25 Books, Podcasts, Films, Articles, and Experiences That Made Us Smarter in 2020
In what was otherwise a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year, we found a lot to expand our brains—and our hearts
This most unpredictable and wretched of years is almost, finally, in the rear view mirror. But amidst the wreckage left behind—and there’s a lot—are oases of revelation and humanity. These are 25 of them. Members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter in 2020, but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.
Nice White Parents
This five-part podcast was one of the buzzy shows of the year, thanks in part to its pedigree as a Serial production and the escalating conversation about race in American institutions, including public schools. But I listened, at least initially, because it was about a school in my neighborhood. I got a hate-listen thrill hearing host Channa Joffe-Walt lay out the corrosive and exclusionary impact of stupid money flowing into some of my community’s public schools from very-well-to-do parent associations. But what kept me subscribed was the deep research and insight into the New York City school system, and the necessary reckoning with the city’s long history of segregation, and how that legacy cuts against its reputation as a progressive citadel. The show is an ongoing conversation that includes race, class, housing policy, urban planning, charter schools, and gentrification, and it has implications for the nation’s public school systems. In other words, it’s a podcast that has something for everyone with a stake in American education. —Dante A. Ciampaglia
Beckie Supiano on Teaching and Learning in a Pandemic
I have followed Beckie Supiano’s reporting in The Chronicle for Higher Education for years. She brings big topics down to a human scale, and if any education reporter has risen to the occasion this year, it’s her. A good place to start is this revealing profile f what it feels like to be a college student in a year of remote learning: “Everything is so different now. It’s hard to focus. It’s hard to interact with other students, to have even a simple class discussion. Wasn’t Zoom designed for conferences or something?” It’s hard to do patient, empathetic reporting. It’s where Supiano excels. —Eric Johnson
"Killer Mike's Emotional Speech at Atlanta Mayor's Press Conference"
“We don’t want to see Targets burning. We want to see the system that sets up for systemic racism burnt to the ground.” That was rapper and Atlanta native Killer Mike in an impromptu speech to his fellow Atlantans as the city's streets teemed with people outraged by the killing of George Floyd seeking a target for their righteous, searing anger. He made a gut-wrenching but remarkably cogent plea, given the circumstances, urging his neighbors—and all Americans—to “plot, plan, strategize, organize, mobilize.” He’s weeping while he speaks, shedding tears of sorrow, rage, and frustration, yet he delivers his wisdom with a clenched fist and an open heart. (If you haven’t seen his Netflix series, Trigger Warning with Killer Mike, I pity you. It’s funny, smart, sublimely subversive, sometimes goofy and often devastating.) —Bob Roe
Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions
Jeff Selingo is a veteran education writer who spent a year with students and admissions officers as they dealt with the highs and lows of applications, admissions, denials, and financial aid. Who Gets In and Why, published in 2020, takes the reader into committee meetings and helps them understand that who gets in comes down to what a college needs even more than what a student does. Selingo’s book arrived at a moment when the pandemic had thrown so much of college admissions’ ordinary operating procedures into doubt, but his surefooted insights into the inner workings provide evergreen advice for all applicants: take control of what you can in the process, and realize how much of it is out of your control. It’s pretty good advice, even if you’re not applying to college. —James Murphy
Lin-Manuel Miranda on U.S. history. Janet Yellen on macroeconomics. Nate Silver on statistics. Valerie Jarret and Jeb Bush on government. Advanced Placement® teachers always do phenomenal work bringing challenging topics to life, and this year they had a little celebrity boost to keep the online classroom exciting. It’s one of the few upsides to the remote-learning, remote-working world of 2020: you can recruit some amazing guest stars into the Zoom where it happens, to paraphrase Miranda. (Couldn’t resist!) Hopefully an AP “cameo” will become a regular career milestone for nerd-famous people. —Stefanie Sanford
"The Sorority That Tried to Abolish Itself"
