One of the shorter, fun books I read this summer is A Nation of Wusses: How America’s Leaders Lost the Guts to Make Us Great. It’s by Ed Rendell, who was district attorney, mayor of Philadelphia and then two-term governor of Pennsylvania. If you’ve heard him speak or seen him on TV, you know he’s a colorful and outspoken observer of political life in the U.S. No surprise, then, that this book is colorful too,with lots of great stories. His theme is that leaders shouldn’t just tell people what they want to hear. But because politics has become so intensely partisan, too often our political leaders seem to be afraid to tell us the truth and to actually lead us in making the hard choices we need to face up to, on issues like education reform and the federal deficit. As a mayor and governor, Rendell faced up to some very messed-up budget situations and made some smart trade-offs. I thought his point of view was really refreshing. He makes a good point about how politics has changed in ways that make it harder for leaders to emerge and to truly lead.
Eli Broad is definitely not a wuss. I enjoyed his succinct memoir, The Art of Being Unreasonable: Lessons in Unconventional Thinking. Broad has had huge success in business, as the leader of KB Home and then SunAmerica. Now retired, he’s become an important philanthropist in areas including education,which is how I’ve gotten to know him. He attributes a lot of his success to his willingness to defy convention. For example, he admits he’s an impatient guy who hates for people to waste his time, so he won’t go to any event for more than three hours. He believes you may have to be “unreasonable” sometimes to accomplish your goals. He’s certainly accomplished a lot.
Of the five books I finished over vacation, the one that impressed me the most – and that is probably of broadest interest – is Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by science writer Joshua Foer. This is an absolutely phenomenal book that looks at memory and techniques for dramatically improving memory. Foer actually mastered these techniques, which led him to the finals of the U.S. Memory Championship. His book gives fascinating insights into how the mind works. (I have more to say in my separate review of Moonwalking with Einstein.)
The most troubling reading I did on vacation was Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by two sociologists, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, who examine the evidence on what college students actually learn. I was surprised how little data there is on this important question. Even more disturbing, the data cited by the authors indicates that students may not learn very much. In their first two years of college, many U.S. college students advance very little in important skills like critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing. I was really surprised to read that. The data shows that students today spend much less time actually studying, and they take less rigorous courses, most of which don’t require them to do much writing, for example. And yet even so, many students do not complete their degrees. Graduation rates from U.S. colleges are much lower than in many other countries. What’s going on in higher educationis a topic I care a lot about, and I basically agree with the authors’ findings that we have a real problem. I plan to take a deeper dive into this topic with a full review of Academically Adrift, which I’ll post in a few weeks.
Much more upbeat is Awakening Joy: 10 Steps That Will Put You on the Road to Real Happiness, by James Baraz and Shoshana Alexander. I don’t read a lot of self-help or inspirational books, but even if you never read anything in this genre, this book is one you should try. It’s about enjoying your life, consciously picking the things that make life more enjoyable and purposefully thinking about them. It shows how to think about spirituality and purpose in your life. Baraz teaches a very popular course and has an online lecture series on this. Melinda and I actually went to one of his seminars. He’s a very nice guy, and Awakening Joy is very good.