Russ Walsh, an expert on literacy who blogs regularly, here reviews Paul Thomas’s excellent new book Beware the Roadbuilders. I have often posted pieces by Paul Thomas, who is passionate about social and economic justice and literature. He often deftly weaves literature into his social critiques.

Paul Thomas was a high school teacher in South Carolina before he became a teacher educator at Furman University. He not only knows his subject, he knows young people, and he knows teaching. But more than that, he has a social conscience that shines through everything he writes.

Russ Walsh reads Thomas’s book with admiration. He writes:

I have often told my students that informational literature attempts to present what is factually true, but fiction attempts to shine a light on universal truth. In Beware the Roadbuilders: Literature as Resistance, P. L. Thomas invites us to look over his shoulder as he reads personally, feelingly and critically into literature, both canonical and contemporary, in an effort to illuminate the truth beneath issues of equity, social justice and public education. Thomas, a former high school English teacher and current associate professor of education at Furman University in South Carolina, also blogs at the becoming radical. If you are not familiar with his work on the blog I recommend you join me as a regular reader.

The “roadbuilders” of Thomas’ title are the education reformers, those plutocrats, pundits and politicians who have seized on urban education as the “civil rights issue of our time” and who, like the colonizing Europeans in Africa a century ago, seek to impose their own definitions of success and progress on the people and institutions they seek to reform. Thomas points to the current rage for “no excuses” charter schools as a prime example of the “roadbuilder” model. In “no excuses” schools students are subjected to a military like structure, rigid classroom rules and demeaning discipline practices in the name of getting “college and career ready.” For these reformers, Thomas says,”education is a tool of the elite to train the masses to conform to a world that maintains the current status quo.”

But I don’t want to give the impression that Beware the Roadbuilders is just another anti-education reform polemic, because it is much richer and much more interesting than that. This is a book for people who love books, who love reading and who love finding connections in literature that help us better understand our world. The book took me back to a reconsideration of some of my favorite authors from the past like James Baldwin, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Barbara Kingsolver, Isaac Asimov and Adrienne Rich, but also exposed me to authors I had not previously read like Geoffrey Eugenides and George Saunders.

Thomas also includes examples of literature that I have studiously avoided. It is a credit to Thomas’ skills as a writer and an enthusiastic reader that he has piqued my interest in previously shunned (by me) works like zombie literature and super-hero fiction.

Who are the “roadbuilders” and why should we beware of them? Thomas tells the story of a village in Africa that is visited by a delegation of men who propose to build a road. The road builders tell the villagers of all the wonderful benefits that will come from improved transportation and commerce. To make a fascinating story short, the road cuts through the village, demolishing the community and the lives of the trusting villagers.

There are universal truths aplenty in Paul’s book, and Russ has done a wonderful job in reviewing it.