Nobody covers culture quite like New York magazine, and this strange and fascinating tale of a sorority controversy at Northwestern is a great read. “The Abolish Greek Life movement had encouraged its members to rethink even the most basic facets of how a sorority worked,” Brock Colyar writes. “They weren’t necessarily being accused of being racists or bigots—they were accusing themselves of being a sorority. In oversimplified campus lingo, the sorority had decided to cancel herself.” I find everything about Greek Life bizarre, but I came away from this piece with deep sympathy for all the competing pressure college students are under today. —Eric Johnson
Reading Theodore Roosevelt Johnson III on race, patriotism, and the future of America
Years ago, Ted Johnson wrote a bracingly imaginative essay on reparations. I emailed him to say so, and we’ve been friends ever since. He’s a former Navy commander with a fascinating career and family history, and he’s finishing a beautiful book about Black Americans, the Constitution, and how racism threatens national solidarity. You can preview the book’s main argument in Ted’s essays "The Challenge of Black Patriotism" and "How the Black Vote Became a Political Monolith," published in The New York Times Magazine. “For a people who loved a nation that did not love them back,” he writes in the former piece, “a new brand of patriotism was required—expansive enough for anger and questioning of the nation as well as adoration and respect. Political psychologists refer to this as constructive patriotism and have found that it leads to increased civic participation, at times in demonstration of dissatisfaction with the country and at times in reclamation of its principles.” Constructive patriotism—I love that. —Stefanie Sanford
The thriller of the year may be this documentary directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine. The filmmakers immerse us in the Texas' Boys State program, where 1,200 high school guys are brought together for an "intense week of learning about state government and civil discourse." The program, run by the American Legion since 1938, divides students into two parties, Federalists and Nationalists, and lets them loose to campaign for state jobs (Governor is the alpha role), form a government, and hash out policies. If you think adult-run politics is a blood sport, wait until you see it practiced by hormonal teens. It can be troubling to see the worst impulses of our politics (convictions replaced by cynicism; ugly personal attacks; weaponized social media) not just internalized but metabolized by young men who lust for public influence. But that's balanced by those who reject politics as usual and desire to improve their communities and the nation. Boys State nails the factionalized death match of contemporary American politics. And while it can be terrifying to see dewy-eyed teenagers pull pages from the dirty-tricks playbook, it’s impossible to turn away from the film's unique insight into the grooming of next-generation leaders. — Dante A. Ciampaglia
Rapper and Atlanta native Killer Mike gets emotional during a press conference held during as Atlantans protested the death of George Floyd.
"America’s Math Curriculum Doesn’t Add Up"
It’s time to rethink math education, and renowned economist Steven Leavitt lays out his campaign to blow up the way the subject is taught in this episode of the Freakonomics podcast: “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-math. I use mathematical thinking, statistics, and data analysis constantly, whether I’m writing economics papers, trying to get better at golf, or hoping to pick winners at the racetrack. But here is the thing: the math tools I actually use, and the math tools I see people around me actually using, seem to have nothing to do with what my kids are learning in school.” He thinks we need to dump that mumbo-jumbo and teach data fluency. And guess who makes a star turn in this podcast: College Board CEO David Coleman, who explains why the SAT was redesigned to eliminate tricky math questions, shun arcane calculations and push data analysis. Leavitt is smart enough to be skeptical, but since he’s a scientist, he does further research and finds... that what Coleman says is true. Phew! —Bob Roe
The Library Book and Ex Libris—The New York Public Library
