This essay first appeared in educational Horizons 70, no. 4 (Summer 1992)

The Textbook: Tool or Symbol?
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki

edited 4/3/12
See also, Textbooks and True Believers


Cosmetologists and carpenters have the freedom to choose the tools they personally find most effective. Teachers do not. It is hardly arguable that a textbook is a teaching tool. But many people who will never teach from textbooks have a big say in their adoption. Across the country there are textbook review committees staffed with people other than teachers. For them a textbook symbolizes a commitment. This commitment may range from the desire to reduce expenditures to an avid interest in promoting certain political and religious viewpoints. But are these two functions of the textbook, tool and symbol, always compatible?

First, let's look at the textbook as a tool. Having taught a variety of subjects during my career, I have found that the more I am constrained to follow a text, the less I can respond to learner variation. No great surprise. That is a tradeoff for the benefits the text is supposed to provide: uniformity of material coverage, something in-hand for the student, structure for the course. But here is the rub: who exactly is it that values such things as uniformity of material coverage above sensitivity to learner difference? Is it the teacher?

One problem with textbooks is that their structure may be artificial and arbitrary. Unwilling to commit to one approach, some authors tip their hats to every competing theory, not infrequently in an uncritical fashion. The book then becomes "eclectic." It also becomes sufficiently incoherent that the teacher spends a lot of time adjusting to its idiosyncracies and filling in gaps for the students. Such a text is more an affliction than a tool.

However, textbooks that are carefully designed for pedagogical efficiency risk being ignored for another reason. Education as a profession is undermined by the lack of strong paradigms. At present, teacher training is just too heterogeneous. Thus, there may be little consensus among teachers about a particular approach to subject matter. For this reason, prospective users may not want to accept textbook-related constraints on their pedagogy.

In reality, pedagogical efficiency is rarely the primary concern when a textbook is under consideration. Just as a hammer may be used to pry open a can or to prop open a window, so a textbook can be pressed into the service of different concerns. To student and parents it makes a course of study concrete and limited. For the academically inexperienced, a textbook serves as an important support. To the practitioners of a subject matter, it marks the boundaries of their discipline and institutionalizes it within the school. Subjects that are represented by standard texts much more easily justify their budgetary claims in the competition for school resources.

In education, specifying the curriculum is a ritual widely believed to be an exercise in control. So school officials use textbooks to impose curricular uniformity. Ironically, John Goodlad suggests, this uniformity is an illusion. He found that not only the school to school, but the classroom to classroom variation in content for the "same" course was substantial. Goodlad believes that such discrepancy constitutes de facto inequality of educational opportunity. It may not be this at all. Much classroom variation in presentation of content is a matter of the teacher's adjusting to variations in student ability that are not recognized officially by the school.

For example, a school may have two algebra courses required for graduation. One text may serve for both levels. There's uniformity, and economy, too! However, an analysis of beginning algebra students may indicate they might be usefully grouped into three different levels. Such considerations not only expand the textbook budget, but generate arguments about homogeneous vs. heterogeneous grouping. These disputes tend to recur because there is little stable consensus on what ends student grouping is to serve. But factors such as money, or the lack of it, force the decision.

Just considered as a tool, we have seen how different interests interpret differently the utility of textbooks. The textbooks that serve the teacher as the best classroom tools may be unavailable because other needs take priority in their selection. Yet, additional conflict may be introduced when the textbook symbolizes something of value to powerful groups that can affect the schools. The "political correctness" much decried as of late at our universities is hardly something new to elementary and secondary teachers. There have always been organizations willing to impose their commitments by influencing the selection of textbooks for elementary and secondary classroom use. Despite all evidence to the contrary, muddle-headed ideologues of all stripes imagine textbooks to be powerful brainwashing agents. As long as a text is seen as Holy Writ, rather than as a springboard for inquiry, such interference will likely continue. And as long as teachers think of pedagogy as stuffing kids with information rather than teaching them to think critically, so long will the ideologues be justified in their intrusion.

Finally, let us not overlook how publishers' interests work to undermine the usefulness of the textbook as a classroom tool. Hardbound texts are big profit makers, retailing at 600% to 1000% of their production cost. (Paperbound, they command about half that.) Even if, as in Texas, publishers are fined for errors in the text, the profit margins are sufficiently high not to necessitate paying for careful editing. Wrong dates or misquotes are not their problem!

A series of texts may be adopted because booksellers offer sizable discounts or extra "free" materials for their adoption. Again, economic considerations may dominate textbook choice. Those to whom textbooks symbolize packages of doctrinal goodness cannot pass up such bargains. But if you have to drive a nail, a truckload of broken hammers cannot be cheaper than one that works.

Vietnam vets tell of a certain Army-issued rifle that persistently jammed in combat. So the troops threw the rifles away and made do with other weapons. They were soon given orders to use only officially approved ordnance. The defects, they were told, had been fixed. Believing their survival to be at stake, they did not take that order too seriously.

If soldiers under fire can be issued orders to use tools that could increase their danger, can we believe that there is much concern for the field-usefulness of textbooks? After all, there are no obvious casualties to explain. A dead intellect is not a corpse.