Book Review of "An Intelligent Person's Guide to Education" by Tony Little
Wednesday, August 10, 2016
Posted by: Christina Mimms
Reviewed by Damian Kavanagh, SAIS
Of the many charms of this book, principal among them, to me, is that it is written by a former head of school. Tony Little’s narrative reflects the hopes and dreams we all have for school and yet may have difficulty expressing because of fear, an insufficiency of the vocabulary necessary for description, or a lack of the wisdom and perspective that only comes from a distinguished career of experiences and choices. Little gives voice to concerns and complaints about mandatory testing, well-meaning but misguided parents, and the influence of shifting societal norms. He weighs in on overprescribed adolescents and the innate value of imagination and reading.
Common sense is employed liberally throughout the work, interwoven with tantalizing tidbits of innovation and provocative ideas – this is also part of its charm. Little challenges us to engage with our own beliefs about the purpose of education and expresses himself without resorting to “educationese” jargon. This book is worth keeping handy and coming back to in the same way you might reflect on a conversation you had with a mentor or recall something that was said in a workshop – these are the little things that have an almost imperceptible influence on the way we organize and think about the world around us.
This book is written for heads of school, administrators, teachers, parents, board members, public officials, and even students. Several chapters are addressed more directly to one group than another, for example the chapter entitled Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll is written with the parent reader in mind, although the educator will benefit from insights into the proclivities of the adolescent. Current heads and trustees may find the chapter Turning it Around especially useful. In it, Little compares being a school head to playing three-dimensional chess, making reference to the continual balancing act needed to appease and lead diverse constituencies, especially the governing body. A particular cautionary tale is expressed in this vignette: “One head of an independent school who was facing criticism and difficulties told me that it had never occurred to him that a head needed to cultivate his own governing body. He had assumed they would be trenchant in support of the direction set by the head” (p. 185).
Rest assured that it is of no consequence to be familiar with the British education system (A-levels, sixth form, GCSE, public school vs. state school, etc.) as the language of adolescent development is nearly universal. Nevertheless, there is a British sound to the book, and so an appreciation of the wit of British humor may help as well as an awareness that Little served as the 70th headmaster of Eton College, founded in 1440 by King Henry VI. Old Etonians, as alumni are called, include multiple prime ministers, members of royal families, and leaders of various industries; the number of “notable Old Etonians” is greater than the total alumni base of most schools. Still, Little is able to meld that tremendous weight of history with a sensible and modern approach to education.
As he moves with ease from topic to topic, Little’s tone wanders from skeptical to wistful to transcendent. His chief concern does not waver and remains focused squarely, and rightly, on the needs of the students in his charge. Addressing the quagmire of curriculum and assessment and what should be measured, he writes, “If the prescribed literary text is safe and ‘accessible’ (sometimes a euphemism for ‘undemanding’), or if history is only a routine diet of Nazism with a splash of Tudors, or if a subject is broken into disparate segments, we are not measuring the capacity of our young people to see the horizon” and concludes with, “the very business of measurement should include a health warning” (p. 7). Stories told with turns of phrase such as this are also part of the charm and make the book refreshing and compelling.
Too few former heads of school complete the book they say they want to write upon retirement. The handful of books that do exist from this group are worth returning to every so often so that we can be challenged by their ideas, affirmed by their clarity, and inspired by the differences that can be made in the lives of children.