In 1979, the head of the RAND Corporation declared libraries irrelevant. It’s a sentiment that’s been echoed repeatedly in the age of the Internet, e-books, and Amazon. Yet they persist, improving the lives of millions of Americans by continually evolving and finding new ways to serve their communities. Libraries are more than just places to get books—at many you can now check out movies and photographs and maps and baking tins and tools and musical instruments and Wi-Fi hotspots and neckties. But even if libraries only dealt in books, they would be among the most invaluable institutions in any society because they represent our human need to grow intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, published in 2018, tells the history of a fire that destroyed or damaged more than a million books—and the story of America’s libraries. Frederick Wiseman’s 2017 documentary Ex Libris—The New York Public Library captures a year in the life of that iconic institution, and by the end of the film you’re utterly convinced that libraries are the heart of what actually makes America great. Borrow both of them from your library for free. —James Murphy
Exchanging Real Letters
We’re all weary of screen time, exhausted by back-to-back-to-back video meetings or remote classes from dawn to dusk. My friend Andy Smarick offered a throwback solution in this essay for Commentary, where he argues that writing real letters “might help relax my brain and improve my concentration.” It’s also a surprisingly effective tool for deep connection, as I learned when I took Andy’s advice and scrawled out a few handwritten letters on cheap Staples’ legal paper. He and I have exchanged four letters this year as a part of this project. It has been a long time since I waited for something awesome to land in my mailbox. We’re all accustomed to instant communication and coping with the daily barrage of texts and notifications, so there’s a meditative quality to slowing down and allowing your thoughts to flow at the speed of a pencil. “The entire enterprise of letter-writing requires patience—slowing down to think of the right thing to say, slowing down to pen the words, slowing down to wait for a reply,” Andy writes. “And slowing down is downright countercultural.” —Stefanie Sanford
Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World
When the music journalist Rob Sheffield told people he was writing a book about the Beatles, he tells us, they almost always asked him if there was anything new to say about the band. Then they would tell him something he had never heard before. Sheffield does not set out to chronicle the history of what he calls “the world’s favorite thing” but rather to investigate why the Beatles have meant so much to so many people for so long. Dreaming the Beatles, published in 2018, is a cultural history of the world since 1960 that’s (almost) as fun as listening to John, Paul, George, and Ringo. —James Murphy
The Beatles, John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, pictured on their arrival in London on July 2, 1964, following a tour of Australia.
"When Vladimir Nabokov Taught Ruth Bader Ginsburg, His Most Famous Student, To Care Deeply About Writing"
I can’t imagine a better argument for college or for a wide-ranging liberal education than the praise that the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg heaped upon the Cornell literature professor who taught her to cherish and produce good writing: Vladimir Nabokov. There are fuller versions of her paean to the much-celebrated author, but the nutso, yummy bonus here is the clip of actor (and avid reader) Christopher Plummer recreating a Nabokov lecture on Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Push past the old-timey set-up (and those amazing lapels on Plummer’s shirt!) and you’ll see a stunning performance, a Platonic ideal of teaching. At one point, Nabokov/Plummer tells his undergrads that most people think poor Gregor Samsa was transformed into a cockroach, but he was actually a beetle. He then adds, "Some Gregors, some Joes, some Janes don’t know they have wings... " —Bob Roe
Feels Good Man
Pepe the frog is—no, wait, come back! This documentary isn’t about justifying the use of a cartoon amphibian as the avatar of white nationalism during the 2016 election. Just the opposite. While Pepe is on the ACLU’s Hate Symbols Database thanks to the vile way he has been co-opted by racists and several dark corners of the Internet, he was created in 2005 by artist Matt Furie as a character in the irreverent comic Boy’s Club. What happened to Pepe once MySpace and 4chan got hold of him, and Furie’s attempts to reclaim his creation, is the basis of Arthur Jones’ excellent, alarming, oftentimes sweet documentary Feels Good Man. But it’s more than the life and times of Pepe; this is a masterclass in media literacy. As the boundary between the digital and IRL worlds vanishes, how information is manipulated, by who, and to what ends increasingly dictates what we see, watch, and buy, who we hear from, and how we vote. That’s not a revelation in 2020, but being immersed in how it happens—in this case through the Pepe meme industrial complex—and who is responsible reveals the hidden infrastructure beneath our digital lives. —Dante A. Ciampaglia
"Higher Ed: Who Pays?"
