Education Commentary

Some Books of the Century

By Craig Kridel — December 15, 1999 12 min read
We remain intrigued by the designated selections yet vigilant and always ready to rally forces to battle for the neglected, overlooked, or maligned.

As the fin de siècle approaches, we have been besieged with lists: news events of the century, novels of the century, nonfiction works, films, songs, and, yes, books specific to fields of study. Yet lists elicit many different responses, most often resulting in cries of objection concerning not what is listed, but what has been left off.

Such objections to lists are now commonplace, as the public wonders how writings by John Updike could be left off Random House’s 100 best novels of the century written in English; why so few women were listed among the American novelists only eight, and Toni Morrison is not among them; how “The Big Sleep,” “Cabaret,” “The Color Purple,” and “The General” were excluded from the American Film Institute’s 100 American movies of all time; or why the director James Cameron’s declaring himself “King of the World” is merely second on The New York Times’ 100 least significant news stories of the century. The selected become somewhat secondary to the act of listing and, of course, attention is directed toward what decisions and whose criteria were used in choosing those exalted few.

Lists of noteworthy books are perhaps the most commonplace, as there have been many occasions when academics have identified a lifetime reading plan without waiting for the end of a decade or century. Be it Clifton Fadiman or Thomas Jefferson, the Harvard Five- Foot Bookshelf, the Encyclopedia Britannica and the St. John’s College curriculum, or E.D. Hirsch Jr., we remain intrigued by the designated selections yet vigilant and always ready to rally forces to battle for the neglected, overlooked, or maligned. As the 1998 editorial staff of the Library Journal notes (stemming from an examination of Random House’s 100 best novels): We set off on righteous rants. . . . We railed against perfidious picks, egregious omissions, statistical evidence of prejudice. . . . Some disagreements would not be reconciled and will have certain editors looking askance at each other for months to come. But more important than any list is the reminder that literature inspires a deep passion in people. We, too, at the Museum of Education have been inspired by books in what we describe, as well as Richard Altick in The Scholar Adventurers, as a deep and consuming passion.

In initiating an end-of-the-century book exhibition, I did not wish to present a great books roster for the field of education, nor to canonize a definitive array of books that every educator should know. The fear of a great books/who’s who list served to deter our initial efforts as well as the participation, I suspect, of certain scholars whose involvement I sought as members of a selection panel. Nonetheless, I was inspired by the wonderful reception to The New York Public Library’s Books of the Century publication, initiated by the library’s exhibition to celebrate its 1996 centennial. Displaying works selected to recall this past century and its tremendous changes . . . [Books of the Century] drew on the enthusiasm and love of books . . . of the institution’s librarians. Similarly, our exhibition, stemming from a love of books, provides an opportunity to generate discourse, controversy, and reflection about education writings, dialogue that is currently absent and sadly neglected in our field.

Selection Criteria. As the Museum of Education selection panel began to conceive the project, we realized that we could not be objective nor would we try. Elizabeth Diefendorf of the New York Public Library notes the same: All of us who worked on Books of the Century understand that any such compilation, no matter how ambitious, can only be ‘Some Books of the Century,’ as one visitor commented. Our choices, though certainly diverse, represent a perspective that is urban, American, and profoundly concerned with issues of social justice and freedom of expression. And ultimately there are many other books we might have included. The library’s list of 159 works in 11 categories is much more comprehensive than our 60 selections conceived around one category. And while there are, of course, many, many other books we might have added, our picks represent a perspective that is similarly academic, American, and profoundly concerned and interested in progressive education and experimentation.

To list is to exclude, and we knew that we would insult many by not including certain beloved works. As we continued, we watched our list grow to well over 200 books. However, exhibition space, research time, and framing costs demanded focus. We made our choices from a list of nominations that were then narrowed after conversations with the panelists. This process clarified for us the value of our project: to initiate discussions about text, for the love of books, rather than to dispute the injustices of selection. John Updike, when referring to his 55 selections for The Best American Short Stories of the Century, notes, A fathomless ocean of rejection and exclusion surrounds this brave little flotilla, the best of the best. Our flotilla will, we hope, provide a gateway to your discovering the more than 150 works that were not included. Doubtless, our criteria will be questioned, as they should. Ultimately, we worked within four principles for inclusion.

First, we followed the New York Public Library’s lead by deciding that an author could be represented by only one title a decree that proved futile as we sought to select a work by John Dewey. One selection per author was made with apologies to our review panel, to Dewey afficionados, and with regrets to some of our more prolific writers.

Second, we favored books that addressed the academic field of elementary-secondary education rather than the more practical dimension of schooling. Thus, elementary and secondary schoolbooks, as well as many college textbooks, while dramatically swaying school practice, have not been included. We also excluded what would have easily expanded the exhibition fourfold: works that influenced the field of education from outside. We wished not to become embroiled in border wars what truly represents (or separates) the fields of education and psychology, or whether, for example, Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice or Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory should be considered education books but we eventually excluded works that were written by individuals from outside the field of education, books by countless important authors. Even with this pronouncement, we recognize the appearance of Charles E. Silberman, Samuel Bowles, and Herbert Gintis.

Third, we stayed within the publication date of the 20th century and focused on North American (primarily United States) educators. This served to exclude Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and writings of many others. Well into the selection process we read Updike’s second rule in his selection of short stories of the century: Enforcing the reflection of an American reality, was to exclude any story that did not take place on this continent or deal with characters from the United States or Anglophone Canada. Under different circumstances, we would take issue with his position; yet, after attempting to balance our own selections within a global context, we realized the hopelessness of such efforts. We have scheduled a future museum exhibition (planned for 2003) that moves out of such a provincial and parochial perspective.

