Obsolete textbooks

Most Textbooks Should Just Stay On the Shelf, argues Jay Mathews in the Washington Post.

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. Jay Diskey, executive director of the school division of the Association of American Publishers, said his companies are moving into “Web sites, podcasts, electronic books, software, courseware, online tutoring tips, educational games, video products” and many other ways to learn.

Big books have failed to hold the attention of teenagers leafing through the pages with music blasting in their earbuds and text messages filling their cellphone screens. Facts and ideas, in my experience, are more likely to sink in if introduced in group exercises, exploiting the adolescent urge to belong. Teachers have their classes organize book clubs, recreate the Constitutional Convention, raise animals, write and perform plays, publish online magazines.

I realize many textbooks are poorly written and stuffed with so many pictures and sidebars that they’re hard to follow. Electronic books will not cripple your backpack-wearing child either. But can we really dispense with texts to live in a brave new world of zine-writing and group projects?

About Joanne


  1. Which texts?

  2. I’m not a fan of many textbooks, so I’m not going to try to defend specific books (especially since I can’t be sure we would be talking about the same ones). But Mathews seems to be accepting that today’s teens aren’t going to learn how to concentrate and absorb material which requires actual thought and concentration, so we ought to just give kids intellectual junk food. While it’s true that “music blasting in their earbuds and text messages filling their cellphone screens” and other such distractions are problems, the solution isn’t to simply write off complex and seemingly “boring” material. The people who do this — the ones who refuse to control their kids’ use of media distractions — are going to end up with undereducated children who can’t learn anything unless they’re in some group environment where information is spoon-fed to them in bite-size chunks.

    This whole debate reminds me of a parent who is having trouble getting his kid to eat good food because the kid prefers junk. Instead of cutting out the junk, he decides that he has to eliminate all of the stuff the kid doesn’t like (all of the good food) to give him a complete diet of sugar and fat. This isn’t parenting. It’s just following the path of least resistance, which leads to our kids’ ultimate pain.

    I know that Neil Postman is dead, but if he can see what continues to go on here, he MUST be yelling to us, “See? I told you so? I was right!”

  3. Why bother with texts when the kids are illiterate anyway? and why bother worrying that you haven’t taught the children how to read if all they are going to do is group projects and constitutional convention plays?

  4. David beat me to it.

    No worries, I’m sure there will be many good jobs for people who can work in groups to organize book clubs, recreate the Constitutional Convention, raise animals, write and perform plays, publish online magazines.

  5. Will the book clubs they organize actually read books? Which ones?

  6. Yesterday, I learned that a friend’s college freshman son just dropped out after his first term because he can’t handle the material. He was at a state college, and wants to be a history teacher some day. He went to the top public high school in our city. To speak to him, he’s a smart, capable young man who apparently is overwhelmed by a couple hours of reading homework a night.

    He wasn’t asked to read like that in high school. He wasn’t asked to write real term papers either. So when high school’s done away with textbooks, does Mr. Mathews suggest colleges do the same? Throw out Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and James, too?

    He and his college graduate parents both blame him for his failing, and ultimately, it’s true–he’s now an adult, and he needs to make his life work no matter what cards he got dealt. But I have the sinking feeling that he can’t handle the workload because he wasn’t taught how to do college level work by his college prep high. He may not even be literate enough to keep up with that amount of reading a night, because he may never have learned how to read except through guessing. Community college isn’t going to miraculously change that, though it might at least, if he’s lucky, teach him to write a term paper.

    How many other kids are in this trap? How many others have absolutely no idea what college preparation looks like, and are never going to get there? And how many parents understand that their kids didn’t receive college preparation? How many will blame the schools? How many will blame the kids?

  7. I agree with much of the last post and I think that the blame for the situation, not at all uncommon, can be spread quite widely. I was in high school and college in the late 60s, and I am ashamed to say that many of my age cohort abdicated their responsibility to act like adults. Standards of all kinds were rejected and the Puritan work ethic that served so many generations of Americans so well was replaced by a rejection of self-control,effort, personal responsibility and the idea that Western civilization has anything useful to teach.

