The Black & White

Textbooks as dry as this headline

By Surbhi Agrawal

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Photo by Sarah Klotz.

*By Sarah Cutler*

I spent a solid week reading nothing but my history textbook during exams. And of course, I’ve been reading it throughout the school year (or at least I’ve been assigned to read it…). The main thing I’ve learned, after the countless hours I’ve spent hunched over it, is that this textbook is the most boring textbook in the world.

“Ha ha,” you say, not believing me in the slightest. “She is raving. Of course it’s boring. Does she think the rest of us have interesting textbooks?”

You’re right, in fact, and therein lies the problem. All of our textbooks are boring!  Let’s go back to a sentence in my history textbook as an example: “The support that Madison and Monroe gave to Hamilton’s ideas following the War of 1812 was a crucial sign of the dynamism of the American commercial economy.”

Now, I’m willing to bet that almost no one read through that entire sentence. You probably stopped after “The support.” And I don’t blame you.

Any sentence containing the phrase “dynamism of the American commercial economy” deserves to lose whatever tiny percentage of readership it still has 300 pages into the book.

We are talking about a sentence with ridiculously low self-esteem here, the kind of sentence that lets all the other sentences put “kick me” signs on its back and take its lunch money. The kind of sentence that has removed all the mirrors in its house because it can’t stand to look itself in the eyes.

And all for what? So that we can learn about “Chapter 9: An Agrarian Republic?” Followed later by the absolutely scintillating section on “Urban America and the Progressive Era?” You’re not going to find a lot of students saying, “Hey, Tim, want to come hang out?” “No thanks, Steve, I’d really rather go home and read about the Progressive Era.”

What I think textbook writers really need, if they want us to learn anything, is a sense of humor. I mean, some of the stuff that happened in history is pretty funny.

Take, for example, the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. “An impressive victory,” my textbook calls it. Andrew Jackson later became famous for his amazing defeat of the British.

What Jackson didn’t know at the time, however, was that the war was already over. That’s right- his troops fought a major battle two weeks after the treaty ending the war had been signed.

Can you imagine Jackson’s face when he found out what had happened? This, of course, is why we now have Twitter.

My point is that none of the subjects we learn in school are by definition boring. It’s just that textbook writers get caught up in the details: the exact names of treaties, the dates of every battle fought in the Revolutionary War, the font size of the Declaration of Independence, etc.

If they would just stop and think about the big picture-what effect these conferences, treaties and battles have had-it would make every subject infinitely more interesting. Not to mention that it would lighten the textbook by about 20,000 pounds.

Now, I really do need to get back to my book. I’m reading about the Progressive Era.

5 Comments

5 Responses to “Textbooks as dry as this headline”

  1. Mrs. Crewdson on February 23rd, 2010 6:07 pm

    So true! I like to learn my history by reading biographies and autobiographies–you get the history, but as part of particular lives. And biographies are written by individuals who can only sell their books by writing in a lively and entertaining way–not by committees who benefit from the big publishers’ contracts with state departments of ed.

  2. Simone on February 24th, 2010 12:12 am

    I agree! I literally cannot make myself read some of the assigned passages because of the unbelievably slow-paced language.

  3. Molly Kaplowitz on February 24th, 2010 3:41 pm

    Very nicely written!

  4. R. Kerr on February 25th, 2010 12:44 pm

    I don’t necessarily think details themselves are the problem. It’s just that those details are presented in an endlessly droning voice.

    There is a movement to shift towards what Mrs. Crewdson has mentioned above – primary texts and engaging documents. All kinds of texts should be included in the study of history – historians certainly don’t sit around reading textbooks. They’re more likely to be reading correspondence between leaders at war, listening to a recording of an early jazz performance, etc.

    In addition to being overpriced and boring, history textbooks are often inaccurate. You’d think they could at least get that part right.

  5. hungry and tired on May 9th, 2010 4:06 pm

    I also don’t like textbooks because the authors often just give you what their own conclusions are, since they’ve been in the field for a long time. It’s much more interesting to read the primary documents/evidence and come to your own conclusions. It’s like when you finally realize that math is a made-up system and that you could’ve just created your own, if you wanted. It’s also a lot easier to remember information when you’ve analyzed it yourself.

    Plus, historians and other professionals who write the textbooks usually don’t really understand what high school students are like today. Today’s youth is technology-focused. Even reading books for fun is a pain. Giving kids dull textbooks to read doesn’t exactly make them more eager to learn. As a student myself, I don’t think there’s much we can do right now about textbooks themselves. It’s really up to the teacher to make sure that the information gets across to you in some sort of meaningful way. That’s why I dislike teachers who rely on textbooks. The best thing a teacher can do is to put the material into a relevant context for the students, even if it’s just making comments like, “Can you imagine Jackson’s face when he found out what had happened?” School is boring, so making kids laugh is important!