Textbook Irony

Image via Wikipedia

A recent blog post by Anson Burlingame discussed how our public schools are doing a poor job of teaching children the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic.  He is well qualified to address the issue because he has done substitute teaching in Joplin schools.  His post inspires me to comment on my own experiences in that regard.


Image via Wikipedia

Despite my many absences from family in my Navy years I well recall helping my sons with their homework from time to time and I can truthfully say that in almost every case, especially in math, the textbooks were poorly written.  In fact, the books seemed to actually try to make the simple into something abstruse and arcane.  While it gave me pleasure to “see the light bulb come on” when I explained things, I always marveled at the seemingly perverse nature of the textbook system.  I particularly recall taking pleasure in explaining the simple nature of fractions.  What a basic and useful thing that is, to understand fractions, and yet the textbook actually made it hard.  The concept of fractions has been well-understood for two millennia and guess what?  It hasn’t changed in all that time. So why, please someone tell me, why do we have to keep re-writing basic arithmetic textbooks?  Wouldn’t you think that all the people with PhD’s in Education would have settled on the best way to do that by now?


Boredom, via Wikipedia

I know that there is big money in the textbook business and it only took me a few minutes with a search engine to find a revealing article by an insider in the industry.  “A Textbook Example of What’s Wrong with Education” spells it out in spades.  Clearly written, it shows just what I expected.  Textbooks in America consist of knowledge routinely recycled for profit while being purged of anything controversial.  Even worse, they are funneled through a committee system which limits and sometimes distorts them for political and religious reasons.  Little wonder then that history textbooks especially are dull as dishwater.  If you haven’t already heard of the disproportionate influence of the Texas School Board on national textbooks, the link explains it well.

As Anson’s post explains very well, teaching the fundamentals should be pretty-much common sense for a skilled and motivated teacher, but it isn’t happening in too many cases.  I believe all this makes an excellent case for separating all government from the business of education. I firmly believe that education should not be a political service, but rather a free-wheeling process without politically-defined limits.  Just as processed food is bad for health, processed knowledge is unhealthy for mental abilities.

From the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century many schools used McGuffey Readers.  I don’t recall if my basic books were McGuffey’s, but if not they were similar.  I still recall reading about Dick, Jane and Spot, the dog.  Simple stuff, but the magic was all in learning the wonderment of the written word.  The appreciation of that gift came principally from my mother who had been a schoolmarm in a one-room rural school where she taught all eight grades.

Who Said the Poor Are Lazy?

Who Said the Poor Are Lazy?, by TRiver via Flickr

From the link I perceive that the McGuffey series of textbooks was very good because it was tailored in a common-sense way to mastering basic skills at increasing levels.  That the books contains moralistic material likely benefitted greatly because they stressed the benefits of the protestant work ethic and personal responsibility.  But even better, they were simple enough that good teachers were likely encouraged to add their own spin to the lessons.  We could do worse than to return to such material.  Better yet, let’s let teachers select their own textbooks and then have their students vie in open competition as I urged in “Bowling for Brains”.  That’s the only way I can see breaking out of the death-spiral that our public schools now seem to be in.

With the current evolution of e-readers I don’t see why such varietal selection of textbooks should not be a pure capitalistic free-for-all, an educational revolution that banishes the Texas School Board to the dust-heap of history. Wouldn’t that be ironic?

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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12 Responses to Textbook Irony

  1. ansonburlingame says:

    HOLY SHIT!!!!

    Divorce government from ALL schools.!!!! Now let’s hear the liberals one up that one.

    Now I am suggesting in other blogs and comments to RETURN to no involvment of government in health care. After all such federal government involvement is not one of the inumerated powers in the Constitution. Actually, I don’t believe education involvement by the federal government is an inumerated power as well. Have to go look that one up.

    However Jim, for sure you are bucking a historic approach in American schools. The local school marm in the old west was paid from community pockets I suspect.

    I will listen carefully as your thought is fleshed out into a workable program to keep government out of schools, however.

    For starters I would call only for government to collect taxes to pay teachers and construct buildings for K12 public education. And what those teachers teach and what goes on in the buildings should be strictly limited to basic public education such as reading, writing and arithmetic for starters.

    That alone would cut the number of teachers, textbooks, etc a lot.

    And get rid of EVERYTHING not directly supporting such basic education. No cafe, no lunches, no career counselors, etc. Perform the work performed long ago in “one room school houses” to teach kids the basics, only.