    Schools and colleges, run by this age cohort for decades, have followed this path. Instead of the virtues of hard work and self-discipline, students have been taught that all learning must be fun, that phonics, math facts, spelling, history, grammar, composition (always lavishly corrected in red pencil!), geography and other such antiquated fields aren’t necessary or useful. Even kids barely able to read are told that their work is great (can’t damage their self-esteem, of course)

    Far too many kids and parents don’t realize until too late that good grades at a good school don’t necessarily mean that real skills and knowledge have been acquired. Unfortunately, the grip the educational establishment has on public schools, all college education programs and the vast majority of credentialing/accrediting entities means that I don’t see any meaningful change on the horizon.

    It’s up to aware and motivated parents to remediate and there aren’t enough of them. And making sure that your kids get the knowledge and skills they need is neither easy or fun, especially since you are going against everything they’re told in school and demanding more work than the school. Of course, there are still some good schools, or good classes within some school, but not enough of either.

  8. tim-10-ber says:

    Why have parents and schools demanded that kids not be given hard work? That their “precious dears” er softies cannot handle the hard work?

    Parents and teachers wake up — if you don’t push your kids no one will. Parents need to back teachers up with tough assignments of reading, writing, term papers, etc. Teachers make sure the work you assign is real work not busy work…

    We are in a never ending cycle because of the parents of baby boomers and now the future generations. Hard work and having to earn grades, employment, advancements, etc is what makes people strong.

    Today with poor text, weak teachers, weak parents and kids that get what they whine for…we as a country are asking for more trouble than the baby boomer generation has us in now…

    I for one will not tolerate my children being lazy. I expect them to excel and thank goodness they have high expectations for themselves too.

    The fact that a student drops out of college after the first semester of college is the fault of the child, the high school and the parents. Poor kid…I hope they find something to which they will apply themselves to excel…

    I have said this before but will say it again…I think higher ed is a huge part of what is wrong with education today. If they would only hold the high schools responsible for charging them with the cost of providing remedial education to supposed high school graduates…


  9. Oh, good grief. It’s possible to do a *good* job of presenting content in almost any medium, and it’s possible to do a *bad* job of presenting content in any medium. People who write confusing and boring textbooks would probably also create useless videos, and if there are ever 3-dimensional holographic media available, they would do a bad job with that, too.

  10. Griefer, unless the “college prep high”, the “top public high school in the city” was in an inner city with an average SAT score of 320, you are profoundly misguided in generalizing from your friend’s son, who apparently has some sort of disability or partied his way through his first term. That you would derive such an assumption speaks volumes about your lack of information about what actually goes on in good–and even average–high schools.

    A good student at a top high school will work far harder in high school than in college. That’s simply indisputable. So there’s no such thing as a smart kid who did well in a great high school and washes out of college because he didn’t know how to do the work.

    As for textbooks, if it has even the barest minimum of decent reference information, it’s invaluable.

  11. I know a new teacher at a highly-ranked public high school in a very affluent suburb. She has two regular freshman English classes, to which she has been told to assign no homework and no grades below C (and few of those). Their reading/comprehension/grammar/composition skills are far below real grade level and they show little interest or effort. She also has two sophomore honors classes, for which the kids do significant reading of good literature and do real analysis and composition. The difference in knowledge, skills and work habits is huge, but almost all of the students at that school go on to college.

    The situation was similar at the schools my own kids attended. It’s possible to get a good education, but it’s also possible to coast. The administration isn’t interested in really pushing kids and they don’t support teachers who do, unless it’s in honors/AP classes (where the kids tend to come from families who demand effort and results).

  12. I just started reading Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen. So far it seems to be a good read on exactly this topic, with a specific focus on history.

  13. A good student at a top high school will work far harder in high school than in college. That’s simply indisputable.

    Sure, it’s disputable. In fact, it’s simply false.

