Children's Books for Grown-Ups

What escaping boredom has to do with altruism theory and the Egyptian revolution.

Last year, we featured five of our favorite children's books with philosophy for grown-ups, which became one of our most-shared and -discussed pieces of all time. Today, based on reader suggestions, we're back with five more.


Between 1881 and 1883, Italian author Carlo Lorenzini, who eventually became known as Carlo Collodi, wrote a short tale that went on to become a household name and one of the world's greatest children's classics. The Adventures of Pinocchio (Le Avventure Di Pinocchio) is the story of a woodcarver named Geppetto in a small Italian village and the wooden puppet he created, who dreams of becoming a real boy and whose nose magically grows every time he tells a lie to construct his own reality. Full of archetypal patterns, Pinocchio captures complex themes of conscience, heroism, peer pressure, patriotism and the search for identity in a beautifully simple narrative. We recommend this particular bilingual edition by Biblioteca Italiana, featuring the complete text in Italian and English, with the original black-and-white illustrations by Enrico Mazzanti.

Fancy the happiness of Pinocchio on finding himself free! Without saying yes or no, he fled from the city and set out on the road that was to take him back to the house of the lovely Fairy."

Pinocchio is also about the tender underbelly of Italian culture and national character, brimming with sociocultural innuendo. As Giuseppe Prezzolini famously remarked in 1923, "Pinocchio is the testing ground for foreigners; whoever understands the beauty of Pinocchio, understands Italy."


Originally published in 1988 and illustrated by Quentin Blake, Roald Dahl's Matilda is often seen as a formative foundation for the millennial generation. With its story of an extraordinary child whose ordinary and disagreeable parents dismiss their daughter's prodigious talent, its central theme echoes millennials' self-perceived status as a misunderstood social actors with underappreciated talent. More importantly, however, the theme of violence and the abuse of authority – a recurring theme is Dahl's novels – is a particularly timely one in the sociocultural context of today's political unrest around the world, from the Middle Eastern revolutions to civic protests across Europe.

"I'm right and you're wrong, I'm big and you're small, and there's nothing you can do about it."


Beautifully written and illustrated by Shell Silverstein in 1964, The Giving Tree is one of the most beloved yet controversial children's books of all time. The duality of its interpretations – one seeing it as the poetic story of unconditional love between a boy and his tree, and the other as the darkly faithless portrait of a selfish boy who keeps on taking from a tree that keeps on giving – illustrates some of the longest-running debates of moral philosophy: Is there such a thing as true altruism, and are human beings innately kind and selfless or innately unscrupulous and selfish? (We choose to side – and live – with the former.)

But I have nothing left to give you. My apples are gone.' 'My teeth are too weak for apples,' said the boy. 'My branches are gone,' said the tree. 'You cannot swing on them.' 'I am too old to swing on branches,' said the boy. 'My trunk is gone,' said the tree. 'You cannot climb.' 'I am too tired to climb,' said the boy. 'I am sorry,' sighed the tree. 'I wish that I could give you something, but I have nothing left. I am just an old stump.' 'I don't need very much now,' said the boy. 'just a quiet place to sit and rest. I am very tired.' 'Well,' said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could, 'well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting. Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.' And the boy did. And the tree was happy."

The book is also available in an original Hebrew edition, also with Silverstein's lovely original illustration.


LA-based artist and writer Dallas Clayton's An Awesome Book of Thanks!, a follow-up to his 2008 gem An Awesome Book!, was one of our best children's books of 2010. It's also timeless in both its message and the visual whimsy of its execution. A lovely homage to the art of gratitude, it's written in a style that would make a Dr. Seuss lover swoon and illustrated with the kind of colorful whimsy that tickles your eternal inner kid awake. In a culture brimming with cynicism and entitlement, this is an absolutely delightful reminder to savor the amazing world we live in and, above all, the blessing of each other's presence.

and thanks for the trees and thanks for the trains and for the breeze and for the rain and thank you thank you ocean deep and desert dry and mountain steep and balls to kick and kites to fly and places to go when you want to cry


When Norton Juster wrote The Phantom Tollbooth in 1961, it was declared an instant classic and went on to be translated in multiple languages and compared to Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It tells the story of a bored little boy who one day receives a magic tollbooth that transports him to a fantasy land called The Kingdom of Wisdom. Though at first he gets lost in the Dolldrums, a grey place where thinking and laughing are not allowed, he goes on to incredible adventures before returning to his own room as magically as he had left it. But when he tries to revisit the Kingdom of Wisdom, he finds the magic tollbooth gone and in its place a note that reads, "For Milo, who knows the way."

Besides the central theme of escaping boredom and intellectual stagnation through the pursuit of one's own curiosity – a key founding philosophy here at Brain Pickings – the book is also about the importance of education, something we've grown increasingly concerned with and inspired by.

What you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow."

Missed the first part? Catch right on up.

