7 Reasons Why the Best Education Books Are Rarely the Bestsellers

The more I scan the Amazon bestsellers in the education section as well as some of the other major lists, the more I come to believe that the best education books are rarely bestsellers. There are exceptions to this. Some incredible books about education absolutely become bestsellers, and that is encouraging. However, they do so despite some of the trends, not because of them. Here are seven reasons why.

Bestsellers tend to stretch but not break the system.

We want to be stretched, but only so far. If there is a central truth that risks disrupting the system altogether, we would usually rather ignore it. Exceptions are often education books that get a readership outside the normal audience. They are books that connect with and reach a group that knows or lives the brokenness of the system. I put books like Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed in this category.

Bestsellers keep it concrete.

Even though some of the most important issues call for an examination of the theoretical and philosophical, many of us would rather settle for a simple 10-step guide or at least something straightforward and concrete. The issue might be complex, but we still want and hope for a simple solution. In the absense of that, we will settle for a reciple. There are exceptions, books that draw from theory and reserach to highlight a very practical and lived experience, but those are also the books where the authors come back in five to ten years to talk about all the ways that educators are misusing or misunderstanding their intentions. We see that with Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind as well as Dweck’s Mindset.

Bestsellers use or create buzz words.

We love buzz words in education, and we buy the books that use the latest ones. In fact, it sometimes seems like a recipe for success is choose a few buzz words, add some inspirational stories, include a list of tips, and you have a bestseller.

Bestsellers are about the celebrity educator as much as what they wrote.

There are many wonderful exceptions to this, but oftentimes it is just a matter of people who have a great following, they write a people, and those followers take if from there.

Bestsellers bow to the sacred cows.

There are some things that you can challenge in education and others that you cannot. There is only so much openness to full and candid discourse. Any challenge to certain existing power structures will immediately put you on the “do not buy” list, although this sometimes works out too. When there are enough people outside of the system who resonate, that can be enough to start a movement.

Bestsellers do not bother with too much research.

Again, I am thankful that there are some great exceptions to this, but many of us in education do not want to bother with the hard stuff. We are all about following your instincts even if the research, sometimes even when the research, indicates otherwise.

Bestsellers get their by great marketing.

There are wonderful education books that do not release through top publishers with larger budgets, or they are not written by well-known personalities who have a large pre-existing audience. As such, they just don’t reach a large audience. That does not mean, however, that they couldn’t reach a larger audience with the right marketing strategy.

I realize that these are broad generalizations and, like I mentioned at the beginning of the article, there are some encouraging and wonderful exceptions to this. However, that is not my main reason for writing this. Instead, I write this article because I have been incredibly blessed to discover lesser known education books that have changed the way that I think about teaching, learning, and education as a whole. Some of them were bestsellers of a different era. Others never reached large audience. That doesn’t take anything away from the fact that they are insightful, even important, books about education. As such, I invite others to join me in doing the extra work to seek out books that might not be praised at education conferences, highlighted in bestseller lists, promoted among colleagues, or even known by others. The majority is sometimes wrong, maybe even the majority of the time. How will this influence your reading habits?

The Fruit of Liberal Education is the Capacity to Learn and Power

Charles William Eliot is quoted as saying that, “The fruit of liberal education is not learning, but the capacity and desire to learn, not knowledge, but power.” I don’t have the full context for the quote, which can be problematic, but we can still use this as a tool for reflecting on the role of education more broadly, and the liberal arts more specifically.

Eliot argued that what results from a good education is not (in modern language) simply meeting learning outcomes or evidence of mastery of a new body of knowledge. We are changed by a deep and substantive exploration of great ideas from the past and present. We benefit from participating in the long and grand conversation about persistent themes and questions of humanity. What is real? What is truth? What is the nature of humanity? What is good? What is right and wrong? What is beautiful? What can we learn from history? What is the purpose of life and how do people find meaning in life? What is the nature of death?

These are not just questions for a few elite groups of people? Whether we explore them in the great classics of the Western or Eastern world, almost everyone asks and seeks answers to these questions at some point in their lives. They represent individual and collective yearnings and musings as far back as we are able to track human history.

When a person develops a deepened and nuanced exploration of these questions, it not only offers knowledge. It also gives that person a sort of power. There are many working definitions of power, but many of them include an ability to influence the people and world around us. An automobile that has power is able to propel it forward, covering countless miles and taking people on adventures to distant locations. A device with power seems to come to life, making things possible for the user that are not without it. A mobile phone without power is just a paper weight.

Similarly, the liberal arts, at their best, help people to not only develop knowledge, but to develop a wisdom that prepares them to lead and influence themselves and others. How can exploring these philosophical questions empower people? Much of humanity is a conscious or unconscious search for answers about or struggle with the types of questions that I mentioned before. This is true across people from different walks of life: the scientist seeking to discover truth; the medical researcher seeking truths that bring about good for others; the artist or filmmakers who seeks to explore truth, beauty, and goodness; the athlete pursuing greatness or excellence; the solider fighting for what he or she deems noble and worthy of sacrifice; or the parent grappling with how to raise children well.

We spend our lives in ways that are shaped and fueled by the great questions of the past and present. When we take the time to learn from those who came before us, we find ourselves able to build upon those ideas, deviate from them, or to known when we are adding something new to the conversation. In doing so, we are joining in an age-old narrative about life, truth, goodness, and beauty.

The liberal arts are not just about knowledge. They are also about power. Frederick Douglas wrote, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” This is not to discount real and institutional barriers to freedom, but just as reading gives one access to great ideas, a study and exploration of these great ideas gives one the capacity to think and communicate ideas that are solid, lasting, and impactful.

None of this is a defense of dry and disconnected learning environments that bemoan new models and innovations in education. I am certainly not claiming that we should force more people through a long list of prescribed core courses in high school and college.  I am simply posing a couple of questions. In this connected age of education, this era of unprecedented experimentation and innovation, what does it look like for us to create spaces where people can value and explore the great questions of the past and present amid many forms of education and learning throughout life? In doing so, how does this contribute to our thinking about power in education and society?