Great Reads in 2013 (Part 2)

Ten Books I Recommend for 2013 – Part 2 (6-10).

In Great Reads in 2013 (Part 1) I listed the first five of my top 10 books for 2013. In Part 2 I provide the next five books that I highly recommend. Once again, links are provided simply for convenience and context. This second list includes one book that is over 40 years old and an 11th choice that was published over 20 years ago. On all accounts, I believe all books in both blogs are relevant to all higher education leaders and of interest to many others.

As in my review of the first 5 books, I have combined personal insight and at times borrow from the publisher’s summaries. In 2013, these were second set of my top 10 books for the year.

6.   The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die

Author:  Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson: The Great Degeneration - How Institutions Decay and Economies Die

Niall Ferguson: The Great Degeneration – How Institutions Decay and Economies Die

My own research is related to high performing organizations and in particular universities and colleges. As mentioned in Part 1, I often try to understand practices and principles that are transferable to higher education (if at all). To that end, this book was incredibly insightful on many levels. Beyond understanding how institutions decay, it provides insight on how economies fail and in this regard I could not ignore the current economic state of several provinces in Canada, including Ontario.

Ferguson argues the reason for these symptoms is due to the degeneration of our nations’ institutions. He also makes the case (counter to the views of Jared Diamond et al), that geography and environmental conditions are not the foundations upon which robust civilizations thrive. Rather, he argues that it is representative government, the free market, the rule of law, and civil society that are the four pillars upon which West European and North American have attained global dominance. His views are more in line with those of Daron Acemoglu (MIT) and James Robinson (Harvard), authors of my favourite book of 2012, Why Nations Fail.

The book offers evidence that this dominance is at risk and that we are surrounded by symptoms of institutional decline and economic decay. Many of these hit close to home. Symptoms like stagnant growth (Ontario lost another 39,000 jobs in December, 2013), debilitating debts (Ontario’s dept increases $1.3 million every hour), increasing inequality (the 99% vs 1% movement albeit much more applicable in America) and aging populations (a reality in Canada and many developed nations).

Ferguson suggests western global preeminence began around 1500. However, it has been in our generation that we have witnessed the deterioration of our institutions. He blames leaders of today in that they have “broken the contract between the generations by heaping IOUs on our children and grandchildren.”

What I found most interesting in this book was the application of Ferguson’s theories to my own research related to institutional performance and for that reason, this review is slightly longer perhaps than it should be. The author suggests “our markets are hindered by overcomplex regulations that debilitate the political and economic processes they were created to support; the rule of law has become the rule of lawyers. And civil society has degenerated into uncivil society, where we lazily expect all of our problems to be solved by the state.” 

I believe the publisher provides the best answer to the proverbial “so what” question when they write, “The Great Degeneration is an incisive indictment of an era of negligence and complacency. While the Arab world struggles to adopt democracy and China struggles to move from economic liberalization to the rule of law, our society is squandering the institutional inheritance of centuries. To arrest the breakdown of our civilization, Ferguson warns, will take heroic leadership and radical reform.”

This is an excellent book and likely one of my two most favourite that I read in 2013.

7.   Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder

Author:  Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Antifragile - Things That Gain From Disorder

Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Antifragile – Things That Gain From Disorder

I have been a fan of Taleb since first reading his excellent book, The Black Swan (as were 3 million other people). In that 2007 book Taleb suggested that rare and unpredictable events dominate almost everything that occurs in society. He also ridicules those who try to find simplistic explanations for these events in retrospect (the proverbial Monday morning quarterback).

I found Taleb’s latest book very relevant because in 2014, higher education institutions are operating in a rapidly changing, increasingly complex environment. Taleb would suggest that universities and colleges that are afraid of change and are not preparing to operate within this dynamic environments are vulnerable… they are what he refers to as fragile and suseptible to failure or at least insignificance.

In this book Taleb introduces us to an antidote to Black Swan events and the opposite of fragile… something he calls “antifragile”. In Taleb’s mind, antifragile organizations turn the notion of reacting within an uncertain environment on its head. These antifragile organizations find dynamic environments desirable and even necessary to perform at peak performance.

I think the notion of antifragility is particularly useful today within higher education. My own research suggests that it is the institutions that embrace uncertainty and ambiguity and have leaders that are moderately risk tolerant that will be more likely to succeed. According to Taleb, these organizations exhibit “a love of errors… [and are prepared] to do things without understanding them – and do them well.”

As stated by the publisher, this book “spans innovation by trial and error, life decisions, politics, urban planning, war, personal finance, economic systems and medicine. Antifragile is a blueprint for living in a Black Swan world.” Across states and provinces today, we are seeing publicly funded universities and colleges facing severe financial pressures. I believe this book is a good read for all educational leaders as it is becoming clear to me that those organizations that embrace the concepts and culture of an antifragile institution are the ones most likely to be successful.

Note: If you have not read Black Swan I recommend it. You will never be able listen to those who predict future events in the same way.

8.   Higher Education in the Digital Age

Author:  William G. Bowen

William G. Bowen: Higher Education in the Digital Age

William G. Bowen: Higher Education in the Digital Age

One of the best books I have read on higher education was Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education. Written in 2005, one of the authors of that book was former Princeton University President William Bowen. This year he was at it again providing us with an authoritative and empirically-based view of online learning.

