Textbooks That Don’t Teach

As a student, teacher, and historian, OSCAR HANDLIN has had more than his fill of textbooks. For the reasons which he sets forth in this scrutinizing paper, he dearly wishes that the contents of our American texts, particularly those in American history, could be revised for each succeeding generation instead of being handed down like sacred cows from age to age.

MANY a teacher confidently brings his class to a close with an assignment in the textbook. Many a parent in the evening looks on with satisfaction as his offspring studies the big impressive volume. Rarely is the teacher or parent aware that he is participating in a process that may effectively stifle the reading habit for life.

The textbook is an indispensable tool of the American school; yet the way in which it has developed prevents it from serving the purpose it should. With few exceptions, it is dogmatic and dull, an obstacle rather than an aid to learning. It will be one of the major tasks of the teaching profession, in the next decade, to give serious thought to the means by which it can be improved.

The 42 million students in the United States will be using this year some 200 million textbooks. Well over 20,000 such titles are in print, and almost 100 million copies are sold annually.

Some of these books clearly stand apart. At the one extreme are the specialized treatments of advanced subjects, often original works of synthesis by distinguished scholars close to their materials: Kirkland’s economic history, Bailey’s diplomatic history, and Key’s state government are examples in one field alone. At the other extreme are the primary spellers and readers, compiled specifically for the use of the elementary grades. These primers have the virtue of clarity of design; their authors must necessarily keep in view the needs of the children who will use them. At the lowermost level, as at the uppermost, there are outstanding volumes that make genuine contributions to education.

The texts that serve the high schools and the first two years of the colleges, however, are of necessity surveys; their compilers cannot be intimately familiar with the whole of the subjects they cover. On the other hand, such books are not as closely linked to the aptitudes and tastes of the students as those in the grades. As a result they yield to the weaknesses inherent in the forces that have shaped the character of American textbooks.

One can leave apart, in this discussion, the readily remediable dangers that arise from external pressures upon teachers and upon the writers of texts. It is true that political considerations in some states and municipalities unhappily limit the freedom of selection; that is particularly the case where lay boards exercise the power to approve or disapprove. Furthermore, too many laws dictate the subjects that may or may not be treated so that the narrow prejudices of legislatures hamper the work of the educators. But these conditions, while often serious, are aspects of the general problem of adjusting the schools to a democracy. Continuing public vigilance will go a long way toward remedying such faults.

But even if school boards were always conscientious and competent and even if legislators were always restrained, there would remain ingrained defects, the product of a long historical development that ought to give serious concern to the publishers, the writers, and the users of textbooks.

CENTURIES ago, textbooks were books of texts, that is, of authoritative documents. Pupils of the medieval schools studied the scriptures or the treatises of the philosophers in order to absorb their contents. Even if the shades of meaning were subject to disputation, the text was not; that had to be accepted as given.

The same attitude extended to every area of learning. The Latin grammar of Donatus served generation after generation of Europeans for more than a thousand years. Since the rules were fixed, it was better to have an old, tried work than a new one. There was no place in the learning process for questioning that which was given.

Of course, the young and the simple were not expected to comprehend the weighty tomes of the schoolmen or even the scriptures. But the procedures for their education rested upon the same assumption, that the task of the student was to memorize what was presented to him. Instruction was through the catechism, a sequence of set questions to which there were set answers.

Thc invention of printing, so revolutionary in other respects, made hardly an impression upon these teaching methods. The manuscripts that had formerly been laboriously copied and circulated now were set into type. In time, the vernacular languages replaced Latin, changes in the curriculum brought new subjects into prominence, and the schools reached out to serve an ever larger segment of the population. But the textbook remained an authoritative presentation of correct answers that the student was expected to memorize.

Such books were packed in the cultural chests that colonists brought to the New World; and when Americans came to write for themselves, they adopted the familiar methods. The products of their own presses did not deviate from precedent in this respect, even after independence. The Webster spelling books and the McGuffey readers were the lineal offspring of the hornbooks and catechisms of the past. The contents might change, in accordance with the dictates of the times or the impress of local conditions, but the mode of presentation remained the flat dogmatic statement of unquestionable truth.

In the last eighty years there have been radical changes in the format and appearance of textbooks, as well as in some aspects of their treatment of the subject matter. Excellent illustrations and maps, thoughtful design and layout, and good paper and binding are characteristic of today’s publishing. But there has been no alteration in the basic assumption of the text that learning consists of remembering and that the function of the book is to supply the material to be remembered.

Unhappily, however, in the past eighty years it has become increasingly difficult to compile a meaningful text on this order. “Books,” as Francis Bacon pointed out, “must follow science”; and the nature of our knowledge has altered with dizzying rapidity in our own era. The time has long since passed when the true history or true philosophy was defined by a canon as authoritative in its own way as that by which a universal church defined the scriptures. Science now deals with probabilities, with tentative and qualified interpretations, with opinions on which competent scholars may differ. Historians themselves are not united upon the causes of the Civil War nor economists upon the consequences of inflation nor biochemists upon the nature of proteins.

But only a statement so innocuous as to offend no one will be universally accepted in the textbooks. “Inasmuch,” says the managing editor of a prominent publishing house, “as the basic concern [of textbook writing] is the presentation of accepted principles, original genius, unpredictable as to time or source, is not a prime factor.” Hence the standing summons to the hack.

The temptation to rub off the sharp edges of difference is particularly great in subjects which face lively public scrutiny. The mathematician has little to fear from the school boards. But the historian knows that a reference to the “rebels” even in a quotation can cost him a Southern adoption. The treatment of Luther must offend neither Catholics nor Protestants; and no suspicion may be cast upon accepted institutions. In the social sciences it is essential to be eternally cautious; it is dangerous to be pro-labor or pro-capital, to approve or disapprove of war or inflation, to favor or oppose any section or ethnic group. In short, it is dangerous to be deeply committed with regard to anything that matters.

Safety lies in the refusal to arrive at conclusions. Judgments of any kind are suspect. The text clings to that which cannot arouse any doubt whatever, to that which will form invariably correct answers to quiz questions. One prominent publisher considered it among the duties of his editors to “soften or remove” any expression of his authors’ points of view.

Regrettably, few authors dissent. In this respect they see eye to eye with the publishers. James Harvey Robinson, who did so much to broaden the scope of historical studies in the United States, once objected strenuously when a teachers’ reading circle offered to adopt one of the books in which he really spoke his mind. “If,” he told his publisher, “the school authorities discover my personal liberal views, they will cancel the much more lucrative contracts they now have for my textbooks.” This businesslike attitude, that still prevails, not only prevents scholars from speaking out in their texts but often silences them even in scholarly circles.

The task of composition for a writer thus shackled is almost hopelessly mechanical. Generally he seeks a way out through simplification, which has the additional advantage of making his book available to a wider audience. He may attain that end simply by omitting parts of the subject; although texts have grown larger and more expensive in the last twenty years, the amount of “content” has declined. But that method is open to the danger of loss of sales as teachers discover that favorite bits of detail are missing.

Or, alternatively, the author may tighten up the exposition, confine himself to brief declarative sentences loaded with fact, and eschew all transitions, allusions, causal explanations, and abstract language. In doing so, however, there is an inevitable sacrifice of clarity and meaning.

ONLY a few textbooks have ventured to break through the pattern of dogmatism and dullness which is characteristic of the species. Generally publishers, authors, and teachers follow one another in a frustrating circle that strengthens the pattern. The publisher is constrained by the market to turn out books for existing courses; the author writes what will be published; and the teacher shapes his course by the available texts. The result is endless imitation. It is not difficult to trace today’s volumes back to their models of sixty years ago.

Textbook publishing is a substantial business, with annual sales approaching $250 million. The publisher is a businessman whose attitudes are formed by the peculiar economics of his enterprise. His is one of more than a hundred firms that vigorously compete with one another. The risks are high and the outcome difficult to predict.

The speculative element may be minimized by enlisting authors who command substantial captive markets. A professor in charge of a large course is most suitable, or one whose students teach throughout the country. A collaboration of three or four or more such men is ideal. Sales in their own classrooms within a few years will go a long way toward underwriting the expense of publication.

But profit is the legitimate goal of the businessman, and profits come from distribution to the widest possible market. Therefore the publisher frowns upon any eccentricity that may prevent the book from conforming to the existing organization of courses. The initial desire for somethingnew fades fast as the publication date approaches.

More at fault, however, is the author. It takes, in truth, but a slight nudge to turn him into a conformist. Rare indeed is the man who undertakes this task because he thinks it worth doing for its own sake. Usually his motives are of another order.

Always the initiative in a project comes from the publisher. The author starts with no positive desire to write a book; he is persuaded a book could be written. The publisher’s scout takes him to lunch in the town’s best restaurant and drops the seed. It sprouts during the convention, when the future author drops in at the firm’s suite. Amidst the free-flowing conviviality, in marked contrast with his own careful style of life, it suddenly becomes clear how easy it would be to double or triple one’s meager salary, pay off the mortgage. educate the children, travel, acquire a country house and a Cadillac, even lay up a reserve to permit serious research and writing — later. This might even ease the pressure from administrators who wish their staff to “publish.” A few years work will set a man up for life. Meanwhile an advance takes care of all sorts of immediate problems.

