Textbooks, Bah!

N.b.  This is a bit contentious.  I welcome negative feedback.

Apple is plotting the demise of printed textbooks.  A good thing, I say.  Not only are textbooks a heavy expense for school districts and college students, they’re often the next thing to useless, and they can cause confusion and unnecessary bad feeling.  I envisage the day when students from first grade to PhD will have their own personal electronic libraries, and all teachers will have to do is show kids how to think (and choose sources, paraphrase, insert footnotes, create bibliographies).  Idyllic?  Maybe so for first grade, though greater student choice would be a blessing even at that level, but certainly for high school students and college undergraduates who are now herniating their discs under the weight of books that are heavy physically and light-weight intellectually.

I taught at the junior college level in three subject areas:  writing, literature, and world history.  The last five years I taught English composition, I didn’t bother to order one of the dreary textbooks available, though there was a departmentally required style manual.  I taught report writing using the students’ own writing as text.  It worked well.  When I needed an example of a professional essay I photocopied it.  Even that would not now be necessary.  I stopped teaching literature when I moved half-time to the history department, but I would have enjoyed teaching lyric poetry from a personal anthology instead of somebody else’s.  As for world history, the biggest blessing would have been getting rid of the dreadful collections of documents we used when we were trying to show students how historians work with sources.

World history (grandiose title) is a catch-up course for freshmen with a bad background in history.  Some of them came out of high school thinking Genghis Khan and George Washington were contemporaries.  Our course was called World Civilizations, which meant we focused on the Big Boys:  Mesopotamia and Egypt, India, China, Europe starting with Greece, with a glancing reference to Moslem North Africa, Zimbabwe and Mali, Peru, the Mayas, and the Aztecs. Calling the course Some Topics on Some Aspects of Some Civilizations would have been honest but difficult to fit into the slot available for course labels.  We taught as a team because nobody could pose an an authority or even as competent in all those complex areas.  Hey, students have to start somewhere.

We struggled for years with the published collections of source documents and then gave up and began photocopying the sources we wanted to use, collecting them into a “book” the department sold through the college bookstore.  It cost considerably less than the print volumes.  This worked better, but it was still very limited and uneven.  Apple may make it possible for the people now teaching that course to construct their own e-book and make it available on-line or in disc format.  Since events in the real world affect what should be taught, such an anthology of sources could be altered quickly.  For example, our current problems with Iran would make material on Persia interesting to students, not least those in the reserves or the National Guard.

The ideal would be to create a collection of sources tailored to each student’s needs with a handful of documents at the beginning that the whole class could look at to learn how historians use sources, and the problems they run into when they rely too heavily on one witness’s viewpoint.

Despite their amazing ignorance, stdents do develop a passion for history.  Unfortunately, it often takes the form of a passion for reenacting the Battle of Waterloo, but, heck, passion is passion.  A student who read Wellington’s Despatches, memoirs of the battle, letter collections, records of the financial markets that June, and Napoleon’s pep-talk to his troops would have a much better understanding of Waterloo–of how those people got to that field in Belgium in June of 1815–than a student who slept through a lecture.  He (the pronoun is probable) might even want to learn how to read French.

For myself, I was alway frustrated to find that the collections of historical sources available to us stressed religion and politics, including war, while cheerfully overlooking agriculture, the arts, science and technology, international trade, marriage and the family, plague vectors, and other aspects of daily life.  There’s more to human history than the battle of Waterloo, but it’s said that the field of battle produced brilliant crops for decades afterward, which is an answer to one agricultural problem.

So what would be lost with the demise of the textbook?  The publishers and authors would have something to say, no doubt.  Right now, the publishers of high school texts in science and history particularly can be and are bullied by states like Texas into dishing up pabulum the Texas legislature will swallow, so let us not overvalue the content of these works.  They do have monetary value.  Quite a lot.  Other related questions arise:  how does Apple propose to compensate the owners of intellectual property students will now access directly–a specific translation of Gilgamesh, for instance, or multiple translations of the Gospel of St. Matthew, or the recently discovered journal from the voyage of the Beagle.  At least with printed textbooks, there was a system of acknowledgement and compensation.  In the case of our photocopied anthology, direct acknowledgement of all print sources and a price that guaranteed we would not profit from selling the “book.”  (This was in the olden days.)  So who, apart from Apple, will profit from Apple’s non-textbooks?

Another problem is the loss of “community” students will experience if they’re not all locked into the same version of things.  People who think of education as indoctrination will find that disturbing, but it’s an honest loss.  Do students need a textbook slant on, say, the Civil War (I beg its pardon, the War Between the States)?  One kind of indoctrination that was firmly in place when I was a student will be less likely to happen–dealing with an important subject by omitting it from the textbook, as apparently now occurs in some biology texts with respect to evolution.  My high school American history text barely mentioned slavery except as a minor contributing cause of the Civil War.  The same text mentioned the amendment that gave women the vote, but there was no discussion of the long and arduous process by which women got the vote.  Gosh, it must just have been a gift from kindly male politicians.  Imagine that.

The demise of textbooks is a complicated issue, but I welcome it, and I don’t much care whether students wind up carrying a Nook or a Kindle, although that’s another problem.  From the point of view of student-readers, either will do.


6 Responses

  1. Sheila, I doubt textbooks will go away any time soon, though the heavy, full color, $150+ hardback are dinosaurs; students won’t or can’t pay full price for them. Most publishers already offer e-versions of their texts and small trim, paperback, three color versions, both with hefty suport materials on the web, at a fraction of the cost.

    The history textbook content is better all the time, more inclusive as historians become more a divers group of folks, better written, i.e. less boring. But the texts still suffer from an East Coast bias; beyond the Appalachias the continent is a blank slate.

    I don’t know anyone who loves textbooks. I assign the best I can find, but they are only one of many tools.


  2. The only history course I took in college was the required History of Western Civilization, or Civ for short. I don’t think we had a textbook. Instead, there was the Civ Library, a building (former campus post office) that stored multiple copies, on reserve, of all the original source readings. There was sometimes quite a wait, but it was the place freshmen went to meet and flirt w/ other freshmen, so no one really minded!

    I’ve always thought that the most practical use for ebooks is for travel and textbooks.

  3. Oops, showing my age. “Civilization” in my college years meant only the Western variety. Things are certainly more inclusive and thorough now.

  4. Tried to find something to disagree with, Sheila, but in fact I might just copy the blog, substituting “physics” and “math” everywhere you have history or literature. We teachers now have a whole world of resources at our fingertips, giving us the ability to create our own “textbooks,” or mashups. What could be better?

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