In defense of boring books

When I was still a student, I’ve heard more than one friend complain about textbooks and how they can’t wait for the break, to be done with textbooks and finally be able to read the more interesting, “meaningful” books. As a booklover myself, I understand where the sentiment is coming from, though I strongly disagree with the rant against textbooks.

The defendant in this unfortunate case is the type of book that is cited in college course introductions, the kind of book that straight-faced, soft-spoken academics would enjoin their new students to get a copy of. (And they’re invariably expensive, so the resourceful student might go hunting for the requirement in Morayta and Recto; but, more likely in this day and time, the student will just look for a pirated PDF copy to download to his laptop or tablet, or to be copied from a friend’s USB stick.) The textbook is the usually-thick tome with the straightforward title, such as “Sociology,” or “Financial Accounting,” or “Film Art”. And while the non-textbook forgoes rigidity, being simply divided into chapters, the textbook is often crazy about structure: divided into sections, chapters, and sub-chapters; is decorated with boxes and sidebars; and often has end-of-chapter reviews, summaries, and exercises. The overloaded textbook wants it all, prose and poetry.

There are millions of fascinating non-textbooks out there, I admit, even if we discount fiction and other ‘non-factual’ works. We may have history textbooks, but we also have the non-fiction books on history that delve into much more detail and with much more interest than our stolid textbooks possess. And more often than not, it is the non-textbook that advances the subject matter, that provides the provocative angles which move the subject forward.

This is where the problem lies in rallying against textbooks: their value comes from being systematic, scientific, and cold but efficient. Textbooks teach, and they do so with rigor that is out of place for non-textbooks. They give us the fundamental knowledge, put us in equal footing with the so-called ‘state of the art’. As they do so, rarely do they have the space to dwell on ‘feelings’ or ‘interest’, nor find it appropriate to do so. Sociology textbooks, for instance, won’t rail against gender inequality, not only because non-textbook sources already are aplenty in this subject, but also because sociology precisely preaches relativism.

That textbooks are important and cannot be disposed of is obvious for academics. But I worry for the attention-deprived Internet generation, the ones who have a virtual endless library at their disposal, and for whom it might be difficult to determine which is worthy of reading and which is not, which will be healthy for their mind or which will be detrimental to their intelligence. It’s a concern for which reading textbooks, and by extension attending school earnestly, is a silver bullet. It is all about a platitude that is as important and true for science as it is for the arts: that one should know the rules before breaking them. One will only be ready for the unknown, be prepared to contribute to the advancement of an effort, when one already knows what has been done and learned.

(On second thought though, to know the rules before breaking them is not applicable in the study of law!)

Rational, logical education is at its best when there is no burden for the teacher to render the subject interesting. Textbooks by nature strive to be impartial, and impartiality has the unfortunate tendency of being boring—but to be entertaining is not the goal of textbooks. It’s a struggle of pathos versus logos, but the sincere scholar is in no need of pathos, only logos.

Besides, it’s a prejudice, a simplification that textbooks cannot be “meaningful.” I would point to perhaps my favorite textbook, the famed Economics by Samuelson and Nordhaus. In their discussion of GDP and GNP, for example, on how countries measure their economic output, the authors note the injustice of how the current system doesn’t account for the labors, mostly of women, in homes. GDP counts only the value of goods and services that are bought or sold; thus, Samuelson points out, if a man were to marry his maid (and consequently stop paying for her work formally), then all other things held equal, GDP would take a hit.

Now, how’s that for meaning.


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