The Curiosity of School by Zander Sherman

The Curiosity of School by Zander Sherman

Education or learning? Is there a difference?

Synopsis of The Curiosity of School by Zander Sherman: It’s one thing we all have in common. We’ve all been to school. But as Zander Sherman shows in this fascinating, often shocking account of institutionalized education, sending your kids off to school was not always normal. In fact, school is a very recent invention. Taking the reader back to 19th-century Prussia, where generals, worried about soldiers’ troubling individuality, sought a way to standardize every young man of military age, through to the most controversial debates about the topic of education today, Sherman tells the often astonishing stories of the men and women—and corporations—that have defined what we have come to think of as both the privilege and the responsibility of being educated.

With clarity, detachment, and wry humour, Sherman presents the story of school through the stories of its most influential—and peculiar—reformers. We learn that Montessori schools were embraced by Mussolini's Italy, that the founder of Ryerson University was a champion of the Canadian residential school system (for which the government apologized a century and a half later), and that Harvard was once a byword for mediocrity.

Along the way, we discover that the SAT was invented as an intelligence test designed to allow the state to sterilize “imbeciles” and in its current state is perhaps equally pernicious, that suicide in the wake of disappointing results in the state university placement exams is the fifth leading cause of death in China, and that commercialized higher education seduces students into debt as cynically as credit card companies do.

Provocative, entertaining—and even educational—The Curiosity of School lays bare the forces that shape the institution that shapes all of us.

My two cents: 

Let me say right off that I didn't finish the book (I reached page 321 out of 352 - or approximately 91% according to Goodreads - which is 30 pages shy of completing it). While I didn't finish it, I do intend to, but for some reason I broke my momentum with this and it's a little difficult to get my head into the game again.

You can tell right away by the many stickies that I found this book rather fascinating. It is an extremely ambitious book, covering the history of institutionalized education from the 19th century to the present.

I discovered some really interesting things about the roots of education, always interesting, some downright creepy and sinister. Standardization of education with roots in Nazi training? SATs and other tests a huge money-making machine? The now prestigious Harvard once synonymous with mediocrity? Are university/school rankings total garbage? Fascinating stuff which got me questioning and wondering quite a lot of things that we tend to accept without question; a mark of a good provoking read!

I figure that I was inclined to the subject matter in the first place. I have been interested in education in general, coming from a culture and a family that values education highly. I also had to take some education courses in school at some point. When I was looking up schools for the little one, I was looking at the various philosophies so Montessori and Waldorf weren't totally alien to me. But there's the rub -- if you're looking for a readable Malcolm Gladwell, this one tries really hard but doesn't quite make it. (Plus a warning that this book is about 350 pages, so it is a bit of investment in reading time).

I think the reason that he lost me is that this book covers so much ground, and it also tends to meander here and there. And while Sherman tries to wrap things up with a little bow in the end, the book isn't as tight as it could be. There is also a lot of tongue-in-cheek humour, which could get lost on many, or may come across as snide sometimes.

I found this book very Western and European focused, with special attention to the US and Canada. While it makes some reference to India and China (mainly about the pressures of getting into good schools), I kept thinking about the long tradition of learning and scholarship in ancient civilizations. Reference was made in passing ... but how can that not come into play into formal education today? (I am not an educator nor do I claim knowledge about the subject matter ... this is just my personal opinion!)

Another issue that I didn't quite sit well with me was that despite this being so obviously well-researched, the text itself made little reference to its sources. So I started questioning some assertions made -- was Sherman referring to the opinions of those he was citing, or were these his assertions? I flipped through the back and the reference list is long and detailed but how the earth am I supposed to connect the dots between the text and that?

Verdict: An overall fascinating and thought-provoking read that will challenge many commonly accepted practices and ideas in today's educational system. I have a feeling that my teacher friends would really benefit from this, and it would make an interesting addition to an educator's library. For the curious reader, this one is packed - go for it!

First line: The story of school begins in antiquity, when there was enough information in the world that someone was needed to copy it down.

More at The Curiosity of School website

I won this book on Goodreads First Reads.


  1. You read such interesting books!

    1. I would read a product label if i thought it was interesting :). Thanks, Deondra, I do try to read a range of things and try and get out of my comfort zone. I used not to read a lot of non-fiction (bec it reminded me of school, I guess), now I really enjoy it!


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