The subject of textbooks came up a couple weeks back. After some preliminaries I proposed to address three questions:
- Why do we need them?
John Taylor Gatto, a former New York State Teacher of the Year, used to buy editions of books with his own money to have his kids read, to avoid having framing questions and canned answers at the end of each chapter. Just as Stalin said he didn’t care who ran, just as long as he got to count the votes, the impetus behind modern textbooks is that they don’t care (too much) what you read, so long as they get to pick the questions and grade you on the answers.
Here I will resist the temptation to wax poetic about the wonder and joy of reading, of being swept up into unknown worlds and ideas, because that not only isn’t the point of textbooks, but positively what they are designed to prevent. The best result from the perspective of the creators of the modern school is that you, the bright, eager student squirming in you desk, waving your hand to be called on, learn to give the correct predigested answer in response to one of the set of allowable questions. 12, 16 or more years of this, with approval tempered or withheld for anything except the right answers, you will have reached the goal of modern schooling as described by its founding light, Johann Gottlieb Fichte:
”Education should aim at destroying free will so that after pupils are thus schooled they will be incapable throughout the rest of their lives of thinking or acting otherwise than as their school masters would have wished.”
(What kicks in next is the process described best, perhaps, in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, where the properly schooled, seeking always approval, seeking always the approved answers, aspire only to be a part of some inner circle, with intellectual and moral considerations poo-pooed and dismissed. But I digress.)
Failing that, the schools will settle for making you hate reading, and thus history, philosophy and so on. Adults trained to seek official approval above all else are good, but just so long as most people don’t get any ideas – good book and even bad books are alarmingly full of ideas – the goal of state management of everything can be achieved.
Math textbooks deserve special mention. They are intended to steer as many kids as possible away from math, since math can be a sort of gateway to actual thought. Only the few, who tend to be geeks and outcasts, are ‘good at math’. They will need to be watched and managed. They most often end up in careers that keep them away from other people.
(Another aside: learning Euclid from the source has been a life-changing experience for many people, regardless of how ‘good’ and ‘math’ they imagine themselves to be. So the Elements is never used in the classroom, except in a few Great Books schools, even though people have learned from it for millennia.)
Textbooks in modern schooling are used to enforce conformity of thought. ‘We’ need them to keep the rabble in line, and to teach them to always seek professional approval.
If you and your children don’t want to disposable cogs in somebody else’ plans, avoid textbooks. Avoid school.