A Rare Look at Antarctica, 1911-1914

In the summer of 1911, a group of Australian scientists, adventurers and explorers set out to make history by undertaking the first Australian expedition to Antarctica, a three-year journey into the frozen unknown. Under the leadership of Dr. Douglas Mawson, they set sail for Macquarie Island and the virgin parts of Antarctica. Today, we look at what they encountered and recorded on the way not merely as a rare and fascinating glimpse of long-gone world frozen in time, but also as the source of important information that made a major contribution to how contemporary science understands the region and laid the groundwork for claims that in 1936 were formalized as the Australian Antarctic Territory.

These images come from James Francis (Frank) Hurley, the official photographer to the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, and other members of the expedition who compensated for their lack of photographic acumen with sheer enthusiasm and visceral curiosity about the novel landscape that unfolded before their eyes.

Huskies pulling sledge / Format: Silver gelatin photoprint

Harold Hamilton with skeleton of sea-elephant / Format: Silver gelatin photonegative

Blizzard, the pup in Antarctica / Photograph by Frank Hurley /Format: Silver gelatin negative

Ice cased Adelie penguins after a blizzard at Cape Denison / Photograph by Frank Hurley / Format: Glass negative

Hamilton hand-netting for macro-plankton from Aurora / Photograph by Frank Hurley / Format: Silver gelatin photoprint

Ice mask, C.T. Madigan, between 1911-1914 / Photograph by Frank Hurley / Format: Glass negative

Arthur Sawyer with sea elephant pup / Format: Silver gelatin photonegative

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Perhaps most fascinating – in a bittersweet kind of way – is the duality of human progress found in the stark contrast between these images and contemporary iterations of them: At once a living hallmark of the remarkable advances in photographic technology and a gripping reminder of how quickly we're losing this precious ecosystem.

For a closer look at this fascinating and tender world, you won't go wrong with Sara Wheeler's classic, Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica.

The Ancient Book of Myth and War

What Roman warriors have to do with Pixar and medieval Middle-Eastern legends.

Nearly two years ago, we featured The Ancient Book of Séx and Science – the racy and whimsical side-project of four Pixar animators, which went on to become the most popular book in Brain Pickings history. But it was actually a follow-up to an earlier project by the same team, at the time out-of-print and near-impossible to get online, less a few exorbitantly priced four-figure collector's copies. Now, The Ancient Book of Myth and War has magically reappeared on Amazon, where we were able to snag a copy for under $75. Needless to say, the book is an absolute gem worth every penny – a collection of stunning experiments in shape and color exploring the strange and wonderful world of mythology and legend throughout the history of the world. (As Amazon reviewer J. Brodsky eloquently puts it, "The only point to be made here, is that you simply must do yourself a favor and buy this art gallery they call a book.")

The four animators – Scott Morse, Nate Wragg, Lou Romano, and Don Shank – manage to capture the essence of legends from around the world and across time with a rare blend of irreverence and cross-cultural curiosity, sweeping you into a journey into the soul of heroic mythology.

Playful and poetic, The Ancient Book of Myth and War is an absolute treat for art aficionados and mythology lovers alike, blending history and design with the kind of visual eloquence Pixar has grown legendary for.

Brain Pickings takes 450+ hours a month to curate and edit across the different platforms – site, Twitter and newsletter. If you enjoy it, please consider a small donation – it lets us know we're doing something right.

IOU Project: Social Technology Meets Artisanal Tradition

Part storytelling experiment, part ecommerce venture, part social meeting place for a community that shares the values of authenticity and purpose, bridging centuries-old artisanal traditions with the promise of modern social technology.

A Brief History of the Pun

Former presidential speechwriter John Pollack examines the evolution of the pun as a linguistic and cultural force.

Gilbert Tuhabonye on Genocide, Running and Forgiveness

World-class runner Gilbert Tuhabonye on how running helped him survive the Burundi genocide and find joy in forgiveness.

Bent Objects: The Secret Life of Everyday Things

Photographer-turned-artist Terry Border creates anthropomorphic, charmingly emotive beings and scenes out of everyday objects and metal wire.

David Friedman's Portraits of Inventors

Video portraits of ordinary people who came up with ordinary-seeming things that transform lives, often our lives, in extraordinary ways.

Collaborative Whimsy: Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir

Hungarian visualization project that flies in the face of the traditional conception of maps as static and objective representations of the public world, and instead maps the subjective personal experiences of a city's residents.

The Fairest Fowl: Portraits of Championship Chickens

Photographer Tamara Staples documents the fascinating and glamorous world of poultry fanciers and their prized barnyard beauties.

Poetry Animated: Tim Minchin's "Storm"

A delightfully dark diatribe against that all-too-familiar dinner party know-it-all.

Game Frame: Bringing Game Mechanics to Work

How using psychological insight and behavioral motivators from game mechanics can transform the way we think about and do work, making play a core driving force of the modern workplace.

How New Yorkers Feel About Art

Copenhagen-based filmmaker Christian Svanes Kolding captures New Yorker's complex sentiments about art with graceful simplicity.

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