Textbooks as dry as this headline

By Surbhi Agrawal

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.