Here’s an antidote to all the talk about failing schools, education reform, test scores, teacher-value, curricular controversies, school choice. It’s a book about what counts—a young person’s self-formation and a teacher’s work to support it. It’s a quiet book, an illustration of what happens as thoughtful students interact with a sensitive adult.
Its title, Letters of Recommendation, hints at the angst about getting accepted by college, employer, and the world at large. But that angst hides the real challenge—forming an aware, purposeful sense of self. Letters of Recommendation shows this pedagogical problem when all the externals are right.
Emilia, a girl who seemingly has it all, asks an admired teacher, Doc, for a letter of recommendation supporting early admission to a top college. Emilia withdraws the request, beginning to doubt where she’s going, and why, and what she really wants to do. Doc senses her unease. Letters result, back and forth throughout the school year, with subtle attention to the girl’s emerging sense of self and the teacher’s presence, both humane and professional. The year ends, the exchange stops; life’s externals appear settled for now, with the larger questions deepened, but still open, as they always are.
Letters offers no list of easy steps, no how-to’s, no magic methods. Instead, reading it heightens awareness of what goes on as good education takes place. It affirms a student’s self-reliance in the face of felt uncertainties and a teacher’s trust that her presence as a full, human person has value and meaning in the work of education. The letters themselves don’t exemplify an instructional method, but serve as a literary means to direct attention to the inner lives of a student and her teacher. The letters create a thought-provoking book, a pedagogical dialogue. And the dialogue’s privileged setting doesn’t celebrate the rich and famous. It’s a way to set aside the material complications, which intrude in our lives and make it difficult to concentrate on what’s essential — essential, not only for the few, but for each and all.
- Thinking about education should not be limited to thinking about schooling.
- Exemplary mentors play essential roles in an adolescent’s quest to discover her aspirations.
- The young achieve autonomy by developing a reciprocity of personal goals with public purposes.
- The liberal arts help a student use cultural stories to form her purpose and meaning.
- Teachers and students together create the excellence of a school through the quality of their actions.
- Differentiating privilege from entitlement is necessary in a democratic culture.
Online booksellers carry Letters — Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Tower Books — and your favorite bookstore can order it for you — Letters of Recommendation by Maxine McClintock is published in The Reflective Commons (New York: Collaboratory for Liberal Learning, 2013). ISBN 978-1-937828-004, $24.95.