The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis isn’t likely to produce a binge-worthy Netflix series any time soon. But I learned a ton from this very thoughtful conference, hosted in June, about how America—and American families—pay for college. I covered the highlights for The Elective, with a special focus on the role of racial wealth gaps in hindering access to education. But there’s a broader lesson here: Now that everyone is putting events online, you can participate in all kinds of interesting events that would have been otherwise out of reach back in the pre-pandemic days. Brookings, AEI, the Fed, The Washington Post, and countless others all have excellent policy discussions happening for free on your laptop screen—so nerd out! —Eric Johnson
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
David Epstein’s latest is a fun read with an inspiring, liberating lesson about how and why so many geniuses don’t have one-track minds, and how they weren’t groomed to achieve one goal from the age of 3. It is also the life-saving antidote for all of us repulsed by the ethos of Tiger Moms and Tiger Woods’ father, who had him hitting golf balls when he was in diapers. The simplest summation of the book’s thesis is that foxes beat hedgehogs. (Foxes know a lot about many things; hedgehogs know everything about one thing.) That’s a droll way of saying it’s okay to not be a grind in high school. This applies most directly to education, but the insights here touch on pretty much every aspect of your life. Range works for athletes, scientists, teachers, even pop stars. Generalists rule! —Bob Roe
A woman at a design model of the operator's console of the new IBM 7044 mainframe computer, White Plains, New York, on December 20, 1961.
"The Social Life of Forests"
I always knew nature was more intricate and cooperative than we’re trained to believe. (Just because Darwin theorized evolution by way of 19th century capitalism doesn’t mean the entirety of the environment is guided by manmade principles of cutthroat economic competition.) But reading about the work of researcher Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia, and learning of the existence of mycorrhizas (symbiotic relationships between trees and fungus belowground) fundamentally rewired how I see the world. If trees, abetted by fungus and across species and ages, can share resources to maintain not only their health but the viability of an entire forest, what other kinds of complex relationships in nature are we missing—or ignoring? What does that mean for our relationship with the natural world, and how we as a species live on this planet? What is the true impact of climate change? Ferris Jabr’s story published in The New York Times Magazine invites profound questions and debate and is a welcome reminder—in our moment of seemingly permanent lockdown—that Earth is a fragile, majestic place. —Dante A. Ciampaglia
All About Birds
This pandemic year of lockdowns and quarantines left many of looking out our windows and going for walks—so many walks. But it also slowed things down enough that when we turned our attention to the outdoors, we could really see the world around us. And what we saw were birds—lots and lots of birds: woodpeckers, warblers, wrens, woodcocks, waxwings, wigeons. And those were just the Ws. That makes the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website All About Birds an invaluable resource for anyone emerging from 2020 as budding birders. It’s a one-stop shop that helps you spot the differences between a chipping sparrow and a house sparrow, how to identify a red-tailed hawk from a sharp-shinned hawk, and what to put in your bird feeder to attract titmice and goldfinches. —James Murphy
Eating dinner with Mom—every day
When it became clear that coronavirus lockdowns would last a while, I made the decision a lot of people did who live in big-city apartments: I went home to my mom and our family home in Texas Hill Country outside of Austin. And having nightly dinner at my mother’s table for weeks on end—the first time that’s happened since I was in elementary school—became one of the few genuine joys of this otherwise terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year. (I’m not alone—according to the experts at Supermarket News, more Americans are sharing family meals and hope to keep it up after the pandemic is over.) More than once, I was in the middle of leading a meeting of our global policy team, living a video-screen version of my professional adult life, when Mom’s voice would come calling up the stairs to remind me that dinner was ready. Mom decorates for every occasion: hearts for Valentine’s Day; bunnies for Easter; ghosts and pumpkins for Halloween; turkeys, foliage, and more pumpkins for Thanksgiving; an epic tree for Christmas. She also expertly garnishes her plate, even when she’s eating alone. So you really don’t want to be late for dinner. —Stefanie Sanford