And, fourth, we asked our selection panelists 35 members from throughout the United States to identify education books that had a significant influence, consequence, or resonance on American education during the 20th century. Books were identified that advanced the history of ideas related to the field of elementary-secondary education, broadly conceived. As such, we have included certain important yet unacknowledged publications. In short, works were selected that exerted, or should have exerted, a profound influence, consequence, or resonance upon the field of American education.

Also, we sought to acknowledge commonsensical criteria: Is the book intrinsically interesting, memorable, and re-readable? This did not always work, however. Certain selections are not particularly interesting, memorable, or re-readable; yet, they exerted profound influence upon the field. Some entries were justified by their seminal role in the history of ideas. Others were justified by that infuriating and all-too-common rationale: They’re good for the reader. Moreover, some selections were included due to their overpowering popularity; yet, if an opportunity arose, the interest of a book (could it be reread and still provide sustenance) was more admired than fame. Such were the problems of selection; such were our sins of omission.

Exceptions, Oddities, and Irregularities. After much discussion among certain panelists, we decided not to identify any works from the past 15 years. Our selections end in 1985, with Jeannie Oakes’ Keeping Track. Perhaps this should have caused us to retitle the project; however, we find ourselves in domains where rules are made up as play progresses. Our books-of-the-century project, with all selections between 1900 and 1985, is seemingly little different from the British book store Waterstone’s search for the greatest books of the 20th century that was completed in 1996 allowing for little consideration of the final years of the century. The Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels concluded with William Kennedy’s Ironweed, published in 1983. While we do not necessarily seek to select only those books that have stood the test of time, we note that the passing of years helps determine significance.

As we engaged in the challenging process of discerning importance, we found ourselves in a dreadful dilemma. We noticed that our list was becoming overpopulated with white, male authors. To represent the past with a sense of gender equity is a state devoutly wished. As one of our reviewers responded: I am pained to see the list comprised of primarily white men’s books. We, too, are pained. We never expected, however, a list to represent an even distribution along minority/gender lines. Actually, we were uncertain what to expect, since impact and significance were aspects of our criteria, and these ephemeral constructs become defined within their own times, a past of white, patriarchal eras.

After making our selections, we determined that 23 percent of the exhibits were works by minority/women authors; yet, we had no sense of what would be an appropriate representation. In order to provide some context, we tabulated the number of minority/women authors in the field of curriculum, an area not as gender-defined as male-dominated educational administration or female- oriented elementary education. William Schubert’s Curriculum Books identified works in the field of curriculum from 1900 to 1980 and, much to our surprise, only 4 percent of the publications were written by women. Such statistical outcomes are not encouraging; yet, this made our books-of-the- century representation of 23 percent by minority/

women authors just a bit more palatable.

Many collections of the 100 best are based on a ratings system where authorities submit opinions that are subsequently tabulated and adopt a tone of scientific objectivity. Other collections seek to generate discourse as is the stated goal of the Modern Library’s list and do not embody such a sense of authority. Yet others are a homage to the love of reading, best represented in Ronald Shwartz’s For the Love of Books and Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, where the selections prove personal and idiosyncratic.

Our intent was to display a sense of curiosity toward the examination of education books; in so doing, we sought to initiate discussions about those works that serve to inspire and in many cases to define this loosely conceived field called education. This is certainly a tall task and ultimately cannot be achieved merely from an exhibition or a catalog. This is why we wish to create an ongoing dialogue.

Through a series of exhibitions and book discussions at the Museum of Education during the 1999- 2000 and 2000-01 academic years, we will see our books-of-the-century project come to life. Exhibits encompass an array of items material culture for each selection: a first-edition copy of the work; photographs of the author(s), as well as related correspondence; an array of book reviews and citations; accompanying publications by the author or other related works; and any other artifacts, ephemera, and documents related to the selected work. In short, the intent is more than merely presenting a roster of book titles.

Our activities are a temporally limited series of events exhibitions in the form of montage presentation. A Books of the Century catalog, available from the Museum of Education in April 2000, will compile text excerpts and summaries from our exhibitions and, as such, will serve to educate our professional community and to represent the museum’s endeavor as bibliographic collagers. The significance of our efforts, however, will be the discussion that emerges during the stroll through the exhibits namely, reflection and consideration of these works and those many others that could, justifiably, have been included.

In the introduction to Books of the Century, Charles McGrath describes the 99 bound volumes of The New York Times Book Review as a chastening and depressing catalogue of once-famous books and authors now utterly forgotten. At times, we fear the same description for this project. As you examine the exhibitions listing, many selections will stump and confuse few educators will recognize the names Willard W. Waller, Caroline B. Zachry, or Laura Zirbes. This has already occurred when we presented in-process selections to the academic community at various conferences.

I will view our efforts as worthwhile and not chastening and depressing if you find yourself perusing any of the book selections with awe of the new or with a pleasant sense of recognition. Moreover, I will consider the effort worthwhile if dialogue and critique emerge in the postings on the Books of the Century (online) Discussion Group (www.ed.sc.edu/musofed/ discuss.htm). I ask you, as readers of Education Week, to join our deliberations. What are the important books of the past 15 years? What are the more important works of the past century? Albeit, any response is speculative and interpretative. Yet, from such discourse, the awe and wonderment of the past and present emerge through those books we hold dear.

Craig Kridel is a professor of education and the curator of the Museum of Education at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C. He has served as an editor of Writing Educational Biography, Teachers and Mentors: Profiles of Distinguished Twentieth-Century Professors of Education, The American Curriculum, and Curriculum History. He is currently writing a history of the Progressive Education Association’s Eight-Year Study.

A version of this article appeared in the December 15, 1999 edition of Education Week as Some Books of the Century