Should We Use Textbooks?

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

I seem to be on a roll with practical posts (quite unusual for me). Last time we talked about how theology impacts our methodology in education. This time I’d like to touch on the kinds of books we use, specifically whether textbooks are a good idea.

In A Reformed Christian Perspective on Education (Grand Rapid: ChapBooks Press, 2011) Donald Oppewal argues for Christian textbooks. The point he is making is that Christian schools need Christian textbooks. He is not making an argument for textbooks as opposed to other kinds of books or materials. Nonetheless, his comments give us some insight into how textbooks operate.

Whereas secular textbooks, such as are used in the public schools, assume a materialistic, godless worldview, Christian textbooks “contain many explicit examples of faith integration” (p. 229). Oppewal gives the example of a literature textbook which gives “several pages of introduction” in which “the student is given biblical explanations of the importance of choosing properly and making careful decisions” (p. 228). Though the stories themselves are given without commentary, they are carefully selected. Likewise, the civics book provides a certain view of the role of government in society. The science books are laced with a “type of commentary [which] is repeated throughout the series” (p. 229). Thus in both their selection of material and in the commentary at the beginning and perhaps throughout the book, a certain viewpoint is being given and the child is being guided (to say the least) into how to think about the material.

Because books are not neutral, and texbooks themselves are curated collections, we should approach them with discernment. “More parents and teachers than ever before,” Oppewal tells us, “are realizing that textbooks contain not just bare information but also have a point of view, a perspective on the subject” (p. 231).   In and of itself, this is not necessarily a bad thing. We need to recognize that textbooks are no more neutral than any other book, and, as they choose material and put it in a framework, so we need to be discerning in choosing them and in how we use them.

There may be times and situations in which textbooks are our best available choice. Certainly for some subjects, such as math or foreign language, they seem quite appropriate. But there is also an unnecessary building up of layers here. The parents choose a school. The school chooses teachers. The teacher chooses a textbook, the content of which has itself been choosen by someone else, possibly by a committee of people and a number of editors. The texbook presents not just material but a certain take on that material. And perhaps the teacher also gives her own spin to the whole thing by choosing which parts of the book to use and by adding her own commentary. That’s a lot of people and a lot of minds between the parent and the student and between the material and the student.

I would like suggest that we take a page from Charlotte Mason’s philosophy and eliminate as many of these layers as possible. In Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Anthony Esolen speaks of the “pecularities of authorship” (p. 103; see this earlier post). I don’t know how the textbooks Oppewal advocates were written, but many have multiple authors not to mention editors. An individual gives a particular view and communicates ideas in a way that a committee cannot. As Esolen says later: “Five people can have a conversation. A thousand people can only make noise” (p. 206). The more people we invite into the conversation that is our children’s education, the more chaotic it becomes.

Charlotte Mason believed that the main thing in education was to put children in contact with other minds. Ideas, she believed, are caught from one mind to another. Given contact with other minds, children do not need a lot of commentary from us which only serves to interrupt the conversation (so to speak):

“Given a book of literary quality suitable to their age and children will know how to deal with it without elucidation . . . they will tell you the whole thing with little touches of individual personality in the narrative.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 204; see this post)

Thus Mason urges teachers to engage in “[t]he art of standing aside” (School Education, p. 54):

“Half the teaching one sees and hears is more or less obtrusive. The oral lesson and the lecture, with their accompanying notes, give very little scope for the establishment of relations with great minds and various  minds . . .” (Ibid., p. 54)

There is still a role for the teacher. We know that not everything in this world is good and true and beautiful so we must choose what minds to put our children in contact with. Those minds come with their own built-in worldviews, whether they themselves are aware of them or not, so discernment is needed.

Whether — or perhaps we had better say when — we expose our children to minds whose views differ from our own is a point which requires some insight. As I have discussed on a number of occasions (see this post), as reformed people we do believe that there is some measure of truth which is revealed to non-Christians. We do not exclude them from the conversation. I would like to propose a scheme in which there is a gradual opening up. For the youngest children we are probably not going to choose as many resources with views that differ from our own. But as they age, it is perfectly appropriate to expose them to a wider variety of materials. Though Mason was opposed to much commentary from the teacher, viewing it as a barrier between the student and the mind behind his book, some commentary, infrequently given, can guide students into being able to discern the underlying assumptions behind a book (or commercial or movie or song or …).

Better yet — we can provide books which themselves show us how to identify underlying assumptions. Two I would recommend are Grant Horner’s Meaning at the Movies and Francis Schaeffer’s How Then Should We Live. Though the former is about movies, it is a good introduction to how to think about the assumptions behind an artistic creation. The latter is a classic on how large trends in western thought have shaped culture. Another book I found quite helpful is Deconstructing Penguins. This is not a book for the student to read (though an older one certainly could). It describes a book club for younger children and how the authors walked them through identify protagonists and antagonists, point-of-view, and also world views in various classic children’s books. I used this book to construct a kind of mini-course for my own children. Using books that were too easy for them I think actually worked quite well. We could concentrate on the ideas behind the books without getting bogged down.

Books are powerful things. Through them we encounter other minds which may be separated from us by time and space. We believe there is good and evil in this world so we do not want to give our children free rein to all that is out there, especially at a young age before they have developed any discernment of their own. But we do want them to be able to interact with these other minds. Our tendency, I think, is too often to jump in and interrupt this conversation. Textbooks are simply not as good a choice a living books by one author who knows and loves his subject. They add layers, making the conversation more like a game of telephone. They bring more voices in and they mute the original voices by taking them out of context. If we want to use textbooks, Oppewal is perfectly right that Christian ones are preferable. But there is even a better way — actual, real, living books. In the words of Henry Zylstra,

” . . . the teacher and the textbooks are but guides and interpreters of traditions of life and thought which are embodied in book.” [Testament of Vision (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958) p. 84]


2 responses to this post.

  1. […] Words, and particularly books, should be the backbone of our approach to education. (Living Books and the Living Word; also The Power of Narrative; Should We Use Textbooks) […]


  2. […] Don’t drain the life out of your subject. Yes, these things should be inherently interesting but sometimes, honestly, we grown-ups have a knack for taking an interesting thing and making it dull. Don’t do that. Use materials that bring out the inherent joy in your subject. Use real books by real authors who love their subject. Avoid textbooks if possible, or use them sparingly. Avoid tedious repetition. Don’t provoke children with drills, busywork, mindless tasks. (See Should We Use Textbooks?) […]


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