The Ongoing Debate Over Textbooks


Republicans have been altering history textbooks for years and they are not going to stop until the textbooks reflect the history that they believe happened. I am uniquely suited to understand their argument. It makes perfect sense to me. I was – before any of my other major writing endeavors – primarily a memoirist. Most people confuse memoir with autobiography, but memoir is about telling the story as you believe it happened. You, as the author, have to make the call and decide what gets put in and what is left out of a story. In autobiography, the whole story needs to be present. It needs to be as realistic and authentic to your life as possible and cannot omit anything. In memoir you’re telling a story and just like any storyteller you have to make choices. Think of autobiographies as absolute and memoir as relative. A memoirist cannot always tell everyone’s version of the story. Most people don’t want to hear everyone’s version of the story. Whether you believe it is necessary to include everything in someone’s story is something that’s debatable and has been debated by memoirists for some time. What is not up for debate however is the form.

Autobiography is complete and memoir just one viewpoint.  Why do I bring all of this up? Because people are still trying to change history textbooks to reflect political viewpoints. Democrats and Republicans have argued various ways that textbooks should be changed, but rather than having this debate we really should be asking ourselves: why are we still using textbooks at all? Seriously, do you know how heavy those things are? And how by the time they’re printed they’re already obsolete? Buying a new textbook has turned into something similar to buying a new car; they both depreciate the second they’re used. Rather than arguing over what should go in textbooks we should be arguing about what should be taught. That’s fair. That’s actually a very reasonable debate to have. If you want to argue about whether Andrew Jackson deserves to be on the twenty dollar bill or whether we should take issue with the fact that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves that is a perfectly legitimate debate. Let’s not pretend however that the best way to teach our kids is through a political debate. No matter what your party or what your cause I think we can all agree that the last people we want our kids learning from is politicians.

If you are a Republican and you believe that government needs to be reined in and kept out of schools then shouldn’t you be arguing that each teacher has the right to teach their own curriculum. That’s an argument that not a lot of people would argue with. As someone who is pursuing a career in education I would strongly agree that each teacher should be given the freedom to teach the information that they believe is best going to help kids in the long run. I wanted to major in secondary education once upon a time, but then I realized that I would be really bad at teach in a secondary school environment. I was a bad student in high school, I probably shouldn’t be teaching there, but what’s more is that teachers at that level have to adhere to a curriculum that’s put into place by bureaucrats. I’d rather teach what I believe is valuable at a post-secondary school where I’ll have the freedom to teach what I want and how I want. A lot of teachers would love to have that kind of freedom. Unlike politics, people don’t become teachers for ideological reasons.

If you are a Democrat and believe that strong regulation is necessary in order to ensure your children receive a robust public education then you should be arguing for better systems. Ask any teacher out there; textbooks are not the best way for kids to learn. They can learn way more on an iPad than they ever could with a textbook. The internet exists for a reason. Democrats have a long and proud history of being reformers on the issue of education. Why not continue that tradition by arguing for an end to textbooks in school? We need to make our kids the best students for the twelve years that they are going to be in school and textbooks are not going to make them the best students that they can be. Letting teachers do their job and allowing them to come up with the best ways to teach students is the best prescription possible for a better education system.

Now, I understand that some people believe that things like textbooks are necessary because they have always been a part of our education system. I understand that people will argue that if we don’t have textbooks in the classroom students will not have a resource to serve as an authoritative resource. That argument makes sense on its face, but when you consider that when you get to college you are taught that relying on one resource is one of the worst ways of making an argument doesn’t it seem a little hypocritical to teach kids in high school that citing the textbook all the time really is the best way? It’s counter-intuitive.

We are not going to solve the issue over textbooks by fighting over textbooks. Republicans have their arguments, Democrats have theirs. The way we win on the issue of textbooks is if we get rid of textbooks altogether. It would piss off both sides and is unnecessary to getting a good education anyway. In fact, I would argue that it is actually a hinderance to figuring out better learning methods. By getting rid of textbooks we will not be ending the argument over our nation’s history, but we will be removing a major roadblock to the outcome that our education system should seek to produce and that is the truth. If we are not teaching students to pursue the truth then we don’t have any business teaching them anything at all.

5 thoughts on “The Ongoing Debate Over Textbooks

  1. …(sorry, am new here. To finish: As there might be future times without electricity available. Then knowing about books will come in Handy…

  2. Students should still read books just not textbooks. Scholarly sources are what I’d like to see get promoted. I did my undergrad in History and English where we had great resources like JSTOR and MLA Search Finder which can find scholarly articles written in peer-reviewed journals. Just about everything that was once in print is now online. There are some issues with library access and a lot of research librarians are still working this stuff out, but consider the idea that we might not even rely on a physical book in the next five years. At the rate things are going with e-readers and iPads we will be looking at an American society that learns in a very different way and has access to things we could have never imagined.

    The best teachers that I had growing up and the teachers that were really mentors to me as I made my way through school rarely relied on the textbook. In some cases, even in technical school, we didn’t have textbooks there was just no need. When you consider the way that we need to educate people going forward there should be less and less reliance on traditional teaching methods and more creativity on the part of teachers. That’s my hope at least. When I look at the professors that taught how I want to teach they were always innovating and always looking for new and different ways to teach material. Those tend to be the teachers who really make a difference because they create an experience. You’ll never remember a textbook, but you’ll never forget an experience and that is the future of education if we want to get this right.

  3. Very interesting viewpoint, and certainly worth considering. I think a lot of people would be loath to rely on the Internet for valid information, although perhaps that’s because they’re not aware of where that information might be. I know I’d wonder about verifying the legitimacy of that material. However, your point about the considerable drawbacks of textbooks make one wonder why we make our students spend so much on them. I’m not opposed to your idea — I just need to process the thought!

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