Textbooks: Boring Students To Death


After my first go at teaching AP United States History, the most boring course I can think of, students told me that they would have benefited from a bigger textbook.

My overachievers weren’t content with 927 dry, boring pages from historian Douglas Brinky’s 13th edition of American History: A Survey. They wanted something they could really sink their teeth into—that no bullet could possibly penetrate.

“We have friends at other schools, and their textbook is much bigger and better,” I remember my students telling me.

When it comes to AP American history textbooks, I guess size does matter—at least as far as students are concerned.

Many textbooks exceed 1,500 pages. Perhaps students would prefer memorizing and regurgitating endless facts and figures from these gigantic bricks, which in no way represents the content students cover in a traditional history course—introductory or otherwise.

I ask Dr. Aldo Reglado, my friend and colleague in the history department at Palmer Trinity, what he thinks about textbooks. Regaldo has especially keen insight, seeing as he also teaches history courses at the University of Miami.

“I have never taken or taught a US history course that earnestly used a textbook—ever,” Regalado says. “Teachers would typically make you buy a textbook and then they would lecture, but I never in the entire course of my being a student read a textbook. I also don’t have my high school or college-level students buy them in courses I teach now.”

In my two years of teaching AP, the vast majority of my students scored 4’s and 5’s, top scores. My colleagues congratulated me on how well I had prepared them, but something felt amiss. After all was said and done, my students didn’t learn a darn thing—other than how to spew out information and appease AP graders. Even then, they forgot how to do so shortly after completing the exam.

To test my growing mistrust of textbook-based history teaching, I recently familiarized myself with James W. Loewen’s Lies of My Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. I was introduced to this book as a freshman at Brandeis University, in Prof. David Engerman’s American history survey course. Eleven years later, as I reread Loewen, I recall why I loathe all history textbooks—they’re boring.

“The stories that history textbooks tell are predictable; every problem has already been solved or is about to be solved,” Loewen writes. “Textbooks exclude conflict or real suspense. They leave out anything that might reflect badly upon our national character. When they try for drama, they achieve only melodrama, because readers know that everything will turn out fine in the end.”

I’m excited to speak with Loewen, and I ask for his thoughts on the AP-curriculum, and the massive textbooks that cater to it.

“The most boring course is aimed at the best students,” Loewen says. “This is refreshing, in a way, because usually, most subjects, what we do is teach the so called slow students or regular students in a boring way, and we get the interested students to be writing poetry or doing something fascinating. But not in the case of history.”

Too many teachers champion memorizing a litany of factoids, what Loewen calls “twigs,” instead of encouraging students to see “the forest for the trees.” When I taught AP, students begged for me to quiz them on twigs from the textbook.

“Twigs are perfectly good, but if you just sit there and teach them twigs, then you bore them to death,” Loewen says.

My students were unbelievably bored, but they seemed to like it that way—as if that twisted “badge of honor” would guarantee them success on exam day. In fact, they would compete with each other to see who was more bored.

All the while, they moaned about being forced to memorize and regurgitate mountains of information, much of it unnecessary—even as they asked for more work from the textbook, which they all hated. I learned very quickly that the AP United States History curriculum does do one thing extraordinary well: it turns bright, motivated students into masochistic, mindless automatons.

Several months ago, I spoke with Nikhil Goyal, author of One Size Does Not Fit All: One Students Assessment of School. In his introduction, Goyal, 17, says that he was “bored as hell in class.” I ask Goyal what he thinks of textbooks:

There’s a great saying that goes like this: The minute a textbook goes to the printer, it is most likely obsolete. Many of them are riddled with bias and errors. When information is a commodity that can be accessed through free resources, like the Internet, textbooks are a waste of money. Amateurs, people who are not experts in their respective fields, are often the ones given the task to write textbooks.

I speak with my friend and English department colleague Mark Hayes, who has taught Loewen’s book for several years.

