Costly, Bloated Textbooks

Many years ago when I was a high school student, our text books were small and light enough that we could easily carry around the whole set by hand and fit them into our lockers with plenty of room to spare. Students today don’t have it that easy. Their textbooks are so heavy that they have to lug them around in backpacks, and so large that they have trouble cramming them in their lockers.

In my day, boys who were “going steady” were expected to carry their girls' friends’ textbooks as well. But that chivalrous custom is no longer feasible. So ponderous are modern textbooks—the average weight of the usual load weighing as much as 40 lbs—that they can cause serious injury. Jan Richardson, president of the American Physical Therapy Association warns parents that when kids sling their heavy backpacks over one shoulder “they can strain shoulder and neck muscles and cause a temporary curvature of the spine.”

Now one would think that modern textbooks are so much larger because they contain a lot more important information. But that’s seldom the case. Most don’t cover their subject nearly as well as old books did. The reason for the jumbo size is that they are overloaded with extraneous material. My old algebra text—6 by 8 ½ in., 420 pages, had nothing but algebra in it: clear explanations, graphic illustrations and lots of practice problems. Everything we needed for learning the subject was in the books. An even better example of compactness is the 1845 edition of Algebra, Upon the Inductive Method of Instruction. This diminutive text covered algebra 1 and part of algebra 2 in only 275 pages, and it’s light and small enough, 7½ by 4 ½ in., to fit in the spread of an average-sized hand. A whole generation of notable Americans—Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott, James Garfield, George Armstrong Custer, to name some—learned their algebra quite well from this little text.

By stark contrast, the average Algebra 1 text in vogue today is upwards of 750 pages long, 10¼ by 8 in., weighs a ton, and teems with irrelevant illustrations in full color of wild animals, cars, airplanes, boats, rockets,, buildings, landscapes, seascapes. Then there are the ubiquitous politically-correct photos of minority folks clad in laboratory garb, women athletes, women executives, and successful-looking immigrant entrepreneurs, together with lengthy captions and biographical blurbs. How these minority folks benefitted from or contributed to mathematics is never made clear.

As a first-generation immigrant, I appreciate the goodwill intended by the politically-correct material. But as an educator, I find them intrusive, particularly in math textbooks. To accommodate the pictures, many of which occupy as much as half a page, the books give short-shrift to the subject, often forcing teachers to scrounge for supplementary worksheets or to write their own. The pictures, moreover, tend to distract students and prevent them from learning. Most math students find it difficult to focus on a bunch of little black numbers and symbols when there are so many bright illustrations flashing before their eyes.

Another problem with modern textbooks is their exorbitant cost. The retail cost of a paperback workbook printed on plain paper and with no illustration, like those of the Schaum’s Outlines Series, comes to about $20 (in 2010 dollars) The wholesale cost of hardcover textbooks printed on pricy glossy paper and chock full of colorful illustrations, each color requiring a separate printing, can run as high as $150. That’s a lot to pay for fancy extraneous material. Public school officials claim that they are ever looking for ways to improve education and cut costs. They could do both by adopting textbooks with fewer frills and more substance.

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