(Guest post by Greg Forster)
Jay Matthews argues that most textbooks don’t serve enough of an educational function to be worth using:
Textbooks still make good dictionaries, with glossaries at the back. They also reassure parents, who don’t get to see teachers in action but are comforted, in a perverse way, that their kids’ schoolbooks seem just as dry and predictable as theirs were. But like the newspapers that have been my life, textbooks are creeping slowly toward obsolescence.
(HT Joanne Jacobs)
I can’t tell whether Matthews thinks textbooks are becoming obsolete simply because books themselves are becoming obsolete – he talks about how some teachers are starting to “write” their own textbooks for their classes by using the internet to gather material, etc. – but it sure looks like he thinks there’ s something especially obsolete about the textbook.
If so, I must strongly demur. Matthews seems to have missed what has always been the primary function of the textbook – to compensate for the teacher’s deficiency. It’s certainly true that some teachers are so on top of their material that they can write their own textbooks, but others are so not on top of their material that they just lean on the textbook as a crutch, teaching everything straight out of the book.
Indeed, who has not heard the frequent complaint about teachers who just teach everything straight out of the book? Welll, where would we be if they couldn’t even do that?
I must confess that looking back on when I first taught my own class at the college level, the biggest weakness of my teaching in that class was that I did too much by rote out of the textbook. But I did it because, as a novice, I lacked the confidence to strike out on my own.
But I have an even more striking example to set before you. When I was in high school, I had a really brilliant physics teacher who didn’t use the textbook at all. He spent the whole class illuminating the subject matter in his own highly motivated way, bringing in unusual examples and exploring subtle nuances.
As a result, his teaching was incredibly engaging to the few students who shared his intense interest in the subject, and completely useless to the majority who did not. They needed to be walked through the basics slowly and carefully – sort of the way a textbook does.
There was one girl in my four-person lab group in that class who was completely lost. She was getting a D and had no idea what was going on. So I started helping her out with her homework.
“Just ignore the teacher,” was my main advice. “Read the textbook and learn what’s in it. Don’t pay attention to anything in class, because almost all of it isn’t going to be on the test and will just distract you from what you really need to be learning.”
She went from a D to an A.
And you know what? I’m married to that girl today.
So don’t tell me textbooks are obsolete.
As a great rumination on the science of physics once put it:
This day and age we’re living in
Gives cause for apprehension,
With speed and new invention,
And things like fourth dimension.
Yet we get a trifle weary
With Mr. Einstein’s theory.
So we must get down to earth at times,
Relax, relieve the tension.
And no matter what the progress
Or what may yet be proved
The simple facts of life are such
They cannot be removed.
You must remember this:
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.
And when two lovers woo,
They still say, “I love you.”
On that you can rely!
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.
Moonlight and love songs,
Never out of date.
Hearts full of passion,
Jealousy and hate.
Woman needs man,
And man must have his mate –
That no one can deny.
It’s still the same old story,
A fight for love and glory,
A case of do or die.
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by.
(Copyright Warner Bros. Music, 1931)