Elijah Heyward on the International African American Museum
A long conversation with a brilliant person is one of the most satisfying ways to learn about the world. I was lucky to spend some time early this year with Elijah Heyward III, COO of the International African American Museum. Heyward has a fascinating educational background—a bachelor’s degree from Virginia’s Hampton University, then on to Yale Divinity School, and finally a PhD in American Studies at the University of North Carolina. He’s now helping to tell the story of African American history with an enormously high-profile museum on the Charleston waterfront, which he discussed in his interview with me and in an online talk with Pulitzer-winning historian David Blight. The museum is slated to open in 2022, when hopefully we’ll all be vaccinated and ready for some historical road trips. —Eric Johnson
If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future
A new Jill Lepore book is always worth your attention, especially when it’s as timely as If Then. After publishing the sweeping These Truths: A History of the United States, the Harvard history professor and New Yorker staff writer turned to a smaller yet more urgent topic: the secret history of the algorithms that power social media and rule our lives. Silicon Valley loves to posture itself as inventing the future, but Madison Avenue of the 1950s and the Vietnam-era campuses of MIT and Stanford were the vanguard for computers gobbling up troughs of consumer data. Ed Greenfield, Bill McPhee, and Ithiel de Sola Pool were infamous disruptors a half-century ahead of Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin. And decades before Cambridge Analytica weaponized algorithms for the Trump campaign, there was the Simulmatics Corporation. For the outsized impact Simulmatics had on the nation’s (and world’s) future, the company and its founders were largely forgotten before Lepore got ahold of them. Documenting why is part of the book’s narrative, and that cultural amnesia makes the book a compelling read. —Dante A. Ciampaglia
The Book of Eels
Eels are really weird. Like, seriously weird. Every eel in Europe is born in the Sargasso Sea, a body of water inside the Atlantic Ocean. They then travel thousands of miles across the Atlantic and into European rivers. More than a decade later, mature eels find their way back to the Sargasso Sea. No one has a clue how they do it, or exactly where or why they breed there. They also have no genitalia for the first five to 20 years of their lives. Patrik Svensson’s 2020 book The Book of Eels wrestles with all these mysteries and more, not to explain away eels’ weirdness but to enchant and delight readers with the wonders of a slime-covered fish that can live up to 100 years. —James Murphy
Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl
Jonathan Slaght’s fascinating and often hilarious tale of studying giant fish owls in the Russian Far East made for a great adventure read in this year of covid lockdown. Slaght was still a graduate student when he trekked into the Russian wilderness to conduct one of the first big studies of the reclusive Blakiston’s fish owl. Academic life can take you to some very cool places, and American universities support an incredible breadth of scientific research across the world: When Slaght was sinking a snowmobile into half-frozen rivers in Russia, he was on the payroll of the University of Minnesota. Curiosity and a good PhD program can take you a very long way. —Eric Johnson
Writing 68,000 Words to My Team
Back in 2015, I got some pointed feedback from colleagues who felt in the dark about what was happening across our division and across the College Board. Our team lives and works all over the country, so I started writing a regular biweekly note to keep this far-flung group connected. Since we shuttered our offices in March, I’ve started writing every week, mixing detailed updates on work with reflections on the news, upbeat Spotify playlists, and quirky observations about mask etiquette. What started as a work project has now become an invaluable chronicle of this very weird year, more than 68,000 words of worries, ideas, and occasional joys from 2020. My freshman comp professor said that “writing is a way of composing yourself.” At 17, that meant “creating” a personality. In the midst of a pandemic, it’s the other meaning that lands: writing to retain composure through an avalanche of uncertainty. I’m not sure that any of us managed perfect calm or perspective this year, but the writing certainly helped. —Stefanie Sanford
"How I'm Handling Online Teaching"
I don’t know much about music, but I know a great music teacher when I see one in action. I can’t swear this clip made me smarter, but it definitely made me happier. The original song she composed and performs here should replace "Auld Lang Syne" on New Year’s Eve as we shove 2020 into the dustbin. —Bob Roe