BOOK EXCERPT: Actor, Film Producer and Screenwriter Matt Damon Introduces First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk, by Steve Nelson

Hardcover, paperback, and ebook now available. Paperback book ON SALE, 20% off on Amazon, $14.35.

Author: Steve Nelson
Book: First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk
Garn Press (264 pp.)
$24.95 hardcover, $14.95 paperback (ON SALE), $9.99 e-book, $2.99 on Amazon when you purchase the print book
ISBN: 978-1-942146-48-3
Buy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound (local bookstore) | Indigo Books | Waterstones | Books-A-Million
eBook: Amazon

Buy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound (local bookstore) | Indigo Books | Waterstones | Books-A-Million

About the Book

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 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

Buy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound (local bookstore) | Indigo Books | Waterstones | Books-A-Million


“Parents, teachers and those who support better educational opportunities for all of our children should start 2017 by reading Steve Nelson’s First Do No Harm, Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk. At the same time, the book should be a mandatory read for our elected and appointed officials, whose understanding of the benefits of true public education is needed now, more than ever. If they truly understand where we are, where we are headed and the alternative approach that would serve our country and its children, they would use First Do No Harm as a guidebook for their policy actions.” –  Jonathan Pelto

“Steve Nelson knows full well that freedom begins between the ears.  He negotiates this space with clarity, charm and precision.  Ultimately he shows the reader how a good education is the mirror image of a proper democracy.  For too long our systems of education have shrink-wrapped our imaginations.  Nelson successfully argues for a new way of thinking.” – Colum McCann, Author of Let the World Spin and National Book Award winner

“Nelson’s thesis: To nurture all children – rich or poor – to develop an intrinsic desire to learn life-long. His is an educational bill of rights I wish we could implement tomorrow. Written in direct, jargon-free style, and using his vast educational experience, Nelson makes a compelling case that much of current educational reform is wrong-headed, focusing as it does on ‘compliance and conformity.’ Until we encourage ‘skepticism and originality’ – gained via progressive education – students will not fulfil their ‘limitless potential.’ A great, thought-provoking read.” – Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., Unidel H. Rodney Sharp Professor, University of Delaware, Co-author with Kathy Hirsh-Pasek of Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells us About Raising Successful Children

“Nelson combines experience, knowledge, wisdom and brilliant writing as he invites us into school the way it should be. Using progressive education as his platform, he demonstrates how education can nurture engaged and motivated children who actively discover their world and grow up to be good citizens. Sound like a pipe dream? Read on. This book is for parents and educators who know that schools can and must do better.” – Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, Temple University

“This powerful, entertaining book is both a beautifully-expressed explanation of progressive education and a searing indictment of contemporary education policy and practice. As an teacher, I appreciate the inspirational, good-humored tour of contemporary research and theory. As a parent and an activist, I appreciate the Bill of Education Rights, outlining what we should expect from our schools. As a citizen, I appreciate the clear vision for what education can be — humane, equitable, meaningful and joyful.” Amazon Review, Amazon.

I really enjoyed this book. As a progressive educator, I thought that the author did an excellent job of making an anthology of some of the best ideas in the field. Steve’s years of experience as the head of an esteemed school with a progressive mission really shine through in his book. My favorite parts of the book were the anecdotes sprinkled throughout that serve as real life examples of progressive ideology. While I’ve read many of the authors who he references and studied much of the same philosophy, this book is quite valuable as a place that holds a lot of these ideas together. While I was reading it, it felt a lot like revisiting my favorite college class, Educational Psychology. Steve’s clarity and good humor make for an excellent read. I would recommend this book to folks thinking about entering the educational field and also to parents who are considering the options for educating their own offspring. Progressive education is a wholesome and humane alternative to the test-focused, technology overwhelmed, and drab schools that are common in today’s world. It is certainly worth your consideration. Amazon Review, Amazon.

About Steve Nelson

Steve Nelson has been Head of School at the Calhoun School, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, since 1998.   Calhoun is one of America’s most notable progressive schools and serves 750 students, from pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade.  Calhoun is particularly well regarded for its commitment to diversity and social justice.

Since 1997 Steve has been a columnist for the Valley News, the daily newspaper in the mid-VT/NH area on both sides of the Connecticut River.  He has been a regular contributor to the Huffington Post since 2010, writing about education and politics.   Before assuming his current position, he worked as an administrator at Vermont Law School and Landmark College.  He is an avid violinist and also served for six years as President of a performing arts school in the Midwest.

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