Textbooks: An Unnecessary Evil pt 2

Image result for Richard FeynmanWe are discussing textbooks, starting here with some preliminaries and what textbooks are.  The remaining two questions are:

2. Who gets to say what’s in textbooks

3. Why do we need them

Who gets to say what’s in textbooks? First, let’s consider a fairly recent and I think representative example. Richard Feynman was once on a textbook committee here in California. (Aside: the link above came up when googled for the Feynman essay. The commentary at that site is also worth perusing.) While his experiences date back 50 years, the situation has only become worse. So, who says what in them?

You see, the state had a law that all of the schoolbooks used by all of the kids in all of the public schools have to be chosen by the State Board of Education, so they have a committee to look over the books and to give them advice on which books to take.

Feynman getting a say in what’s in science and math books? Famous, brilliant, Nobel-winning teacher? Sounds about right. Buuuut:

Immediately I began getting letters and telephone calls from schoolbook publishers. They said things like, “We’re very glad to hear you’re on the committee because we really wanted a scientific guy . . .” and “It’s wonderful to have a scientist on the committee, because our books are scientifically oriented . . .” But they also said things like, “We’d like to explain to you what our book is about . . .” and “We’ll be very glad to help you in any way we can to judge our books . . .” That seemed to me kind of crazy.

A nice lady who’d been on the committee before told him how it worked:

They would get a relatively large number of copies of each book and would give them to various teachers and administrators in their district. Then they would get reports back on what these people thought about the books.

But this is Feynman we’re talking about! So:

Since I didn’t know a lot of teachers or administrators, and since I felt that I could, by reading the books myself, make up my mind as to how they looked to me, I chose to read all the books myself. . . .

If you know anything about government committees, you may be able to guess what happens. Feynman is the ONLY person on the committee who read any of the books. In one case, there was a book being rated even though it was blank:

We came to a certain book, part of a set of three supplementary books published by the same company, and they asked me what I thought about it.

I said, “The book depository didn’t send me that book, but the other two were nice.”

Someone tried repeating the question: “What do you think about that book?”

“I said they didn’t send me that one, so I don’t have any judgment on it.”

The man from the book depository was there, and he said, “Excuse me; I can explain that. I didn’t send it to you because that book hadn’t been completed yet. There’s a rule that you have to have every entry in by a certain time, and the publisher was a few days late with it. So it was sent to us with just the covers, and it’s blank in between. The company sent a note excusing themselves and hoping they could have their set of three books considered, even though the third one would be late.”

It turned out that the blank book had a rating by some of the other members! They couldn’t believe it was blank, because [the book] had a rating. In fact, the rating for the missing book was a little bit higher than for the two others. The fact that there was nothing in the book had nothing to do with the rating.

Read the whole thing, if you have the stomach for it. Feynman noted many egregious errors and obvious failings in the books that did have stuff in them, so much so that one is lead to wonder if the blank book would not have been an improvement (hint: yes). The rest of the essay is about the corruption of the selection process, where the publishers wine and dine the committee members to get their support, but given the nature and quality of the books, that qualifies as a secondary scandal.

So, to answer the question: who gets to decide what goes in textbooks? it’s ‘educators’ with the ‘help’ of politicians. In the above essay, the recommendations of the committee are largely overturned by the politicians allocating the state budget. The committee was instructed not to look at cost, so they couldn’t recommend a set of books within any budget, or have a hierarchy of which books to cut first if the money wasn’t there. Didn’t matter anyway, as the Education Department simply did what they wanted once a budget was determined. Feynman, a legendary teacher himself, is there just for cover – it’s not like he get to decide, or even have much of a say, despite his expertise.

Two things should be obvious from this story: first, educators, a class of people that did not exist until about 200 years ago (people were teachers, back then) decide what goes into the books. State education departments are and have always been staffed by educators and political hacks.

But the second thing is more perhaps more shocking: it doesn’t matter what goes into the textbooks, so long as it fails to teach! It is not like there are not many people out there who can teach algebra, say, and who could write a good, usable textbook on the subject.  I ran across one such book many years ago, and it was night and day. After taking the usual high school algebra courses, I could sort of do the math, but my understanding was limited. Then, in my mid-20s, in a few pages of a book I stumbled across in a library  written by a guy who understood and loved his subject, it was a mini Eureka! moment. Algebra wasn’t a series of tricks and rules, but rather a complete logical system. The fragments made no sense; the whole was beautiful.

