KIRUS BOOK REVIEWS: First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk by Steve Nelson

Author: Steve Nelson
Garn Press (264 pp.)
$24.95 hardcover, $17.95 paperback, $9.99 e-book, $2.99 through Kindle Matchbook Program
ISBN: 978-1-942146-47-6
Paperback & Hardcover Available: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound (local bookstore)
eBook Available: Amazon, Ebook $2.99 through Kindle Matchbook Program. Available for free through Amazon Kindle Unlimited Program.

KIRKUS Book Review

Review by KIRKUS REVIEWS | Published January 27, 2016 | Full review on

A veteran journalist and progressive educator presents a critique of America’s school system and a call to action.

In his debut book, Nelson, a principal at a progressive Manhattan school, tackles many of the issues in American education, from the achievement gap to standardized tests. He begins his treatise by reminding readers of the grave existential threats the world faces, from climate change to nuclear war, and the importance of education in the face of these dangers. He goes on to outline how progressive education can create students who will be more active participants in America’s democracy and who can cope with these perils. Despite his strong opinions about education, Nelson maintains a humorous, self-deprecating touch: “So-called reformers want rigid accountability, more structure…longer school years, more tests and more discipline. Undoing the damage of those loosey-goosey progressive practices is arduous work!” Part history lesson, part professional memoir, the work outlines the roots of America’s current “conventional,” “factory” educational model as well as the history of the progressive model. He advocates for the education of the whole child and seeks to remove stereotypes about project-based, community-oriented progressive education. Throughout, the text maintains a readable, conversational tone: “Beginning in the ’50s and ’60s, America has steadily moved away from intellectualism and toward business-focused pragmatism.” Nelson sprinkles in heartening anecdotes about success stories from his work in progressive schools. He also includes idealistic, flowery adages like “Seeds of brilliance need a dose of aimlessness to flower.” The author makes a concerted effort to maintain a balanced perspective on the place of privilege he writes from, noting that “privileged schools are also immune, in whole or in part, from the misguided public policies that drive bad education.” Occasionally Nelson’s suggestions and opinions are surprisingly simple and radical, such as “It is not hyperbole to suggest that millions of American children might be better served to skip school entirely.” After making his case for progressive education, the author concludes by urging educators to take action and agitate for more funding and smaller classes.

This optimistic, anecdotal book offers useful ideas for changes in education.

Review by KIRKUS REVIEWS | Published January 27, 2016 | Full review on

More Early Reviews

“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, Actor, Writer, Producer

“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.

First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk

Paperback and hardcover available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound (local bookstore). Ebook Available on Amazon. Ebook just $2.99 on Amazon when you purchase the print book, available through Amazon’s Kindle Matchbook Program.



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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