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Old Textbooks

Among the prizes I hope to return with whenever I visit a secondhand bookstore are old textbooks. By old I mean at least before WWII and preferably before WWI. This sounds perverse. What good are old textbooks full of obsolete information? Leave those elegant spines to the decorators.

It is self-evident that the preponderance of textbooks now in use, at every level, are trash. They are written by the narrow, sold by the greedy, bought by the lazy, and read by the desperate and the indifferent. If they serve any purpose it is to harness students. They have such a thin and clouded connection to their subjects, and approach by such roundabout and senseless ways, that they keep nags and racehorses creeping on at the same rate – a sort of pedagogical QWERTY, slowing learning down to keep the parts from interfering. But I do them too much credit: to recognize a purpose implies a planning intelligence they lack.

I wish this was a problem to be solved; but the condition of textbooks is not even a symptom: it is an opportunistic infection – a disease of the sick. Students end up with dubious textbooks like the poor end up with dubious food. The problem to fix is not the vector of exploitation, but what allows exploitation.

The prevailing educational method is consistent at all levels. It is to approach truth by white lies: to start with over-simplifications and, over time, to gradually amend and refine them. This is not inherently bad. Better that children be lied to and told that the earth is round like a ball, than assume it flat until they can understand an oblate spheroid. But, to smooth the way, we have universalized this method and consigned all the final disabusals to specialists. Thus even the best-educated, if they leave their education to others, are left with beliefs that are not quite true; knowledge that is not quite accurate; ideas that are not quite clear.

Overall, this system works well and does little harm. But it is not harmless. We accommodate ignorance in order to dilute it; but while the dilution is temporary, the accommodation is permanent. The temporary defeat of ignorance incurs the permanent removal of the shame of ignorance. The student’s mind starts out as a small lake; rivers of knowledge swell it to a sea; but if it has no natural outlet, the end result is a salt lake of uncertainty where nothing can live.

Scholars and scientists squawk when they informally try to unfold their beloved disciplines to their students and the students balk. They blame the decadence of society outside of education; but these students, having lived on sandwich meat, choke on bones.

Relativism is not a disease that afflicts education from outside. It is the condition of success in education. To succeed in the system you must accept that the truths you are allowed know are relative to your age, and the truths you are allowed to say are relative to the subject you say them about. What do the students gain who try to compass in a single intellectual universe both, say, literature and mathematics? Burdened with contradictions to resolve and distinctions to make, they will go slower in both. In trying to make the superstructure of mathematics clearer, and the substructure of English more exact, they will alienate the teachers of both. They seem to question the character of the mathematician, and the significance of the reader. But if they separate each subject into its own intellectual universe; if they two-time the intellect, dally with sentences and equations on a schedule that ensures they never meet, then they need only learn to play each game by its own rules.

I do not indict. These evils are the evils of universal education, and universal ignorance has evils far greater. I only want to suggest, to those who are vexed by this system, that there have been other ways, ones that they can follow by themselves. You do not have to reform society to do better than society.

If you have the chance, get an old language textbook – they are the easiest to get – and place it beside a modern one for the same language. The first thing you should notice is that the old textbook is shorter. The second is that it is far more systematic. Compare the sections on pronunciation. In my experience, here even the best new textbooks are lacking; even the worse old textbooks are better both in practical guidance – how to breathe, how to articulate – and in respect for the language’s diversity – this sound is pronounced this way in this city. Modern textbooks are hobbled by trying to serve two masters. First, they fear seeming silly to linguists by supplying rules of thumb without direct physiological basis. (Formerly, books taught how to be passable in pronunciation, and correct in grammar; now they teach how to be correct in pronunciation, and passable in grammar. Formerly you succeeded if natives thought you sounded like them but wrote better; now you succeed if natives think you sound better than they do and write like them.) Second, they fear to intimidate students by qualifying their instruction. What is left is too simple to be accurate, and too diffident to be useful – just enough to mislead.

But the best comparison is simply between tables of contents. Look at the contents page of an old textbook and you learn something without reading a word of the text, because the structure of the exposition follows the structure of the subject. Often that simple glance reveals an expository structure that remains obscurely and arbitrarily implied in the modern vocabulary of the subject. What structure does a modern textbook follow? Sometimes it follows the subject – a textbook of anatomy can be expected to be structured in systems of organs. But, more often, some outside consideration decides the structure. The books show rough seams between the work of different contributors; or it duplicates and reduplicates to include everything any teacher might need in any order or from any perspective it might be needed; or it affects that certain medicine-coating cuteness – but the coating is transparent and no one is fooled; or it simply tries to be marketably novel – but the novelty is extrinsic and burdens the student with peculiarities they will have to purge before further study.