    K12 today is designed as an engine for social change, NOT education of basic knowledge and skills. Look at the recent student essays in the Globe. Hell, they were trying to resolve societal issues that NO ONE has fixed thus far. And I bet all three of them could not correctly multiply two three digit numbers without a calculator!

    Or if they could work math problems on a calculator they probably couldn’t write a complete and correct paragraph.

    Public schools are expected to do and try to do too much and we waste scare resources (money, good teachers that do not “grow on trees’, good facilities, etc) trying to reengineer society in our schools. Now IF we could so reengineer society (into exactly what form would be an unending argument) AND instill the basics in ALL students, fine.

    But in trying to do both we fail, miserably in doing either.

    I like your idea but would “adjust” it to keep the goal of all American kids having a shot at education at least K12. Some limited government would be required to do so at least at the local level. But for sure not necessarily at the federal level which MAY have been your intended point.

    Are you a Tea Bagger now Jim????



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Nah, I don’t think I’m a Tea Bagger, Anson. The reason I say so is that I think government does a lot of good in certain areas and I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is a long list of things we need government to do, IMO, because it needs to be free of conflicts of interest. I’m referring to the profit motive here. Examples are the CDC, NIH, BATF, FBI, SEC (when they’re paying attention), Defense Dept. of course, ICE, State Dept., and many others. But it’s hard to think of any alternative for education that’s worse for the public school population than what we have now.

      I hope you read the link on the textbook business – you didn’t comment on it. It is a broken, compromised, corrupt system. That really needs to be brought out in the school debate.

      Your mention of medical in this context gives me pause. What I wondered, is the difference between medicine and education here? My conclusion: it is cost. As you correctly pointed out, the basic need for teaching can be reduced to a building with teachers and books, but medical technology, as we have blogged before, is accelerating the cost of medicine well beyond our ability to pay, especially at end of life. We can willfully reduce the cost of education, but so long as there are new life-saving drugs and procedures, society is going to demand them and woe betide any politician who gets in the way! That’s why the current impasse. Both sides know the truth.

      There must be medical rationing. There will be medical rationing. And unless we want to see the conflict between the haves and have-nots bigger than the Watts riots all across the country we have somehow got to intervene through government. [(Ever see the movie, Soilent Green”, with Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson (his last movie)? Could be prophetic.]



  2. ansonburlingame says:


    I have now read the link on textbooks and it tells me something I already knew even long ago.

    How much education, aquisition of new knowledge did you gain in the 40’s and 50’s reading a textbook? If you are like me, not much. Some of them long ago and today might as well be written in Greek for all the good they did me as a student. I learned in the classroom by listening and taking good notes. I rarely used textbooks except as a source of homework problems to read, answer or solve. Occasionally, I used textbooks to reread a particularly section or set of example problems, but never a source of knowledge in and of themselves. I needed a good teacher to guide me through the textbook, in middle school, HS and college.

    And in graduate school, we used no textbooks. We read source material or good books related to the broad subjects being studied. Show me a textbook on the pros and cons of “Just War” for example.

    Now I really like you concept of “E-Books” and have considered such myself. I LOVE my Kindle and it cost me about $180. Purchased in bulk, statewide and I bet the cost would plummet. Consider every middle school and higher student with a Kindle AND all the textbooks in the world available thereon for say $5 per book. Compare that to the cost of all the textbooks in JHS alone, cost borne by tax payers. Be interesting to see the cheapest approach would it not.

    A computer for every child is too expensive. But a Kindle for every child, maybe not. And with such materials, we wouldn’t be having a debate about “snow days” right now. Kindle’s at home work in snow storms, or at least mine did.

    In my view there is far too much money in the text book business. Call it greedy capitalism if you like, for my tastes at least. Algebra is algebra and has been for a very long time. Why not one textbook for algebra, statewide, made available on a Kindle like device? Wow.

    Literature. My goodness, just think what is available right now in the Amazon library of some 500K books, maybe more. Every child could have their own Lord of the Flies to read and ponder, at HOME. That with a piece of paper and a pencil is a whole week’s worth of homework in a literature class. Read it and write about it at HOME. Discuss it in the classroom.

    My God, there would be a parental and student REVOLT in such a class is my guess. And for the kid that cannot read, well they should never be in a HS literature class to begin with. Put them “back” until they can do the “work” at the HS level.

