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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Progressive Education

Between Harlem and Peoria, I Realized Something

Last Friday members of many of the graduating classes from the school I attended from first through 12th grades gathered at the site where we had been students (and teachers). New Lincoln was located on 110th St. — which the alert reader will recognize is both in Harlem and on the northern edge of Central Park. New Lincoln was born out of Teachers College Columbia (home of John Dewey) and was Progressive Ed — for good and ill. See this blog from another grad from a younger class The good and bad part of Progressive Ed was the focus on thinking. For example, the entire study of grammar I experienced in 12 years (aside from specific comments on papers) was a 6th grade class debate on whether grammar is the structure of language, or language the structure of grammar. I can’t say that I totally understood the question, then or now, and I could have used some time at the blackboard parsing sentences (it is much harder to learn a foreign language when you only intuit rather than can define the rules of English grammar). But as I recall it was a really fun, lively, discussion.

I am telling you this because I am about to go to a library conf. in Peoria, Illinois, and they asked me to speak about my books. In putting together the talk, I began to realize something about my approach to nonfiction which links directly to NL — and to a criticicism that I have often run into. What NL taught every one of us, from the youngest to the oldest, is that learning is thinking, and that thinking means formulating ideas for yourself. Critics of my books often accuse me of "speculation" — as if NF, especially for younger readers, should be distant, calm — engaging to read, but not showing any sign of my own hunches, guesses, theories. Going back to NL made me realize that I simply could not write that way even if I wanted to.

Formulating a theory is just what happens when an engaged reader encounters new information. We all do it all of the time. So the fun, the pleasure, in nonfiction is both to learn new things and to come up with new theories, new ideas. I need to defend them. I need to consider other views. I need to be open to being wrong. But I must be there thinking along with the information I present. Does that silence readers, forcing them into my mold? All I can say is that when I meet young readers they seem very ready to disagree, to question, to formulate their own theories — just like the kids I remember at NL. 

The root of the word "speculation" is the same as "spectacle" and "spectator" it relates to seeing. I believe that engaged viewing, that generative reading, is the essence of what NF offers. Then we can all have the fun of debating whether my, yours, or young peoples’ speculations are true.


  1. Monica Edinger says:

    Theories work best for me when there is ample evidence to back them up. So far I’ve been skittish with yours regarding the kid readers of your books because I’ve yet to see such evidence. You mention that those young readers you meet “seem very ready to disagree…” but is that true of every single kid in the groups you meet? Are you focusing perhaps on the eager ones and not noticing the others? I suspect there may indeed be a few silenced among them unnoticed, perhaps, if there are others who are jumping up and down and eagerly disagreeing with you. Also, I’m guessing that many of those in the groups you meet have been prepped by teachers beforehand or are perhaps preselected in some other way or another. Then there is the age factor. Younger kids who are less experienced readers are going to have a distinctly different relationship with a book with a strong point of view than older more savvy readers.


    Absolutely (this in response to the post, not the comment)! I am very new to writing. Your blog always makes sense to me, and often makes me think of my son. I see why when I see that you were heavily influenced by educators steeped in Dewey’s thoughts. My son grew up in a K-8 Montessori school. The school placed a heavy emphasis on thinking for oneself. I don’t know the relationship between Dewey and Maria Montessori, but I know they were working at about the same time. My son is now at St. John’s College in Annapolis. I don’t remember if the educators who took St. John’s in the direction of a Great Books school were comfortable with Dewey’s thoughts or were reacting against them, but I do remember there was a relationship. From what I can find today quickly on the web it looks as if they all came out of the University of Chicago at about the same time. Before my son started at St. John’s, we were told that their graduates know how to think. He is learning to formulate theories. And defend those theories, and accept other people’s theories. So many of your posts seem to value the same kinds of things. I find this terribly helpful as I try to begin the process of writing nonfiction.