One might excuse them by pleading the necessity of a teacher’s presence. But a textbook that, to be useful, requires a good teacher, is itself useless – a sufficiently good teacher can teach from anything. (And anything, generally, is what they get.)

These textbooks, you object, are basic. What of more advanced textbooks? But my point is that there is no reason, except for educational methods, for advanced textbooks to exist. A good textbook is one which starts with ignorance and lets out into primary sources, scholarly apparatus, experiment and apprenticeship.

It is sometimes easier to start with an old textbook, learn the structure of a subject, then correct that understanding with attention to subsequent discoveries and developments, than to try to get a sense of the structure of a subject from working with modern materials – which have no reason to show it, and every reason to hide it. Old buildings are at once examples and textbooks of architecture in beam, pillar, arch, vault, buttress, and cantilever. Their appearance shows their structure. Modern buildings obey the same physics; but cheap steel allows them to hide their structures under a fraudulent simplicity. It is the same with modern textbooks and cheap paper.

Most differences between old and new textbooks are due to bad faith or honest confusion. Some, however, are of another kind: they belong to the tendency of our education to mix the professional and the humanistic.

I do not know whether the prestige of the professional specialties pulled these concerns into their orbit, or whether the humanities’ abdication necessitated this seizure. It would be more satisfying to blame it on the humanities as the foreseeable consequence of the narcissism of Marxism and Theory, the professions learning to get along without those who, vainly thinking themselves indispensable, made no effort to be useful. But this cannot be not true. The bids of economics, sociology, and psychology to supply the vacant center have all failed. Something is exerting an overpowering centrifugal force on intellectual life – it is not that the king is dead, but that the throne is broken. What exerts this force, what broke the throne, I do not know – except to say that while it has been present throughout the twentieth century, it did not predominate until the great nameless revolution that brought in our world of think tanks, institutional investors, bourgeois bohemianism, fashion without fashions and pervasive reform-renewal-rethink-update.

However it happened, every profession has its own prosthetic complement of hyphenated ethicists, journalists, writers, and historians; and soon entirely separate camps of science artists or math musicians. Much of the steady swelling of university time expected of a professional is due to this added burden. A first rate medical school can no longer rest after teaching the doctor anatomy, epidemiology, pharmacology; they must also teach the doctor – as a doctor, not as a human being – how to think clearly, how to express their thoughts, how to relate to life, to their emotions, to other people’s emotions, how to solve ethical dilemmas. This intellectual autarky has always been possible for doctors and lawyers at least; but it has spread nearly everywhere. (If you wish to see it happening to the hard sciences, visit the Edge Foundation.)

There are, for most musical instruments, two ways to learn to read music: staff and tablature. Staff is the familiar texture of lines, dots, and dashes. It is a way of writing music which is nearly the same for all instruments: while there are usually considerations that keep a player of one instrument from sight-reading music written for another, the discrepancies of notation do not add to those inherent in the instruments’ different physical possibilities.

Tablature is much easier to learn than staff. If two people begin to learn the same instrument at the same time, there will be a long interval while the player from tablature can laugh at the slow progress of the player from staff. But in the end there are places the tablature player cannot go; worse, that player cannot talk about music with other musicians, must start over if they want to learn a second instrument, and is as far from being able to transcribe for their instrument, compose for it, or even produce individual interpretations for it, as they were before they could play anything at all.

The analogy, of course, is that new textbooks are written in tab, but old textbooks are written in staff: new textbooks give proficiency without cultivation; old textbooks, presupposing cultivation, delay proficiency to allow for excellence.

I often hear the phrase learn how to learn; but never having heard a definition of it I take it for a catchphrase. Still, it is catching because it would in fact be a good idea. Our system of education, however, has been engineered to serve an opposite end. It is not even a bad end; but if you have another end in mind you must look outside the machine, and its only outside is its before. Being old does not make a textbook good. Old textbooks are obsolete, silly, stupid, bigoted, and boring. But there is gold there that cannot be had anywhere else, if you will pan for it.