A monthly publication of Virtues & Vocations, Good Read highlights inspirational and engaging books about virtue, vocation, purpose, and the state of higher education.

Think Again by Adam Grant (February 2021)

Think Again by Adam Grant explores why and how we should aim to be flexible thinkers. Through stories and easy-to-read social science summaries, Grant makes the case that it is beneficial to ourselves and society for us to think like scientists, holding our beliefs humbly and with a willingness to test them, as a scientist does a hypothesis. He explains how to practice this habit of mind, and how to convince others to rethink their ideas without creating hostility. Toward the end of the book, Grant gives practical advice for how these ideas could transform our classrooms and workplaces, and why this would be good for all of us. Think Again, at the end of a year when “we’ve all had to put our mental pliability to the test” and when polarization continues to wreak havoc, offers an encouragement in navigating the present instability and a path toward defusing the charged landscape of polarized opinions.

“I believe good teachers introduce new thoughts, but great teachers introduce new ways of thinking.” -Adam Grant (page 203 of Think Again)

In Shock by Rana Awdish (January 2021)

“I knew instinctively that if pain of that magnitude continued, it would kill me.”

In Shock begins with a nail-biter: the pregnant woman on the gurney is in excruciating pain and crashing fast. On the edge of consciousness, she hears someone above her say,

“We’re losing her.”

“Guys! She’s circling the drain here!”

She has the out-of-body experience, sees herself from above, the medical team working furiously around her, the glare of surgical lights on metal table and ceramic tile.

And then she sinks below the surface…

In this beautiful memoir, Rana Awdish, MD, tells her story of becoming a dying patient, enduring multiple organ failures and major surgeries, and being treated by highly-skilled but emotionally detached doctors in the very hospital where she is an attending physician. Her experience with critical illness dismantles the understanding of disease and healing she built in medical school, residency, and practice. Before she could truly learn to heal others, she had to learn from her own fragile and resilient body what it means to be sick.

In Shock: My Journey from Death to Recovery and the Redemptive Power of Hope is a riveting and intimate medical thriller; it also takes a critical look at Western medicine, how we prepare doctors, and our current standards of care. Awdish calls for a new paradigm that places compassion and emotional connection at the center of the doctor-patient relationship, rather than cool professionalism and “safe” distance, a shift that acknowledges the humanity and vulnerability of both patient and physician. Her experience completely changed her approach to training residents and interacting with the community at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Read In Shock for a vision of what healthcare can and should be.

You can also hear Dr. Awdish and her caring team on This American Life, recorded in June, 2020, after the initial, exhausting peak of COVID-19.

Mathematics for Human Flourishing by Francis Su (December 2020)

Highly recommended.

If someone said to you, “I have a great book on math and virtue,” you might imagine a dry, niche read that only appeals to the most devout math or philosophy enthusiasts. Mathematics for Human Flourishing by Francis Su is about math and virtue; however, it is anything but dry. Easy to read, funny, and clever, Mathematics for Human Flourishing not only makes a case for the beauty of math, it also promotes a view of education that is deeply human and inspiring.

In addition to explanations of how the way one studies math can cultivate virtues and promote things such as meaning, justice, and community, Su intersperses mathematical brain teasers at the end of each chapter, giving the reader practice at the sort of mathematical exploration and play he is describing. Throughout the book there are also excerpts from letters written to Su by Christopher Jackson, an inmate in a federal prison who contacted Su to ask for help learning math. This structure of the book, along with the content, creates a reading experience that nourishes the mind and soul as one considers what it means to be human and humane.

Those who have tasted beauty and its virtues will welcome practice as a way to taste it again and again. For when we experience beauty that stirs us, we long for more. Of all the virtues cultivated by mathematical beauty, this may be the most important one of all: the disposition toward beauty. … A disposition toward mathematical beauty is the engine of mathematical persistence. – Francis Su

The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good? by Michael J. Sandel (November 2020)

Highly recommended.

But a perfect meritocracy banishes all sense of gift or grace. It diminishes our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate. It leaves little room for the solidarity that can arise when we reflect on the contingency of our talents and fortunes. This is what makes merit a kind of tyranny, or unjust rule. –Sandel, p. 25.

In his new book, The Tyranny of Merit, political philosopher Michael Sandel is worried about our democracy and sets out to excavate the roots of the all too apparent decline in both social bonds and respect in public discourse. In this quick and thoughtful read, Sandel draws upon his characteristically commonsensical prose to argue that a pernicious myth of meritocracy has eroded a sense of common good in the United States.

This book joins a series of recent critiques of meritocracy including Daniel Makovitz’s 2019 The Meritocracy Trap. Like Makovitz, Sandel takes aim at inequality, arguing that our meritocratic system is now sowing discontent even amongst its beneficiaries; however, Sandel is more squarely focused on restoring the common good and democratic politics. Populism, Sandel argues, is a response to the tyranny of merit and the misguided notion that social positions in our society are near perfect reflections of effort and talent. This notion is what allows the successful to imagine their success is of their own making–owing to their special, superior virtue. It also allows us to imagine those less no successful are conversely not so virtuous. He reminds us that most Americans do not in fact have a college degree. He notes, “by telling workers that their inadequate education is to blame for their troubles, meritocrats moralize success and failure and unwillingly promote credentialism—an insidious prejudice against those who have not been to college” (p. 89).

For Sandel, credentialist prejudice along with an ethic of success are core dimensions of meritocratic hubris. “To reinvigorate democratic politics, we need to find a way to a morally more robust public discourse, one that takes seriously the corrosive effect of meritocratic striving on the social bonds that constitute our common life” (p. 31). Here we see this book is also a poignant call for the moral renewal of civic life. Ultimately, Sandel makes a plea for humility as a civic virtue as an antidote to the meritocratic hubris at the root of our current political dysfunction. “Humility is the beginning of the way back from the hard ethics of success that drives us apart. It points beyond the tyranny of merit toward a less rancorous, more generous public life” (p. 227).