11/17/2014 11:26 am ET Updated Jan 17, 2015

The Wisdom of Kristof's and WuDunn's 'A Path Appears'

A Path Appears, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, begins with a 1921 passage by Chinese essayist Lu Xun:

Hope is like a path in the countryside. Originally, there is nothing -- but as people walk this way again and again, a path appears.

In other words, hope is a path that we all create. It's a bottom up process. Yes, it took a pioneer to first walk into the countryside, but we should all gain hope in recognizing that it is our collective action that creates a way forward.

There are some obvious similarities between the countryside path analogy and the multiple pathways that appear in Kristof's and WuDunn's synthesis. Today's philanthropists seek new methods of evaluating the effectiveness of social programs, but the great research cited in this book builds on peer-reviewed social science. Rarely do Kristof and WuDunn cite Big Data true believers who seem so committed to making a brand new path appear that they dismiss the findings of social science, cognitive research, and the history of philanthropy and education.

Most of the research cited in A Path Appears is a product of the scientific method and peer review. The path of peer review led to higher education, where the free flow of ideas was protected and celebrated. Ahead of almost every nation, America extended the democratic path with its freedom of expression to public education. Until recently, the goal of school reform was providing the same excellence and opportunities to all children regardless of race or income.

Kristof and WuDunn praise entrepreneurialism, but they don't make a fetish out of it, like is so often done with hedge fund managers and venture philanthropists. They are open to the possibilities of virtual communities to use social media and other technologies to address 21st century dilemmas. But, it takes real villages of loving families to realize the paths' potential.

Even more importantly, Kristof and WuDunn are not Candide. How could they be after covering so many atrocities that dwarf anything we inner city teachers see? They recognize humans' capacity for evil, selfishness, and self-delusion, but they celebrate the way that we featherless bipeds have created wonderful new paths. In doing so, A Path Appears is a timely corrective to the top down micromanaging that too many American reformers feel compelled to impose.

The social engineering of the contemporary school reform movement, for instance, makes sense only if you assume that teachers and students are so craven that we will teach and learn only when compelled to do so by output-driven mandates. To force us to do our jobs (at least in the way that reformers want) they've made us devote up to 80 days per school year to testing. Top down reformers, convinced that they have found the single path to school improvement, have invested billions of dollars for computer systems for keeping score, and making sure that teachers implement their teach-to-the-test pedagogy with fidelity.

We live in a global village where we must be clear-eyed about the challenges we share. This has created a pessimism which has pervaded policies ranging from those of the New Democrats, who are afraid to stand up for working people, to corporate school reform, which sees test, sort, reward, and punish as the path to survival in the international marketplace. The idea is to build a better data-driven pedagogy and accountability regime, and scale it up so that children and adults will better respond to the system's incentives and disincentives.

But, the thrust of A Path Appears is that we human beings, from all nations and cultures, can do better. We have shown by the multitude of paths we've created that people aren't just selfish agents. We respond to love. We create. We share. We transcend ourselves.

Teaching and learning require hope. All too often, our opponent is depression, spawned by trauma and hopelessness. This means we need a pedagogy of empathy. Teachers, alone, cannot overcome the legacies of interacting "adverse childhood experiences," or ACEs. That requires synergistic interventions. Teaching in schools serving children from extreme poverty must become a team effort.

Speaking of love, a book like A Path Appears could not have been produced by the intellect alone. Kristof and WuDunn are obviously motivated by a passion to help their fellow human beings. I bet they loved learning about the humane, evidence-based early education and mentoring programs that they covered. Who knows, maybe they will also fall in love with great education research and history, and investigate further into the paths necessary to improve high-poverty American schools.