  14. Cal said, “So there’s no such thing as a smart kid who did well in a great high school and washes out of college because he didn’t know how to do the work.”

    I’m not certain whether or not you teach at a college, Cal. But, here is an example of my recent class in the structure of the English language (phonology, grammar, morphology, orthography, semantics) that I have been teaching for 22 years at the same college. The average ACT score of the 15 students was 22–not a bright group, but certainly in the average range. The average high school GPA of the group was 3.56. From the beginning of the class, it was clear that they were dumbfounded by the content and also that they had to read and write in order to pass the class. Most could not do so very well and their work made it clear that they did not do the reading. Their spelling and grammar skills were atrocious. In short, they had learned little or nothing about language prior to college, so they could not do well in a course that teaches them about language. I assigned the following grades: 9 grades of C, 2 grades of D, and 4 grades of F. I will be chastised for this by my department and urged to evaluate the students differently in the future.

    This class has become my typical class of college students in the last few years. I suspect the situation will worsen over the next few years before I retire. If colleges actually evaluated students honestly, many would wash out rather quickly. But, they’re customers now, you see, and I’m just the sales clerk…..and we all know about the relationship between customers and sales clerks.

  15. “The average ACT score of the 15 students was 22–not a bright group, but certainly in the average range”

    Yes. And I specifically discussed the top kids in a top high school. You surely can’t think those kids have an average ACT score of 22. So as a “rebuttal”, there’s not much point to your tale.

    On its own merits, I very much doubt that your students actually can’t read and write. However, the average 22 ACT score is only suited for college in the “everyone goes to college” sense. They certainly shouldn’t be taking a course on the structure of English language.

    So yeah, kids who can’t achieve a 600 on any one section of the SAT ought not to be taking courses that are well outside their ability level. There’s a shock.

    “In fact, it’s simply false.”

    Actual statistics, as opposed to some kids you know, assert otherwise.

  16. Actual statistics at real colleges where real work is required (as opposed to Harvard) assert otherwise. You’re still wrong.

  17. I’ve posted this link here before, but Michael Schrage’s thoughts on educational technology are relevant to this discussion:

    sparkly tools–all Rousseau and no Epictetus

    Also see some good points by Peter Berger.

  18. Stacy in NJ says:

    I homeschool my 4th and 6th grade boys without textbooks. I really do see the appeal of them, as a teacher. So much info is stuffed into those 400 or 500 pages. But, Good Lord, are they boring. There are so many terrific real books written with so much more interest and feeling. My 6th grader and I are currently reading a book called Secrets of the Universe, Discovering the Universal Laws of Science by Paul Fleisher. It covers all the major topics of physics, provides simple understandable explanations and easy experiments. There are a ton of great history books as well. We’ve loved A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich.

    There’s no problem with doing away with textbooks, but what will replace them? Good quality non-fiction books and literature? Sounds great. I can’t imagine that the same material can be presented via “web sites, podcasts, electronic books, software, courseware, online tutoring tips, educational games, video products”.

    Well, maybe electronic books, not sure about the other resources. They sound pretty souless.

  19. –So there’s no such thing as a smart kid who did well in a great high school and washes out of college because he didn’t know how to do the work.

    I went to MIT with dozens of such people. Which element do you dispute? That they were bright? That their schools were highly ranked? Or that they did know how to work? Care to claim that the successful kids there worked harder in high school than in college?

    But if you read what I said carefully, I didn’t make the generalization you thought I did. I said he went to the best public high school in our wealthy area, not a top high school in the country. And “Some sort of disability”–if no one ever taught you to read, you’d be astonished to find it might be disabling, apparently. But whole language methods mean most kids don’t get taught to read, not well enough, and not at high enough rates to handle college level texts.

    Could my friend’s kid just have done too many drugs? yeah, sure, but he dropped out, not flunked out. Most kids drinking and drugging their way through school stay as long as they can, because it’s a free chance to party, and it’s more difficult to do so at home or when you have to get a job.

