Death to Textbooks

I hate textbooks. Not a little bit. I hate them immensely. I really don’t know how it started, but the passion burns brighter everyday. In my defense, it’s not an unreasonable hatred. It is entirely merited

You see, textbooks are a reflection of a broken system. Textbooks are higher education’s last laugh. They are the $1000 you add to your bill once you’ve already paid for your education. They have the shortest shelf life of any book except a coupon book – and only because coupon books have expiration dates. But most of all, the majority of textbooks I’ve read, fail in one primary area. They don’t instill confidence in the reader.

Now of all the things I could criticize textbooks for, why did I pick confidence? After all, it’s the textbook’s job to just explain things, right? What does confidence have to do with anything?

Confidence has everything to do with a good explanation. Let’s take an example I borrowed from Lee Lefever’s book, The Art of Explanation:

Let’s say you are in a nice restaurant. You are given a menu as a guide to help you make an informed decision on what you would like to eat. You narrow down your option to three dishes.

  1. Sea bass with wild rice and greens
  2. Ribeye steak with garlic mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus
  3. Crab cakes with mushrooms and a French remoulade

There’s just one problem, if you’re like me, you have no clue what remoulade is. And if it’s a nice restaurant, you might be a little embarrassed to ask the waiter to define the word. As a result, you won’t order item three, even though you might really like it. (For what it’s worth, apparently remoulade is similar to a tartar sauce.)

The book proceeds to tell us, “Explanations fail when we are unable to translate the language of our work to the language of a possibly uninformed audience.” You see, textbooks are written by the informed, but they aren’t written to the uninformed! Reading through the majority of textbooks shows us that they are written using a vocabulary and structure geared toward those who already understand the topic, not those who are just learning.

When I dig into my textbooks, they are incredible at complicating extremely simple subjects. I lose confidence that I can indeed understand what is being said – even though I know it is really not all that difficult. Because textbooks do not allow the reader to feel confident in his or her learning, they hamper the reader’s ability to comprehend the topic. It’s easy to mentally shut down when reading through a textbook because they generally do such a poor job of explaining the topic.

I think the textbook industry has some serious soul searching to do. Honestly, Wikipedia is better than most history textbooks, and Investopedia is head and shoulders above my finance textbook at explaining anything related to finance. Unfortunately, our higher education institutions are primarily responsible for the perpetuation of poor explanations. By requiring students to buy textbooks, they endorse the product although it is inferior to the other free resources available. I’d rather spend time finding the best explanation than be handed an explanation I can’t understand.

If we’re going to make education about education, it’s time we find resources that explain things in a way that instills confidence in the reader and empowers him or her to grasp the concepts for themselves. Information is useless without comprehension. It’s time we focused on creating resources that don’t just give information, but instead lead to comprehension. And the first step is developing resources that allow readers to feel confident they can understand the topic.