March 10, 2006

Tossing textbooks

I made a comment the other day about textbooks, in connection with the library nonsense in California where the school trustees aren't keen on library books contradicting textbooks.

I believe my exact words were, "textbooks, which with a few exceptions tend to be committee-written, dumbed down, boring, uneducational, politically correct drivel."

And then I linked to Diane Ravitch's The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, all about the deficiencies of textbooks -- she addresses those on the subject of English literature, and world and American history for the most part -- and the textbook publishing industry; with which, in the interest of full disclosure I used to work in a previous life, and which probably paid for at least the bathroom in my old co-op apartment. But I didn't have to like them much then, and I still don't.

My own experiences with textbooks, academically and professionally, have colored my decision to limit their use in our home schooling, both by not using too many and by relegating them to a supporting position as reference books, rather than relying on them as main texts. I remember sitting in a classroom over 30 years ago, well before political correctness reared its ugly head and the educational publishers started eating each other, staring at the dry dusty writing in my history textbook and thinking that I would never be able to remember, or be interested in, the day's reading. And I remember the freedom of high school, where we were finally given some good quality historical nonfiction and then entrusted with primary sources. English textbooks were even worse; you'd get a teasing, tantalizing snippet, and no more, of something good, and then something else interesting would go flying by.

I do think textbooks, the few well-written ones by a minimum of authors, have their place, especially in upper level math and science studies. One of my long-time favorite history textbooks is the two-volume Growth of the American Republic by Henry Steele Commager, Samuel Eliot Morison, and William E. Leuchtenberg (volume I, volume II), which the kids will make full use of when the time comes. And this year we are using Joy Hakim's History of US, which I use as a narrative overview for the time period, and then supplement with armfuls of good historical nonfiction and fiction, from Johnny Tremain and Ben and Me to Paul Revere's Ride by Longfellow and Sam Fink's illustrated version of the Declaration of Independence.

As Ravitch writes in The Language Police [all emphases mine],
The flight from knowledge and content in the past generation has harmed our children and diminished our culture. As they advance in school, children recognize that what they see on television is far more realistic and thought-provoking than the sanitized world of their textbooks. The numbing nihilism of the contentless curriculum produced by the puritans of left and right merely feeds the appetite for the exciting nihilism of an uncensored and sensationalized popular culture, skillfully produced by amoral entrepreneurs who are expert at targeting the tastes of bored teenagers. ...

Intelligence and reason cannot be achieved merely by skill-building and immersion in new technologies; elites have always know this and have always insisted on more for their children. Intelligence and reason cannot be developed absent the judgment that is formed by prolonged and thoughtful study of history, literature, and culture, not only that of our own nation, but of other civilizations as well.

That is not what our children get today. Instead, they get faux literature, and they get history that lightly skims across the surface of events, with no time to become engaged in ideas or to delve beneath the surface. Not only does censorship diminish the intellectual vitality of the curriculum, it also erodes our commitment to a common culture.
Ravitch's argument is bolstered by an old Edutopia online article, "The Muddle Machine: Confessions of a Textbook Editor" by Tamim Ansary, currently highlighted at a couple of my favorite education blogs, Chris O'Donnell, and Tall, Dark, and Mysterious. I was intrigued by a few of Ansary's suggested steps for reform, which many homeschooling families already follow:
"Revamp our funding mechanisms to let teachers assemble their own curricula from numerous individual sources instead of forcing them to rely on single comprehensive packages from national textbook factories. We can't have a different curriculum in every classroom, of course, but surely there's a way to achieve coherence without stultification.

"Reduce basals to reference books -- slim core texts that set forth as clearly as a dictionary the essential skills and information to be learned at each grade level in each subject. In content areas like history and science, the core texts would be like mini-encyclopedias, fact-checked by experts in the field and then reviewed by master teachers for scope and sequence. ...

"Just as software developers create applications for particular operating systems, textbook developers should develop materials that plug into the core texts. Small companies and even individuals who see a niche could produce a module to fill it. None would need $60 million to break even. Imagine, for example, a world-history core. One publisher might produce a series of historical novellas by a writer and a historian working together to go with various places and periods in history."
The Edutopia website (brought to you by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, yes, that George Lucas) has some interesting related articles, including "How To: Toss the Text", although the most useful hint for those trying to wean themselves from textbooks was tucked away at the very bottom of the page: "Explore books addressed to many audiences: college level, general high school, and general interest. These will show you a variety of approaches and provide a ready supply of entry points for your students."

Another article, "No Books, No Problem" is by chemistry teacher Geoff Ruth, who admits, "The students in my general chemistry class almost never open their textbook. My reason: The less I use the book, the more they learn. While some textbooks are excellent, most bore my students and frustrate me." At the end of the article are a series of "How To" links, for science and history.

Some more extras:

Ravitch's book has a nifty appendix at the end, a sampler of children's classic literature for grades 3 to 10; and her end notes and bibliography are a goldmine of information for parents and teachers. I haven't found her list of book recommendations online anywhere so you'll have to try your library or bookstore for The Language Police. BookCloseouts has a couple in stock now (at this writing) for $6.99.

The American Textbook Council, an independent research organization based in New York, "dedicated to improving the social studies curriculum and civic education in the nation's elementary and high schools." The ATC reviews history textbooks and other educational materials, and issues a yearly report, available for purchase.

The Textbook League, based in California and headed by William J. Bennetta (not to be confused with William J. Bennett, the former secretary of education and "drug czar"), reviews middle school and high school textbooks in a variety of disciplines, including math and science.
UPDATED to add: While I find TTL's science and math book reviews useful, the more I consider the history text reviews, the more I find they require great grains of salt.

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