  20. A 22 on the ACT is below the cut-off for the land grant U. in my state. When I look at the ACT scores of my kids, that sort of score is generally achieved by my strugglers. An average score would be more around 25 – 27. My hard workers are all up over 30 and all come back to me with stories about how easy College English is (if they have to take it).

    That said, I can imagine a course on structure would be difficult for a generation that hasn’t had any systemized grammar study. They don’t know how to break down a sentence, what a clause or phrase is, etc. I never particulary liked phonology, but I worked to learn it, and find it very useful background knowledge in the study of poetry. Students would probably do better in your course if there were a pre-req in basic formal grammar or even profesional editing.

    And yes, I think this is a MAJOR issue in my profession. I spend a lot of time teaching grammar and usage to my colleagues.

    Sometimes very good students get to college not knowing really how to study. They can read and write, but it all came pretty easy to them and they never developed good annotation habits, etc. My seniors all really hate me in October when I start kicking their fannies with college-level expectations because even though they’ve excelled in some tough courses, they’ve never been asked to re-read, take notes on a text, etc. Perhaps “the friend” is in that category.

  21. I’m with Stacy. I am not so concerned with textbooks becoming passe as I am with looking at their replacements. I went to one of those excellent high schools in an excellent community and had the advantage of honors classes. Then my family moved to a district that merely saw itself as really good because there was nothing better within near proximity to compare to. In the first district–at least in my classes, textbooks (except for math) were primarily used as resources–they did not dictate the curriculum. In literature particularly we used primary sources. I was astonished and amused when we moved and I was introduced to the idea of reading ABOUT literature, rather than reading literature. We did have a grammer book, and regular instruction in grammer–parts of speech and diagramming. Again, the text was primarily a reference.

    What I saw through this process were intelligent teachers who knew their subject and were in command of their teaching. This does not mean that they did not have to adhere to any standards. I am fairly certain that the novels we read, and the diagramming, were proscribed. I recall at least one major science project in junior high that was school-wide, if not district-wide (we had to assemble an insect collection in fall of ninth grade–introduced in the spring of 8th grade).

    In this day and age, we certainly have access to far more resources, some better than the “text,” recalling that the primary purpose of the text is to compile some all encompassing glimpse into the subject matter that can be purchased and disseminated by as many districts as possible. Does this mean that we have teachers with the knowledge and experience to be able to make use of all these resources? Does it mean that they are given adequate curriculum guidance to be able to teach within such and environment?

    I fear not.

  22. Sorry–very bad typo. “proscribed” should read “prescribed.”

  23. Cal said, “They certainly shouldn’t be taking a course on the structure of English language.”

    I agree. One problem, though. They all want to be teachers who teach reading and English. You cannot do either one without knowing the structure of language.

    Lightly Seasoned said, “Students would probably do better in your course if there were a pre-req in basic formal grammar or even profesional editing.”

    Students would do better in my course if anyone had taught them anything about language prior to coming to college. Most of these students with ACTs of 22 (which is an average score) know little or nothing about the phonology, grammar, orthography, and semantics of their own language. All of these students have passed their English courses in college with grades of A–it is rare when any student receives a grade of B or below in any English course. Of course, none of our English professors care one bit about grammar and spelling anyway. The only professors who did care about the language have retired and been replaced by the postmodernists.

  24. Well, if schools could be convinced to replace textbooks with primary sources, I think it might do a lot of good. I think that textbooks are useful for the lower grades of elementary school, because they are geared to the reading levels of children, but once students hit 5th or 6th grade, there are plenty of good texts out there, particularly in literature and history.

    Also, as a TA I’ve seen plenty of history undergrads swamped by a rhetorical analysis or critical lit review. It seems that most students don’t know what to do when faced with a 300-page book to read, arguments and subarguments to analyze, and a 5-7 page paper to write. Many don’t even finish the book, and those that do struggle to find the thesis (even when we’re using one of those books that states in the first chapter “This book is meant to prove that…” or some equally obvious statement).