So, I know they’re out there. Textbooks written by people who understand and love their subjects are never used in the public schools, at least K-12. This is no accident. It’s not just the experts whose opinions are ignored. What parents might wish were in them is worse than irrelevant – it is to be actively shunned.

The compulsory, graded public school system was never envisioned as a means to educate. Fichte, Mann and their spawn hardly cared if the students learned traditional subjects. The system they dreamed up, realized and imposed with the police power of the state was intended from the beginning to form an obedient and docile population.  Textbooks that teach real knowledge do not help toward this end, and might hinder it. Better to not run that risk.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

9 thoughts on “Textbooks: An Unnecessary Evil pt 2”

  1. Looks wonderful. Will add to the tottering pile, towards the top. I discovered the Underground Grammarian via the link on your blog several years ago, and have whiled away a number of hours reading his forceful prose. Thanks.

    Others, better men than I, have attempted to plumb the depths of corruption of the world of professional educators. What I have yet to find is the gory details of how, sometime around the turn of the last century, the Catholic school fell under the influence of Catholic ‘educators’ cut from the same cloth as their secular counterparts. That’s where I’ve got to mine.

    The graded classroom model and the textbooks that embody it are, simply put, INSANE when viewed objectively by anyone with experience with real children. Job one of the schools, therefore, is to prevent any such objective viewing. The Catholic perspective, which should include the bedrock idea that every child is a unique, beloved creature in the image of God and in no need of any justification for his existence, should further object to attempts to standardize children to make them valuable members of society.

    Valuable to whom? To a Catholic, this should simply not be a question.

  2. When trying to teach myself calculus, epsilon-delta calculus, I stumbled happily into the realization that reading the same material by several authors tended to speed up comprehension. The variations in the way the material was expounded seemed to make the essence of the subject come into focus. The effort helped to instill a habit of learning. It also refined one’s taste in text books.

  3. Linking to this on Facebook elicited this bounceback from Fabio:
    Fabio Paolo Barbieri My subject is history, not maths,and my view is more radical. I think history should NOT be taught in schools, at any stage before university. Children don’t have the maturity to study a subject which is all about assessing people and their behaviour, and at any rate teachers and textbook writers will never stop selecting facts not because of their importance but to support their own view of morality and citizenship. Of course their first job is to turn out good, well-socialized citizens, but using history to do so means indoctrinating children and falsifying facts. Instead, I would have a class in citizenship and law, rights and duties, with some historical notes on how those things were formed and fought for

    1. Good observation. There’s a much more complicated argument to be made that concludes something like that, while history is fraught with interpretive land mines, most of the ‘controversy’ is cooked up by 1) Fabians and 2) those whose academic raining has rendered them incapable of recognizing reality if any of their peers makes a contrary claim. In other words, I think a lot of (non-boring) history could be taught to kids before college, but that there’s no possibility of any agreement on what that history is in this environment.

      But that’s a longer argument than a comment reply.

      BTW: accidentally deleted you last comment while replying to it (clunky interface + fat fingers on a phone) so I lost the link you posted! I’d appreciate if you’d repost it.

    2. So, for the entirety of their schooling, their chief idea of human behavior is to be derived from each other, each without grounding in the tapestry of the human condition? So that they can be “good, socialized citizens” – presumably of the sort that teachers are employing their duty to turn out now, the kind that know only politics and career and consumption and have never thought of what it is to dwell every day among fellows in a city?


      (I will guess that this guy isn’t a fan of literature either.)

  4. Six months ago, I came across Horace Mann’s very own Third Reader. It’s not as bad as the textbooks described, nor even as bad as it was in the 1920s – it does expect a good deal of skill development over the course of getting through the reader, it is readable in itself, and it dips toes, however unthinkingly, into questions of virtue between the cracks of the farm-animal-centric stories – but let’s just say there’s a reason McGuffey is the contemporary that got all the reprints and Mann, despite his celebrity status, does not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: