June’s arrival marks the end of another school year and the resultant joy of students. As a teacher, I want to suggest an appropriate way to celebrate: a bonfire. Not just any bonfire though, but one that uses as its primary kindling textbooks.
Yes, I realize that the Nazis have given book-burning a bad name, but realize that when you burn a textbook you are standing up for truth, justice, freedom, and the American way. The mistaken notion held almost universally in public, private, and home schools that textbooks are helpful in educating students is arguably the most damaging notion maintained in education today. Typically, forces on the political left and right merely squabble over the content of textbooks when the real problem lays well-concealed right in front of their faces: the textbook itself.
For thousands of years, across continents and civilizations people have recognized the power of books to change lives, determine cultures, and even to save souls. While multitudes of varying books garner such praise, I dare say that no one has ever offered such affirmations to a textbook. Nevertheless, year after year the primary books we force young people to read are textbooks. Is it really any wonder then that children who almost universally enjoy being read to as infants reach middle school having lost their desire to read and by high school simply refuse to engage in the process anymore?
I am a historian, which means that I naturally like to read history. However, despite my natural and developed love of history, the last thing in the world I want to read is a history textbook; they are dull, stultifying, patronizing, shallow, and quite regularly wrong. Consequently, if I am trying to develop an appreciation of history in someone who does not naturally like the subject, the absolute last thing I would do is force that person to read a history textbook. Simple logic tells me that the textbook is not going to teach them history; it is going to teach them that history is dull, stultifying, patronizing, shallow, and quite regularly wrong.
The century of academic deterioration that the United States has endured is too well known to require further documentation, but too often concerned citizens have not recognized that the very tool they rely on to stem the tide is actually culpable in the decline. Thankfully, many authors and organizations have recently done the yeoman’s work of documenting the failures of American textbooks generally and specifically. I certainly commend the efforts of Diane Ravitch, Sandra Stotsky, John Hubisz, Daniel Pipes, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and the American Textbook Council among others who have brought the failures of the textbook industry to light.
For those wishing to evaluate the texts used in local schools but are too short on time to sift through all the aforementioned studies, I suggest a simple test: Look at the cover. If it says “Understanding Poetry by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren” it is good; if it says anything else, it is bad. There is always one exception that proves the rule and “Understanding Poetry” written in 1938 was the only worthwhile textbook written in the twentieth century so you are safe rejecting any other titles.
Inertia and fear are the two factors that maintain the billion dollar textbook industry.
Generations have grown up using textbooks and now they seem as necessary in school as desks. Consequently, adults who should know better, since they had to read the awful things too, allow schools to ruin their children’s education with textbooks. Tragically, this inertia leads private and home schools, which have the freedom to easily choose a better alternative, to also adopt textbooks. Simply consider which you would rather read, a book or a textbook, and you will snap the power of inertia and know what course to set. When you visit Barnes & Noble, do you shop for a textbook?
Teachers, students, and parents alike are comforted by the slick packaging, pretty pictures, colorful graphs, and supplied questions that all textbooks offer. To suggest that students actually be asked to read real books that contain only words, real arguments, and no ready-made questions causes fear and trembling because all three groups will actually have to work in their respective roles rather than being spoon-fed pablum and empty promises about becoming educated. Of course, actually reading and wrestling with great books is what makes one educated. It also changes lives, determines cultures, and even saves souls.
So, pass me a match and let’s celebrate freedom.