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Real Books v. Textbooks

Updated on June 10, 2019

Libraries Have Real Books


Books by Authors or by Books by Committees?

“With the world’s bookshelves loaded with fascinating and inspired books, the very manna sent down from Heaven to feed your souls, you are forced to read a hideous imposture called a school book, written by a man who cannot write…”

— George Bernard Shaw

Yes, Mr. Shaw, you speak the truth! I would add that, at least in America, textbooks are written by committees. A book written by a committee has no soul. It might as well be a grocery list. Open up several public school textbooks and tell me if I'm not right. Textbooks are also far more expensive than real books.

The Real Books Approach to Education

I understand that most teachers are in government-controlled schools and will have limited discretion when it comes to teaching. Nevertheless, I present an alternative to the expensive and uninspired state-approved fare for use by tutors, homeschoolers, and private school teachers.

How does one teach a class without textbooks? For English classes at the secondary level, one simply selects good books and organizes lessons in written and spoken communication around those books. Classics such as Shakespeare's plays or Longfellow's poems may be used. Even a popular teen novel may be better fodder for classroom discussion and essay assignments than a literature textbook full of snippets from books instead of complete works. According to educator Kelly Gallagher, "Any teacher worth his salt can teach any language arts standard through teaching any novel." (2009, Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It, Stenhouse Publishers.)

This literature-based approach can be a bit more work for the teacher than simply assigning the questions at the end of a textbook chapter, but the results in terms of student engagement and learning outcomes will be well worth the effort. In fact, the teacher might find grading essays about Twilight or Harry Potter to be more enjoyable than grading answers to textbook questions.

Science class and history class may also be enhanced by the use of real books. Nature study using field guides and science reference books can provide much of an elementary or middle school's life science content, for example. Biographies of scientists, inventors, political figures, and explorers can give students far more depth than the sentence or paragraph in which those people might have been mentioned in a standard textbook.

Many teachers, given some flexibility by administrators, could teach very effectively using a textbook as a basic skeleton while using real books as the meat of the curriculum. Real books offer an opportunity to interact with an author, past or present, intelligent enough to write a book. Too often textbooks offer an opportunity to be bored with the least-common-denominator results of a committee tasked with creating a school book that offends no politically important constituencies while meeting minimum state standards for end-of-grade test preparation. Which books do you think students will find more interesting?

When students are introduced to excellent literature, a chain reaction can begin. One good books leads to another as the C.S. Lewis reader discovers Tolkien and the reader is hooked for life! Give young people words worth reading and they will become readers.

Math Textbooks: An Observation

As a graduate of Purdue's Schools of Engineering, I have seen more than my share of math books over the past 50 years. Mine in the seventies and eighties were relatively small and contained math, math, and more math. My children's math textbooks are larger than my college engineering books, yet contain less math. There are wide margins, colorful sidebars with (mathematically) irrelevant information about history, and occasionally: math!

Math textbooks are bigger than they have ever been, yet most lack a concise, precept-upon-precept presentation of mathematical concepts. In terms of information per pound of book, modern math books are a bad value. As textbooks become "Common Core Compatible" matters will become even worse.

Older math texts can be found at used bookstores. Just make sure you buy a really old book, since math standards declined steeply over the past thirty years.


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