Down with textbooks, the pre-digested meal of the academic world

To read a textbook is to receive a second- or third-rate experience, and third- and fourth-hand knowledge

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I’m reminded of that old game Telephone we played in grade school. The teacher whispered in the ear of the child beside her and that child passed the message to the next person. By the time the message came back to the teacher, it had been hopelessly, hilariously mangled, either by passing clumsily through so many mouths or by comedic intervention of a clown or two.

This is what I thought about as I read about Turkey’s decision to revise its school textbooks.

‘Revise’ is a generous way to describe the change. ‘Corrupt’ is a better term, and fitting given Turkey is led by Recep Erdogan, the man who described democracy as a bus he’ll ride until he reaches his destination, at which point he’ll get off.

As reported by the BBC and other outlets, under Erdogan’s leadership the authors of the corrupted textbooks stripped Charles Darwin from the curriculum and added lessons about jihad, easily the Islamic concept most misunderstood by non-Muslims and homicidal maniacs alike.

The new textbook also teaches girls to be obedient to men. Obedience, in Erdogan’s Turkey, equates to worship.

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All of these changes aim at helping Erdogan create a “pious generation.”

Piety and obedience. Two qualities rarely associated with liberal democracies. That’s Turkey.

But as loathsome as Turkey’s new textbooks may be, it hardly warrants much tut-tutting, especially not from Texas, where Christians have tried and failed many times to remove Darwin from state textbooks. (They did, however, succeed in downplaying segregation.)

Canada isn’t immune to textbook distortions, either. Earlier this month, the Twitterverse had a good long talk about a Canadian elementary school textbook that says First Nations people “agreed to move to different areas to make room for” settlers. A not entirely true statement.

If these cases sound dire, Saudi Arabia provided comic relief in the form of a textbook that included a photoshopped image of King Faisal signing the Charter of the United Nations in 1945. Seated next to his royal highness is Yoda, Jedi Master, and, presumably, the king’s council on UN-related affairs.

The Saudis later apologized for turning history into a cartoon but offered no good explanation for how the image slipped into the final text.

The only explanation is that nobody bothered to look at the books before they went to print.

No doubt the publishers were surprised that anybody looked at the books after they were in print.

And that’s the problem with textbooks. Dullness is a convention of the genre. With their wrist-busting weight and patronizing tone, they ask to be ignored. And they usually are. But not without first costing students and parents many hundreds of dollars a semester.

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Publishers could make a case that textbooks have a place in math and science classrooms. But nearly every other discipline would survive just fine without them. No literature teacher with a conscience should ask students to read summaries of the works of Charles Dickens or William Shakespeare translated into modern vernacular. No religious studies course should ask students to read summaries of holy texts. No history student should pass through a history class without reading at least some of the original documents for themselves.

The problem with textbooks is that they summarize knowledge, which is another way of saying that textbooks reduce knowledge to its base components. They are like a pre-digested meal, the fructose of academia: high on calories, low on taste.

And when meaning is condensed into a textbook summary, unsavoury elements of society – like Turkish demagogues and Texan curriculum committees – can distort the message for their benefit.

To read a textbook is to receive a second- or third-rate experience, and third- and fourth-hand knowledge. It’s to play a game of Telephone.

The only way to encounter the original thinker and the original thought is to read the original text.

Troy Media columnist Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto.

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