My neighbor in the aircraft is ploughing determinedly through a fat textbook with title, which has a title that is both simple and quite definitive- Chemistry. As is quite normal with textbooks, this one too is full of some passages that are underlined, others that are highlighted and still others with scribbled notes around them. His lips are moving as he reads, quasi-aloud, in an attempt to freeze the waves of transient knowledge that come with difficulty and depart quite easily.
A textbook can be memorized, it can occasionally be understood, but can it be liked? Can it ever inspire one to read more? Can it foster an abiding curiosity in the subject it covers, and make one a seeker of knowledge? Such questions seem out of place when we talk of textbooks for clearly they are designed for a much more limited purpose. Textbooks deliver knowledge in a capsule form; they present information deemed important in an organized way, one that is amenable to being tested. The attempt is to eliminate any bias that the writer might have, and focus as far as possible on what can be objectively described. They use language functionally, removing from it any vestige of emotion, perspective or character –the dryness of textbooks is deliberately manufactured as all could be considered ‘juice’ is carefully extracted from it.
The textbook regards knowledge as an affliction that one must strive to get infected by. Neither the process of acquiring knowledge of the outcome of possessing it has the slightest residue of pleasure in it. The underlying worldview is clear- studying is work, and knowledge is pain. The textbook treats the world as a knowable place that can be summed up in a series of chapters, with questions at the end of each chapter. Knowledge is imparted, received, studied, revised and tested. By imagining learning as a closed system with distinct and separate boxes that do not come together as a whole, the world is presented as a collection of loosely related facts- dates, names, formulae, equations, theories of some people and so on.
We rarely pause to think about the incredible conceit that textbooks carry off so casually- of being able to provide a single window to a complex subject. Bear in mind that the idea of a ‘subject’ itself is hardly the self-evident and singular category it professes to be. Can, for instance, geography be separated that cleanly from history, physics or geology? By drawing sharp boundaries and creating elaborate categories of knowledge and then collapsing this complexity into a narrative that is fragmented and sequential, the typical textbook makes knowledge independent of the questions that gave rise to it in the first place. The subject and the material are transmitted for their own sake, rather than as an outcome of an enquiry.
This is further complicated by the idea of the syllabus. The syllabus accords an arbitrary slash of unbeing to vast sectors of a subject. For students, the glee of finding that is something ‘is not in the syllabus’ is matched only by the haste with which that little patch of knowledge is deleted from memory, if at all such an event had accidentally occurred. Working backwards from what is needed at examination, the student is interested in what she needs to know, how much she needs to study, what chapters in which books she needs to remember- in others words how much knowledge is sufficient for her to escape more knowledge.
If we detach ourselves a little bit from the naturalness with which we regard the idea of education and the way we are taught, we would be horrified at the scandal that education is. We have all read textbooks of many subjects for many years and yet even ten years after having learnt all this, few could claim to having retained anything meaningful from most of the textbooks we pored so assiduously over. Apart from the other benefits of formal education, and those are of many kinds, in its central and most basic premise- of imparting a certain minimum amount of knowledge to those studying it, is almost always a failure. We tend to live uneducated lives in spite of our education, for education is something we pass through rather than gather.
The textbook carries much of the blame, although it is a result of the mental model of education and not its cause. As the key deliverer of a certain kind of education, the textbook deadens the pursuit of knowledge and makes it a tiresome chore. It converts a knowledge into the currency of a qualification and it does so by sucking the life out of the processing of seeking it out. The label of being educated in worn proudly and used cuttingly with respect to those that are not similarly endowed, ignoring the fact most of said education has in fact leaked out almost immediately after being received. The hardening of education into qualification has increased its desirability while simultaneously reducing its effectiveness.
Why should we use textbooks at all? Given that information is now freely available to most, what is the value of a primitive compendium of generic information? Admittedly, by sacrificing nuance and eliminating perspective, textbooks represent an efficient way of transmitting information in a standardized way, but the process doing so effectively kills many of the benefits that education is meant to provide.
Multiple texts that offer diverse perspectives, reading lists that correspond with the questions in one’s heads, the use of other forms of media that bring alive aspects of a subject, the telling of stories about the great debates in any field, the application of concepts and ideas in our everyday lives – those are some of the things that would help us radically reimagine the idea of the textbook. The textbook has served its purpose; it is time to close the book on it.