Garn Press Author Reading Series: Steve Nelson, author of First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk

Steve Nelson is the author of First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk, which Garn Press will publish Fall 2016.

Steve has been Head of School at the Calhoun School, in Manhattan since 1998.

Calhoun is one of America’s most notable progressive schools and is particularly well regarded for its commitment to diversity and social justice.

This video of Steve is an excerpt from the Strand Bookstore Garn Press Readers Theater which was recorded in entirety and is available here.


First Do No Harm: Progressive Education In A Time Of Existential Risk

First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk develops a comprehensive argument for the importance of progressive education in light of the world’s increasingly severe challenges. Current educational practices, particularly in the United States, instill conformity and compliance at a time when authority must be challenged, skepticism must thrive and our students must be imaginative, creative, empathic and passionately alive.

The book traces the origins of progressive education and cites the rich history and inarguable science behind progressive practices. Nelson argues that a traditional or conventional approach to education has dominated as a matter of political expediency, not good practice. The book provides an unsparing critique of current policy and practice, particularly the excesses of contemporary education reform.

Using anecdotes from his many years as an educational leader, he makes the case in an engaging, colorful and accessible style. In the final chapter, Nelson offers a Bill of Educational Rights, hoping teachers, parents and all citizens will demand a more joyful, constructive and loving education for the children in their care.

Introduction by Actor, Film Producer and Screenwriter, Matt Damon

Things have gone very wrong in education in recent years. Many of us know this, but few of us really understand what has happened and why. But Steve Nelson does. And in this book, he helps us understand education in a way that deepens our awareness of the profound impact education has on children’s lives and the society and world we live in.

I guess it’s not unusual to know someone personally, as I do Steve, yet be awed by what they do. Steve has written a book that is really exceptional.  And it comes at a critical time when our education system is faltering and our planet is plagued with what he calls existential threats. As the book unfolds, we see more and more how and why progressive education is an essential part of solving the problems of unprecedented magnitude that we face.

In progressive education, as Steve tells us, there is respect for children, how they develop, how they are internally motivated, how they learn best when they have some voice in the learning process.  The visual and performing arts and music are a critical part of progressive education, not frills. I know this in my blood and bones. I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am today if I hadn’t gone to the progressive public elementary, middle and high schools I attended.  Teachers in those schools respected me and my interest in theater; they trusted me to think for myself, to make choices about my own learning. The whole school community mattered–I learned how to collaborate with others, to solve problems with them. Progressive educators intentionally design their programs to lead students toward becoming adults who will be engaged citizens committed to economic and social justice.

I am concerned about our planet and the existential threats Steve identifies–climate change, nuclear threat, terrorism, social and economic injustice. I am concerned about the growing divide in our society and the increasing intolerance we are witnessing. In progressive education, students learn to respect different cultures, races, points of view. They experience being part of a democratic community where all voices are equal, all have responsibility, and where compassion for others is encouraged.

The assumptions that drive most education policy and practices today are mistaken. They shortchange kids and cause harm. We have schools driven by data and testing; there is less music, arts, play, social interaction and child choice. Steve rebuts the flawed assumptions of the uniform factory approach to education.  But he goes even further. As pages unfold, we see more and more that we need the progressive education revolution he is calling for.

This is ultimately a hopeful book.  Steve spells out a vision of real education reform that we just might be ready for now. His Bill of Educational Rights, based on the best of what is known from science and theory about human development and children’s learning, should be our manifesto. All children deserve a progressive education, not just the privileged few. All children deserve an education that will enliven their lives with joy and possibility and help them contribute to the betterment of society and our planet.

Matt Damon
Los Angeles, July 27th, 2016


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