    I’m not saying that these skills are easy to learn; I’m in my last year as an undergraduate and just now developing anying remotely resembling skill in finding arguments and questioning assertions. I just think that so many students get into high school and college with such a low ability to even think rationally through a clear argument that to expect such work is impossible. If textbooks can be replaced with what the profs in my office refer to as “real books”, I think it might promote better thinking skills. At least, if we can get students to read the books in the first place.

  25. Well, anon, I expect you to be the gatekeeper then. Don’t let them through until they can diagram Proust.

    FWIW, I don’t like and don’t use literature texts. They’re full of glossy pictures, cost a fortune, and the kids don’t like to carry them (and who can blame them — I don’t like bringing home the TE). One we recently evaluated actually had cut out big chunks of Romeo & Juliet. I just use novels (critical editions when I can get them) and the Hacker manual for the most part these days. I managed to score a set of Sound & Sense this year. All poetry, no pictures, and no “extensions.” It is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

  26. Sound & Sense! If that’s the same book I remember, it is excellent.

    Are there really people who believe a book like this would be enhanced by adding lots of pictures?

  27. GoogleMaster says:

    Hmm, the literature texts we used had no glossy pictures except on the slipcover. Norton’s Anthology of American Literature (two volumes) and Norton’s Anthology of British Literature (two more volumes). Together they contained several thousand paper-thin pages of words — and no pictures.

  28. LS –

    FWIW, I don’t like and don’t use literature texts. They’re full of glossy pictures, cost a fortune, and the kids don’t like to carry them (and who can blame them — I don’t like bringing home the TE). One we recently evaluated actually had cut out big chunks of Romeo & Juliet. I just use novels (critical editions when I can get them) and the Hacker manual for the most part these days. I managed to score a set of Sound & Sense this year. All poetry, no pictures, and no “extensions.” It is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

    As usual, you’re right on the money. As a student, I always found all those glossy pictures and insets to be just damn annoying. In a piece of literature, they disrupt the flow of the story. In other subjects, they tend to create a sense of ADD by moving the eyes and mind from one thing to another. Using charts, diagrams, photos, and other non-text information to judiciously augment a single flow of information in a textbook can be useful. For some subjects, like music theory, it’s even required. Too bad textbook publishers have fallen for the MTV mantra of hit-’em-hard-and-fast-from-all-angles. Most of their product would be better used as toilet paper.

  29. Oh, Sound and Sense! I love that book! I still refer to it, both as a fine poetry collection and for writing tips for my own poems.

    What a shock, in high school (AP English) to find a textbook I loved well enough to want to buy my own copy. We had the combined volume, “Story and Structure, Sound and Sense”. I found a paperback of just Sound and Sense in the local University bookstore the next summer, then recently (more than 20 years later) found a nice copy of Story and Structure to go with it.

    Of course we had plenty of “great books” to round things out (loved Portrait; loved the language of Return of the Native, hated its story).

    On the history side, I’ll take Palmer’s “History of the Modern World” over anything else, for the really big picture (and plenty of fine detail). Minimal sidebars, few illustrations, zillions of pages of text, but so much better written than anything else I could find (when helping homeschool an autistic high-schooler). Took about a year and a half to plough through, but worth it. (We had it in a one-semester Western Civ class in college; never thought I’d be buying a 2nd copy some day!)

  30. I have a copy of “Literature”, by X.J. Kennedy, published in 1987. No pictures, that I can find in the book, but I imagine it would be an asset to a course.

    The argument developing here seems to be that most (all?) modern textbooks are useless. That doesn’t mean that useful textbooks don’t exist, or haven’t been written.

    Also, to argue that some students can’t follow the prose of “big” books is not an argument for building an education around group work. The historic advantage reading imparted to mankind was the ability to absorb and transmit knowledge more quickly and efficiently than by speaking to each other. It sounds as if something is dangerously unbalanced in many classrooms, but it’s not the textbooks’ fault.