    Now I also have thoughts along these lines about health care, but that is far too long and detailed for here. Perhaps a blog later on along those lines from either you or me, or both, which seems to be productive as well.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Right, Anson. Exciting thinking, no?

      PS – Some bloggers sprinkle links willy-nilly throughout their posts but I try in mine to put in only those that really add to the message. You might want to consider doing the same – I think it’s useful if you can train your readers that you exercise some discipline over the practice.



  3. ansonburlingame says:


    Maybe you are correct in terms of adding links. But….

    I usually can’t find a link that makes the same points that I try to make. My points usually come out of my head (or somewhere south of that) based on what I have read and considered from both sides of the aisle. Rarely do I find an article that fits my sentiments to the degree that I look for.

    Krauthammer comes close many times. Beck even had some ideas that I liked. But if I link or refer to them I get blown away from the start with liberal bias just for the source of my ideas. Take Beck’s “caliphate” map while you were gone. I referenced and asked why not at least consider it. I got blown away on Duane’s blog simply for using Beck as a reference. Any such reference must be crazy regardless what the reference might say is the thought that I got in response.

    For example, I could use the Bell Curve as a link or reference in many blogs related to education. But I could not even get the book to be considered as a reference, much less meaningful discussion in a “public” gathering to consider R-8 improvements. They, the educators rejected the book out of hand, period. And that decision went all the way up to the Superitendent. The book would make too many teachers angry!!!

    Baloney. I bet less than 10% of JHS teachers even read the damn thing. They simply “heard” that it was a crazy book with crazy ideas!!!

    I on the other hand consider the ANALYSIS (not necessarily the solutions posed) as a seminal critique of modern education. The Bell Curve should be required reading for anyone engaging in serious educational debate. But be warned, it is NOT an “easy” read.

    It is long and filled to the brim with all kinds of statistics. BORING for sure, but dead on the mark to prove points, analytically, in my view. And NO detractors from the book have ever successfully challenged the “math” in that book. They just go crazy over the conclusions and recommendations contained therein.



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      I get where you are coming from regarding links. For myself, I seldom reply to another’s post without trying to do some research first, particularly if it’s an area I’m not experienced in. A good example is the textbook link. While I knew from experience that the business was corrupt the writer of the link was a whistle-blower insider and I thought his essay, with all its specifics, helped make the case much stronger than based just on my subjective opinion. I also consider Wikipedia an excellent reference for just the fundamentals of an issue. I am often surprised, but shouldn’t be really, to find that someone else has already plowed the field I’m tip-toeing into.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I have seen similar things before, Bruce, but this example is surely useful to buttress the message of the post.

      The prominence of grammar in such tests always strikes me as ironic because it doesn’t seem to be taught anymore. I say that not from any direct knowledge but simply from observation, including the speech of local television personalities. For me one of the most grating errors is the misuse of “I”, the subjective, for “me”, the objective form. It betrays a misunderstanding of basic sentence structure. I believe it is also symptomatic of a basic trend in education, which is away from rote memorization of fundamentals.

      Memorization and rote learning were hard work. Yet, such knowledge was important not only to self-expression but clear thinking later on in life. It is a good example of a topic we have discussed before, the notion that teaching should be entertaining. I submit that a good teacher could inject some amusement into teaching grammar, perhaps with the use of puns and the like, but it would sure be a challenge.

      What is a society without grammar like? I think we are living in it. Islands of disciplined learning are still present, probably because of home-schooling, private schools, and remedial college classes, but basics are shrinking in a sea of politically-correct mediocrity.



  4. jwhester says:

    Jim & Anson,

    With regard to the notion of “separating all government from the business of education,” have either of you begun to calculate the cost to our society when parents are not required to educate their kids, and when in fact they receive a financial incentive not to do so?


  5. ansonburlingame says:

    First Bruce,

    While I had not seen your example, like Jim, I have seen others. One came from the Bell Curve. It was three questions that had to be answered correctly before admission into a high school level of education in, I think, New Jersey in the late 1800’s. One question on math, one on history and one on “English”.

    When things became “dull” in a classroom at JHS I would put the three questions on the board and ask the class, mainstream classes, if they knew the answers. NO ONE every answered ANY of the questions correctly. I myself had to THINK and work hard to do so.

    Part of the complaint against me from some teachers used that as an example that I was teaching “socialism” in a math class.



  6. Socialism. You , Anson??


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