08 February 2009

The textbook conundrum

Biological Science, Third EditionI don’t know what to do about textbooks.

On the one hand, textbooks are obsolete. They had a very clear and useful purpose: to summarize relevant technical research, originally published in disparate technical papers piecemeal across hundreds of journals, in one place in a reasonably authoritative manner. If a student wanted to learn about the basics of a subject by reading the original papers, it would have been a phenomenally daunting task. It would take days scouring through compilations like the Zoological Record and Psychological Abstracts to find the key papers. Even then, many papers would be may have published in journals that not even all university libraries had.

Internet resources should have killed textbooks dead about five years ago.* More and more and more research papers, even quite obscure ones, can be found online. And there are specific databases and search engines devoted to scouring only those scientific sources, like Google Scholar. And the researchers themselves are making their knowledge more available online. Now, I can usually get up to speed on a topic in a couple of days – a task that used to take me weeks.

On the other hand, I hear things like this all the time:

The #1 habit successful people share with me is this: They read books to learn. They do it often and with joy. It’s cheap (or free, at the library or online) and portable and specific.

That particular riff is from Seth Godin.

Below, Chris Anderson talks about the importance of starting to read again after the .com bubble burst in 2000. (It’s about 4:50 in, but it will have more impact if you listen to the those preceding 4 minutes.) It comes up again at about 11 minutes, where Anderson says, “Books kind of saved me in the last couple of years.”

Over and over and over again: There is something valuable and important about reading. It leads to deeper, more reflective thinking. Particularly books.

So I’m completely conflicted. Students are notoriously recalcitrant to buy textbooks. They don’t see value in them (by which I don't just mean the often extreme cost). But I think they need the sort of deep thinking skills that they get from reading.

* Maybe textbooks are dead, and they’re just twitching.

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