The author thus grits his teeth and prepares to serve his term at the typewriter. His own course, based on some earlier text, supplies a framework, or he consults the books of his more successful competitors. All that remains is to nail together the details. In the end, the labor proves unexpectedly painful and time-consuming, and it is extended onward by the need for frequent revision. But that is hardly foreseen when the contract is signed. Inevitably the weary lack of enthusiasm affects the quality of the writing, and the unconcern of the author seeps through his every paragraph. The exceptions, and there are such, stand out from the flock in their very peculiarity.

More culpable than the publishers and the authors are the teachers who are the instruments of a crime against their students.

Some teachers acquiesce because they know no better. Reared themselves on the textbook, they would be lost without it, and they see no reason why their charges should not suffer as they themselves once did.

Most teachers, however, do know better. Everything their course in educational psychology taught them about the learning process contradicts the assumptions under which the textbooks they use are written. The more conscientious ones recognize the discrepancy and devote their lectures and discussion to remedying the deficiencies of the text. Let the book supply the facts, they seem to argue, while the interpretation emerges in the classroom. While this procedure has merit, the textbook remains a tiresome repository of data to be remembered in the hope that significance may later be attached to it. The exceptional, inspiring teacher can rise above these limitations. But all too often, when the ability or will is lacking to go beyond what the text offers, the teacher forgets theory altogether and accepts practice as the book defines it.

The great majority of teachers, whether they know better or not, are content to go along. To depart from the organization of the text or to dispense with it entirely calls for original thought, consistent effort, and the willingness to buck the inertia of accepted method.

And then, the text has one inestimable virtue — the aid it offers in grading. Assign a chapter, and each paragraph has built into it a specific question with a right or wrong answer. Some texts, or the teachers’ manuals that accompany them, even simplify the process by supplying the questions ready-framed. To the compilers of objective tests these books are mines from which hundreds of facts can be drawn to be marked plus or minus.

IN THE ideal teaching situation, with qualified teachers, well-prepared students, well-stocked libraries, and ample visual material, the textbook in its present form would simply disappear. It does nothing in most high school or college courses that could not be better done in some other way.

Under the present conditions of American education, however, the textbook is an indispensable tool. Given the enormous expansion of the school population in the past decade and the still greater expansion to come in the next decade, it will be foolhardy to suppose that the quality of teachers, students, or libraries will improve. A marked deterioration is more likely; and that will give the

textbook even greater importance than it now enjoys. The problem will be to make it an aid rather than an impediment to effective teaching.

It is not likely that the publishers will take the initiative. Nor should they be expected to. As commercial enterprises, neutrality is their appropriate role; and they will, no doubt, be as willing to publish good as bad books, if the good ones are written and the market for them is created.

That locates the responsibility where it belongs, among the authors and the teachers. They must get rid of habits grown stagnant over generations. Above all, they must cast off the ancient yoke of pretense that the knowledge they wish to communicate can somehow be so authoritatively defined that it can be presented by the textbook simply as material to be remembered. Only thus will they free themselves for the larger challenges of education.

How those challenges will be met will vary according to the nature of the subject and the level of instruction. But that they can be met has already been demonstrated by a few pioneering books. Brinton, Christopher, and Wolff’s History of Civilization, Samuelson’s Economics, and Freilich, Berman, and Johnson’s Algebra are random examples.

As far as the waiters are concerned, one change in attitude is essential. The composition of a text ought to call for the same seriousness of purpose as the composition of any other book. No scholar would send to the press the manuscript of a monograph or a trade book unless he felt that he had something original to say, unless he had defined his subject and mastered its material. It is not too much to expect that the same standards be applied to the textbook.

The teacher must reconsider his own use of textbooks in the classroom situation. His teaching cannot remain alive so long as it is linked to the deadening study of the traditional text. It does not further the understanding of his students to bring in each morning an inert mass of memorized facts. The textbook can perform functions through the printed page that he himself cannot through lecture, discussion, or demonstration. But those functions need definition in his own mind and in the minds of his pupils.

Parents, too, have a stake in the matter. In the past, public interest in textbooks has generally been unfortunate in its consequences. Too often it was sparked by irresponsible vigilantes determined to stamp out differences of opinion.

But the effects of a well-informed public interest can be constructive. Let a few parents try to read the books their children study. That may begin to dissolve the inertia that has kept those books what they are.