The book begins with a good overview of the challenges facing universities and colleges including exploding costs. Bowen asks the question, “Could the growth in online courses slow the rising cost of college and help solve the crisis of affordability?” What I found interesting in reading Bowen’s perspective is that it is not lost on me that we are hearing support for online learning from the former president of Princeton University. Further, his current views are particularly interesting considering Bowen was once skeptical about online learning. In this book, Bowen presents the results from an empirical study that indicates online delivery maintains learning while also having the potential to help rein in costs.

William G. Bowen

William G. Bowen

Bowen has been in the Academy for decades and he understands the opportunities inherent in online learning will not be implemented easily. However, Bowen also believes that the challenges facing online adoption are as much organizational and philosophical as they are technical. To that end, I am in agreement.

This book is based on the 2012 Tanner Lectures on Human Values that were delivered at Stanford University. As a result, the book includes responses from Stanford president John Hennessy, Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner, Columbia University literature professor Andrew Delbanco, and Coursera cofounder Daphne Koller. A very interesting read for anyone interested in higher education and issues related to online learning.

9.   Steps to an Ecology of Mind: A Revolutionary Approach to Man’s Understanding of Himself

Author:  Gregory Bateson

Gregory Bateson: Steps to an Ecology of Mind

Gregory Bateson: Steps to an Ecology of Mind

I admit I am forty years behind most people in reading Bateson’s most famous book; a collection of work over his long and storied career. Although late to the game, I thought the book itself was worth the read.

The book begins with a series of conversations about specific subjects. Quite frankly, I was about to give up during Part 1 but I am pleased I kept reading. The part of the book that was most intriguing was Part 3. That section is titled Form and Pathology in Relationship and the subsection I was most interested was related to Bateson’s Double Bind theory. This theory was first introduced by Bateson and colleagues in the 1950s. However I found the concepts useful to anyone leading complex situations in which there is communication and learning (and what organizations do not have both?).

Double bind is a situation in which no matter what a person does they cannot be successful; that there are two conflicting issues being communicated that seemingly cannot be reconciled. Bateson’s original research suggested that this kind of situation can lead to symptoms that resemble schizophrenia.

There are also interesting videos on YouTube that buttress Bateson’s work that are equally interesting. In one of these videos, Bateson is quoted as stating, “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.” This book and more specifically Bateson himself looked at learning in a new way. From that perspective alone, this book may be of interest to any educator.

Double bind is not limited to individuals and organizations. It is interesting that the concept of double bind has been used in Zen Buddhism for years as a therapeutic tool. In this case, the Master imposes the double bind upon his students with a desired outcome to be a sense of enlightenment.

Whether you are an educator, Zen Master or some other profession, I will admit that this book may not be for everyone. However, it was recommended to me and the good news is that used copies, like mine, are often available on Amazon for less that $5.00. Although difficult to read the entire book, I am glad I did because it introduced me to a remarkable anthropologist and educator of which I knew little.

10.   Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing our Minds for the Better

Author:  Clive Thompson

Clive Thompson: Smarter Than You Think - How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better

Clive Thompson: Smarter Than You Think – How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better

Daily we read about or hear people make complaints about the negative impact that technology is having on their lives (or more often the lives of children). Many of those views we hear reflect a belief that people are getting lazier, becoming less intelligent and this is having a negative impact on our society. Canadian journalist Clive Thompson argues against these perspective and provides us with compelling evidence to buttress his views.

The publisher writes, “It’s undeniable: technology is changing the way we think. But is it for the better? Amid a chorus of doomsayers, Clive Thompson votes “yes”. The Internet age, he argues, has produced bold new forms of human cognition, worthy of both celebration and investigation. We learn more and retain the information longer, write and think with global audiences, and even gain an ESP-like awareness of the world around us.”

Certainly in higher education we often hear concerns about the negative impact that technology is having on teaching, on students and on learning. In this book, Thompson cautions us with the reality that every technology has created some level of anxiety among educators. Whether these technologies were the printing press or the telegraph or the iPad, anxiety during adoption has always occurred. What is also consistent in each of these cases is that we get over the anxiety and we adapt. In time we accept the elements of the technology that are good and useful and we disregard the rest.

This book is both thought-provoking and a relatively simple read. Simple in that it is full of characters and stories that are both interesting and enlightening. This really is a good book for all those interested in technology and learning in the 21st Century.


Part 1 of this blog stated that there were over 2 million books produced in 2013. Of course there were many books that were exceptional and this blog introduced 10 of those that had an impact on me. In fact, some of my 10 were not even published this past year, but all were certainly enjoyable to read.

If I had an 11th book to suggest it too is over two decades old. I won’t describe it here but if you are interested in a great book about higher education, Henry Rosovsky‘s, The University – An Owners Manual is a classic. Rosovsky draws upon his eleven years as Dean, Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University to provide a very interesting and amusing view of higher education. It too has been available for years but it was in 2013 that I was able to find the time to read it.  Here too, I am pleased I did.

Happy reading.



About kentmacdonald

President and Vice Chancellor Professor, Faculty of Education St. Francis Xavier University
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