  31. I am a history teacher at a middle school in Calif. My principal has instructed me to teach Language Arts (What happened to English?) instead on Tuesday (Our minimum day.)

    I have been concentrating on Grammar. The past several weeks I have been working on independent and subordinate clauses. The first week I instructed the students to memorize the definition of a clause: ” A clause is a group of words with a subject and a verb.” I wrote it on the board, I repeated it out loud several times, I had the students repeat it back to me several times. I then taught a lesson in which the students had to identify clauses and their subjects and verbs. I checked for understanding often and had the students repeat the definition orally as a culminating activity.

    One week later I began the class with the question “What is a clause?”. I was greater with blank looks. A few got as far as “A group of words.” Out of 173 students, maybe a dozen remembered the correct definition. When I asked them why, a typical response was “we did that a week ago!”.

    When I tried to explain that they are supposed to be learning things and remembering things for the rest of their life, they seemed dumbfounded. When I informed them that I still remembered things I had learned 30 years ago when I was their age I got disbelief and disinterest. Yet these kids can memorize intricate and long button combos for their X-Boxes and WIIs, discuss in detail the stats of their favorite basketball players and know the intimate details of the lifestory of the Jonas Brothers to an excruciating degree.

    These kids are in the 7th grade, and can’t identify the parts of speech. Many haven’t memorized the multiplication tables. At least half can’t read an analog clock. Several literally cannot tie their shoes.

    There are times I come dangerously close to despair.

  32. gahrie:

    So–what do you think the problem is?

  33. gahrie: Life is more interesting when everything is new every day. You have to practice multiple ways and quiz quiz quiz to get the grammar to stick. They’re used to it going away painlessly after a superficial pass. If you make it painful over a long period of time, it sticks. Take off points in daily writing for certain errors so that they are accountable for the skills all the time. My kids know they lose a point every time they mix up the usuals (their/they’re/there, its/its, lose/loose, could of, etc.) no matter what it is I’m grading. Put a couple of POS questions on every quiz. They know everything about the Jonas Brothers because they live and breathe the Jonas Brothers. Make ’em live and breathe complete sentences. That’s the only thing I’ve found that works.

  34. Here’s a great grammar program. http://www.rodandstaffbooks.com/list/Building_Christian_English_Series/

    These are published by a Menonite group. They contain Biblical references. After working through the 3rd through 5th grade books with my eldest, I’ve learned and retained way more than I was ever exposed to during my school days.

  35. These reminded me of the old New England primers. Some of the vocab is inaccurate, and I wouldn’t recommend looking for a card catalogue at your local library.

  36. Margo/Mom:

    “So–what do you think the problem is?”

    That is a simple question with a long and complicated answer. But the basic answer is that learning/knowledge is just not important to these kids and ignorance is perfectly acceptable. There are a myriad of causes. Pop culture celebrates ignorance and the thug culture. Parents who don’t care, or are too busy to monitor. A complete lack of consequences for failure. (my school has not met it’s AYP goals in four years and yet has not retained a single student in that time…go figure). Their elementary curriculum. (My kids who have come staight from elementary school have never seen a Social Studies book, and the ones who were with us in sixth grade saw it last year for the first time.) Ten students have been pulled out of school so far for extended vacations in Mexico and muissed anywhere from one to three weeks. (Three weeks is 15 school days out of a school year that is only 180 days long)

    Two of my classes are AVID classes. These are kids who have self selected themselves as wanting to go to college and made a commitment to prepare to do so. I get less than half the homework turned in in these classes.

    The only class in which most of the work is completed, most of the students are learning, and frankly is any fun to teach, is the gifted class. These kids aren’t really any smarter. The difference is that these kids’ parents are involved. They check on their kids. They call me and the school. They monitor the learning and the teaching. They enforce consequences for failure and lack of effort.


  1. […] Comments Coach Brown on Judge blocks 8th-grade algebra mandateStacy on Obsolete textbooksms_teacher on Judge blocks 8th-grade algebra mandateLightly Seasoned on Obsolete textbooksMargo/Mom […]