What’s wrong with modern schoolbooks…

For some time I’ve been meaning to scribe on the topic of modern textbooks. Having just completed my four-year degree, I’ve run into a plethora of different makes and styles. Though, I will readily admit, as I progressed I stopped purchasing books that weren’t absolutely necessary. But I digress.

On the cover of the Saturday 19 August 2006 Wall Street Journal was an article on textbook manufacturers using able-bodied children to pose as handicapped to fill their percentage quotas for diversity. While this is certainly an appalling practice, it is unfortunately not surprising in the slightest. I think we all know that American society is regularly working to cram diversity into every place without so-called proper representation, even when the debate should not even have arisen. However, I think there is a far more deep and dire problem that is being allowed to become commonplace and unnoticed.

By the fourth paragraph of the article, the problem to which I am alluding is mentioned: “In recent years, the quest to meet these targets [quotas] has ratcheted to a higher level as technological improvements enable publishers to customize books for individual states, and as photos and illustrations take up more textbook space.” The underlining is my added emphasis, and I believe is the bigger problem. When text space is taken up for a sidebar or illustration, information is lost. The idea that a picture is worth a thousand words does not apply when trying to convey specific and accurate ideas.

Cracking open a new textbook during my last semester of college, this idea was driven home. The book looked less like an actual written work, and more like a multimedia presentation. When I would read through a chapter, I found half a thought on the bottom of one page and the rest on the following page. The reason the thought could not be completed on the first page was that the top seventy-five percent of the page was taken up by an insert with a large photograph and a complete aside from the topic in the main text. What was worst was the fact that the insert was where my eye was drawn (as it was designed to do) and my train of thought on the main meaningful text was lost. Reading this textbook was tantamount to watching television while attempting to study. All this was no mere isolated incident; all new books are published in the same way.

This condition was also mentioned in the article by professor and writer Diane Ravitch. There is also a nasty consequence brought up in the article coming from the combining of a mixed-media format and forced diversity: loss of history. To make room for the pictures and the specific numbers of people from different backgrounds, other important events and dates fall to the wayside. While I do not obviously speak for everyone, I do feel that any loss of factual information from history limits what we may learn from our predecessors’ actions and wisdoms.

While attending my dear friend’s recital, I had a chance to peruse a used book sale outside the library of San Jose State. There I found a wonderful old book. It was a gradeschooler’s textbook on the famous men of Rome. Best part of all, the text was over one hundred years old. Actually, the best part had to have been the fact the book had actual continuing text throughout. There were very few pictures interjected, and they never interrupted the flow of the writing. It was sweet and simplistic a delightful read. I truly believe that having to read through entire pages of English strengthens not only a child’s abilities in the language, but trains them to sit through a full thought. Attention spans would be lengthened. What an amazing concept, no?

So my point here has become quite evident. But from one last testimonial of my own, the best books I have ever taken to heart have been ones with pure, clear language and contained no other form of input. In fact, my best schoolbooks have not been textbooks at all. They were normal books, with opinionated authors and conflicting points of view. Then our interpretations could be brought to a discussion and the knowledge of the works would deepen. ‘Twas a beautiful thing, and I do believe that this practice could be brought to younger ages, making them more complete and thoughtful people.