Essential Books about Teaching

The small list.
Compiled by Steve Elliott[1]

Adler, Mortimer J. Reforming Education. Macmillan, 1977. In addition to this fine work, which is an anthology of his writings about education, you may find his classics, “How to Read a Book,” and “How to Speak, How to Listen,” very helpful as well. I like Adler for his love of the classics and his clarity of expression. It may not all be as simple as he makes it sound, but it sure is refreshing and challenging to contemplate his vision of learning.

Auchincloss, Louis. The Rector of Justin. Avon Books, 1964. I love to read fiction, and often in education it is in biography and fiction that one can “envision” what great teaching looks like. I hope at some point to include my reviews of a number of great fictional and biographical works on teaching, but for now this is one of the best I have read. As David Hicks says, it asks all the right questions.

Hicks, David. Norms & Nobility. University Press of America , 1991. Perhaps the best work I know on the subject of what a school should be and education in general. A must read. If we thought like this, we would save education from collapse. May God bless it many thoughtful readers.

Highet, Gilbert. The Art of Teaching. Vintage Books: New York , 1954. An outstanding discussion of the nature, scope, and methods of teachers and teaching. Highet includes an analysis of many of the great teachers from the past and the methods and attitudes they employed. Highet is wonderfully engaging, clear, thoughtful, and sympathetic to students and teachers both. He uses a great many examples and the book itself is an example of the principles he espouses. Highet is a humanist and reveals a belief in the moral power of education that must be rejected by biblical Christian world-view thinkers. Like Mortimer Adler, his humanism drives his discussion. However, again like Adler, the philosophy of teaching that he holds has been built out of the Christian West and ought to be considered carefully by Christians. The book is well worth several careful, thoughtful readings because there is a great deal of immmense value to be gained from it.

Joseph, Sister Miriam. The Trivium. Edited by Marguerite McGlinn. Paul Dry Books, 2002. I have found this immensely slow in reading, pleasantly and challengingly deep, and worth every penny of effort. But I warn you that I have found my peers regularly balk at its size and difficulty. If you persevere, you will reap a bounty of theory and practicality from this seasoned veteran of classical education.

Newman, John Henry. The Idea of a University: Defined and Illustrated. Loyola University Press, 1927. Given as a series of lectures, the purpose of this text is to set forth the purpose of a university by defending the notion of a liberal education. Newman sets the standard high and clearly aims all proper education at its intended Christian goal.

Palmer, Parker. The Courage to Teach. Jossey-Bass, 1998. I have not read this yet, but so many have suggested it to me that I put it out here as a recommendation on the weight of those who have suggested it. I will revise once I read it.

Plato. The Republic. The well known work by this early and key philosopher includes many sections given over to what the education of a just society must include. Guaranteed to enjoin some hot discussion among teachers and a must read for all those seeking to teach classically. I would recommend the Grube text revised by Reeve.

Sayers, Dorothy. “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Given as an address at Oxford in the middle of this century, it is available as a reprint from National Review, Canon Press, or online. A classic essay on the possibility of adapting the late medieval and early Renaissance “trivium” to elementary and secondary pedagogy as a means of recovering the educational soundness that has been lost in the last hundred years in the Western world.

Sidney, Sir Philip. An Apology for Poesy. Why all the literature in a classical education? Here is a great answer, as well as helpful work on the inculcation of virtue in the student.

Taylor, James. Poetic Knowledge: the Recovery of Education. SUNY, 1998. This book examines the levels of knowledge by which a student learns, and gives ample reason to seek to recover the mode of poetic knowledge, that knowledge we gain through intuition, experience, and inner passion. This is a great work for a faculty to talk through together. This book should launch a thousand conversations.

Veith, Gene E. & Andrew Kern, Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America . Capitol Research Center , 2001. A great overview of the various “new” forms of classical education in American experience today. This helps everyone get a sense of balance in this fairly new movement by seeking out that which best addresses their passions and concerns. Andrew is director of Circe Ministries, which is at the forefront of the classical school consulting business and has a wonderful conference every year.

[1] My sources for this list are numerous, but at the least following must be acknowledged:

Callihan, Wes. An Annotated Bibliography On Classical Education Organized Somewhat Chronologically (Ancient, Renaissance, and Modern; Eclectic, Arbitrary, and Incomplete) , off the internet. Some of his descriptions have been used above.

Hicks, David. Norms and Nobility. Not only did this book make it into my list, but its bibliography and notes spawned a huge amount of reading on my part, many of which are above.
Kern, Andrew. Circe Institutes various publications almost always list great books for the rest of us to read. I know several of the above come from there.


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