Textbooks

My daughter read the last post about textbooks and fastfood restaurants  and pointed out that the article did not really contain many substantive reasons for why text books are boring. She wondered even about the point of the post.

I told her that my point was simply that I was bored of textbooks in general, and she replied “yes, but you didn’t really give any reasons.”

I had to agree – and was a little disappointed in myself for having simply stated a personal feeling  and nothing more. I was hoping that the association between textbooks and fastfood restaurants was going to strike my reader as particularly insightful perhaps even getting at the real problem with textbooks. But now I am not so sure, so maybe we had better start making a list of reasons why textbooks are boring. Here goes!

Substantive Reasons Why  Textbooks are Boring

  1.  Textbooks are not written by any certain person but rather by comittees and teams. I think this is a pretty good reason. Books are written by people whereas textbooks are written by groups. As we all know, interesting ideas are born from inidividual people, whereas ideas that are born from a group have been carefully sifted, and anything that is provocative or interesting has been painstakingly removed and gleaned out.
  2. Textbooks are written to create the illusion that a whole subject has been covered in an orderly manner. This too is an excellent reason. Having taught for quite a “chunk” of time now, I have always observed that students and teachers feel better when they have a textbook. The reason for this is that everyone feels like substantive learning is happening simply by turning pages! It is wonderful to go into class and say “please turn your pages to chapter 75” And “Voila” turning the pages is translated into actual learning. Parents and students and friends will say “where are you in the book?” And if you are lucky to have a teacher who knows how to turn the pages quickly, you will be able to say by the end of the year “we finished the whole textbook” and therefore “we have covered the material thouroughly” and therefore “we have learned the subject well!” And of course this illusion of learning is reinforced because the textbook comes with its own testing and assessment package. If students are able to perform adequately on these then – why of course – they have become wise indeed!
  3. Textbooks are very, very heavy. Now, I know this reason is not quite as good as the first two. But let’s all admit the fact that textbooks are usually quite heavy, and “the boring” is often associated with “the heavy,” even if you do grant some equivocation on the word heavy here. Perhaps we should put this reason in another list like “Why textbooks are bad for your health.” There is no doubt that many children hoisting around backpacks filled with 40 or 50 pounds of textbooks daily will suffer back problems later in life.
  4. Textbooks are purely pragmatic. I am not certain what evil genuis invented the textbook but I am going to go ahead and pin this one on Sir Francis Bacon. As we all know Sir Francis Bacon was a really bad thinker and the cause of an indefinite amount of intellectual trouble in our world. I am not saying that he was necessarily a bad man, although I have some suspicions about him. I am only saying that he was really a bad thinker and has led millions upon millions over the cliff of pragmatism.

(N.B. This picture doesn’t really look like the “cliff of pragmatism” but it is a great picture of “going over the cliff”)

You ask “what do you mean by the cliff of pragmatism?”

The cliff of pragmatism is nothing other than a “philosophy” that proposes that all learning and thinking is only valuable insofar as it allows us to make the world a “better place.” Now by “better place” no one ever means a place where everyone is wiser. No, “better place” means a world in which the most people possible are enjoying the highest possible material standard of living. In other words a world in which as many people as possible have a refrigeraor that looks like this:

 

or this would sure would be nice!

Wow! As much as I do admire these refrigerators, I still maintain that Sir Francis Bacon was and still is a menace to right thinking and ultimately to the human race. You see – he did not know how to prepare the human being to benefit properly from his refrigerators. What does one put inside the refrigerator and what is it all for?

But this is all a digression. The point is that those who only think about things pragmatically do not care about things like “reasons” or “the why” or whether “something is just” but rather they care about results! And this is the kind of thinking that textbooks invariably encourage. (let’s not talk about textbooks on ethics and morality just now)

5. Textbooks are sleep inducing. I don’t need to explain this. How many students have fallen asleep literally with mouths open on their textbooks? The number is incalculable.

6. Textbooks base their success on the ability of students to memorize procedures and so called “facts” without necessarily understanding why the “so called facts” and procedures are the way they are.

7. Textbooks are written for teachers and parents and NOT for students. This is a little repetitive but bears repeating. Teachers and parents think textbooks are nifty because they look at the table of contents and assume that the title chapters are what their students will learn. But there are few who really consider “what it means to learn a thing”- and learning does not simply mean “covering the material” by turning pages. Nonetheless, teachers love textbooks because they say to themselves

“If I only turn all the pages, when the students are present, then I will have taught the subject”

And all of these reasons and more, add up to the fact that textbooks are boring. Maybe we should just get rid of them? Of course, I suppose, textbook authors and publishers would be angry about this proposal. After all they need to make a living as well.

 

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About marklangley

Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see theLyceum.org) Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their twelve children.
This entry was posted in Textbooks, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Textbooks

  1. Samster says:

    The original meaning of the word “textbook” was a book of texts – original texts – put together by the teacher. I imagine the teacher would include commentary and questions on these texts, but eventually it got to the point where the book was all commentary and questions and no texts – thus evolving into the opposite of its original content!

    I think your last point is the most telling. Teachers can get so enamored of their own ideas that they actually replace those found in the great texts. And of course it’s easier to teach material that’s already been “pre-digested” (gee, that sounds appetizing). I like your comparison of textbooks to fast food – food that’s been overcooked or re-heated a few too many times. But once you taste real food it’s hard to go back.

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