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The textbook revolution

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  May 23, 2013 12:17 PM

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There’s nothing more boring or conventional than a textbook, but two hundred years ago they were as cutting-edge as a MOOC, and augured a revolution in the way we think about knowledge.

“A textbook is something anyone can read no matter who they are or where they’re from. It allows education to occur on a global, universal scale,” says Hansun Hsiung, a fourth-year graduate student at Harvard University who studies the rise and spread of textbooks in late-18th century Europe and Japan.

Before textbooks, learning typically happened through the dialogic method—exchanges between students and professors. But beginning in the 18th-century, scholars began redacting blocks of information into standardized books that laid out content in logical, easily digestible fashion. The goal of the textbook, according to one 18th-century French pedagogue, was to “make all truths universally familiar, and spare [ourselves] any useless effort in learning.”

The modern day textbook wars have taught us, of course, that one man’s universal truth can be another man’s heresy. Hsiung explains that these types of concerns were present with textbooks from the start. 18th-century Europeans worried about who had the authority to write textbooks and, as textbooks took hold, there was a backlash against the idea that a real education could take place through a book. In this way, textbooks spawned similar concerns to the ones we grapple with around MOOCs— that it’s dangerous to have a single, massively popular online course dominate the way a particular subject is taught, and that there’s only so much learning that can take place through a computer.

Other concerns were more particular to the geopolitical context in which textbooks developed. As the European textbook market grew increasingly competitive, publishers started selling their books in the colonies and in Japan. But after awhile they began to wonder whether there was more to exporting knowledge than shipping books.

“In the second half of the 19th-century people are much more concerned about how to tailor knowledge to local circumstances,” says Hsiung. “They get concerned about the fact that perhaps textbooks being used by British children aren’t suitable for children in Calcutta.”

Today debates about textbooks are alive and well, but the central role textbooks perform in American education would seem to be secure. And while students may malign their hefty textbooks as dull and boring, such criticisms are a sign that textbooks have in fact accomplished what their inventors hoped they would: Here is all the important knowledge in the world, whether you like it or not.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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