I can’t speak to history textbooks, but when I drag out the thousand-plus pages of Literature and the Language Arts: The American Tradition and consider there are some 140 works to get through, divided into 12 units, each with lengthy introductions and endless lists of study questions, I certainly feel depressed. How would the students feel? I think oppressed is an apt word—you can look up the origins of the word. The textbook sacrifices depth for the sake of breadth—and a superficial breadth at that. Why all the busy work? How about we read eight real books and take our time to develop the skills of reading, thinking, and writing? And eight real books would certainly cost less than an impractical comprehensive textbook.

I ask Loewen why textbooks have become even larger since 1995, when Lies My Teacher Told Me first came out.

“They not only got bigger,” Loewen says. “The publishers are also giving more and more stuff away as what they call ‘ancillaries.’ When you adopt a book, you get a CD ROM with 10,000 test questions and even a random number generator so you can generate your test for unit 38 completely randomly. The students who have last year’s test for unit 38, boy are they going to be surprised when they copy in the answers from that.”

Loewen is right. In an effort to entice purchases, most textbooks come with ancillary readings and lectures.

“I actually like some of the ancillary readings, but there’s no time to read them because the textbooks themselves now average about 1,152 pages,” Loewen says. “Teachers who feel, ‘Well, we’ve got to read the darn thing because we have it,’ they don’t have time to read anything else.”

Loewen tells me another interesting reason why textbooks are growing larger: “They meet a certain need, but it’s a need that should not exist. It is the need of teachers who are not, first and foremost, teachers of history or social studies. They are, first and foremost, perhaps PE teachers.”

Loewen puts it more harshly than I, but I can’t help but feel that he’s right. I’m not sure who’s to blame: a unprepared teacher or the administration for putting an unqualified individual in this position. Perhaps both. Whatever the case, students recognize teachers who don’t know their stuff—and both sides suffer.

“I sometimes hold up my book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, in front of audiences and say, ‘I could have subtitled this Revenge against Coach DeMoulin,’” Loewen says. “He was my US history teacher in Illinois years ago, and he was the basketball coach. He knew full well that he didn’t care how he taught American history, that the school system didn’t care about how he taught American history. He was hired and fired on the basis of the won loss record of the basketball team.”

In the interest of full-disclosure, I’m almost ashamed to admit that I have my honors students purchase a significantly slimmed-down version of Brinkley’s AP textbook. It’s still over 800 pages, but the pages are much smaller (not that this makes it any less of a textbook).

But I don’t over-rely on Brinkley, and sometimes not at all. I constantly provide students with supplemental readings, and I never have them answer prepackaged questions.

I muster the courage to ask Loewen if he finds any redeeming qualities in textbooks.

“There’s a number of students, maybe something in the neighborhood of one third, certainly more than a fourth, who have trouble thinking chronologically. I have a gimmick or two that I suggest to deal with that. But a textbook helps, too,” Loewen says.

All the same, Loewen doesn’t suggest buying huge, expensive books. Instead, he says that teachers could consider purchasing 300-page paperbacks that provide a decent chronology—like the kind immigrants study for the naturalization exam. But if teachers still wish to use a traditional textbook, Loewen says that even those can be helpful, under the right circumstances.

“If the teacher makes a really good point showing where the textbook’s wrong, or if he, the student, thinks that the textbook’s wrong, they can write in the margin,” Loewen says. “This increases the value of the text. It doesn’t decrease it.”

Instead of textbooks, I ask Loewen what sources he thinks teachers could and should use, or at least rely more heavily upon. He tells me about an e-mail he received several years ago from a then new teacher in rural Illinois.

He says, “I ran with the textbook. My students found the course boring and so did I. This year, I decided to teach it the way I wanted to teach it.” “I used facts,” he writes. That’s an interesting idea. He talks about, “I used your book, Lies My Teacher Told Me. I used this book by Amy Goodman, Teaching Reasoning and Democratic Values. I used some other stuff. I got students involved in debates.” He asked them the question, “What would you have done in this situation?” Because they didn’t want people to just criticize what they did do. He said, “The difference is immense. This year, my students are interested in the class.”

Teachers should always inspire students to learn more about their subjects. Unfortunately, an overreliance on textbooks accomplishes just the opposite.

Interview Transcript (Loewen)

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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