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The Most Influential Academic Books in the Last 20 Years

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 13, 2019

The Chronicle of Higher Education has assembled The New Canon, a list of the most influential books written by academics in the past 20 years or so. The books were chosen by a panel that included sociologist Eric Klinenberg, classics professor Johanna Hanink, and professor of business Sheena Iyengar.

Their picks included Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined:

It was a best seller, discussed and praised and criticized by both scholars and public intellectuals. Better Angels defends, at great length, a controversial claim, which is that violence is declining, both in the short run and the long run — and so, in a very important way, the world is getting better. Pinker is far from the first to make this argument, but he presents the most persuasive case. Better Angels also explores, at equally great length, psychological and social theories for why this is so, and illustrates that an evolutionary-psychology approach to the mind can give us considerable insight into how societies change over time.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander:

Michelle Alexander, a legal scholar, activist, and now a columnist for The New York Times, argues that the “war on drugs,” beginning with the Nixon administration and flourishing under Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, shifted antipoverty resources into an infinite war on crime that disproportionately targets black communities and robs the majority of black men in urban areas of their full citizenship. Fusing legal studies and history, Alexander demonstrates how America’s prison-industrial complex is the latest chapter in the nation’s tragic racial history. Her thesis not only touched scholars but also transformed the public’s understanding of structural racism in the American justice system.

Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality by Elizabeth Armstrong & Laura Hamilton is a timely choice given the unfolding college admissions investigation by the FBI:

The book is an ethnographic account of the lives of first-year women college students living on a “party floor” at a selective public university they call Midwest U. Varied in their social-class backgrounds, the students have profoundly different pathways through college. Poor and working-class young women face formidable obstacles to completing their degrees, while the children of upper middle class professionals pursue meaningful majors and vocations. At the same time, the daughters of the wealthiest, socialite families join sororities, and party their way through easy majors, graduation, and, beyond that, socially connected jobs.

If this were a book about no more than individual-level educational inequalities, the story might end there. But this is not that book. Instead, the authors use a cultural and organizational lens to show how the university itself is complicit in shaping students’ academic pursuits, social lives, and job opportunities in socially patterned ways.

Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community:

Americans participate less in group activities that entail coordination and cooperation toward a common purpose. Instead they engage more in activities that take place less regularly, in smaller groups or in isolation. They are less likely to play sports on teams, more likely to watch sports or to exercise at home. The book identifies trends that scholars and journalists continue to analyze and dissect 18 years later, culminating in the recent avalanche of books and essays describing how handheld devices now contribute to the breakdown of community.

Bowling Alone inspired my pal Scott Heiferman to start Meetup.