April 13, 2008

Textbook Lore

Filed under: Uncategorized — duncan @ 7:53 pm

Reading the excellent ‘EconoSpeak‘ (to my knowledge the best lefty economics blog out there, after Robert Vienneau), I come across this comment thread, discussing the flaws of undergraduate textbooks. Sandwichman (one of the blog’s authors) writes:

“My impression was that textbooks are corporate projects that are endorsed by a celebrity academic “author”. What fascinates me is not what is left out of the textbooks but “textbook lore” that is repeated in textbook after textbook but has no scholarly basis in the discipline itself.”

This is the kind of thing I worry about, as I try to teach myself economics from elementary textbooks. Presumably the textbooks’ mad claims sometimes don’t have much relation to the mad claims of economics proper – even after taking into account the supposedly ‘necessary’ (but often ideologically motivated) oversimplifications that characterise any beginners text. I’m not sure what to do about this – whether to keep on plugging at the simple stuff, or try to dive in to the real deal and endure months or years of total incomprehension. If anyone has any suggestions about the best way to approach things, they’d be appreciated.

[This post, I fear, inaugurates the ‘any passing thought’ era of the blog…]


  1. hey Praxis,

    I feel your pain… I recommend working through some syllabi from a good critical economics/political economy programme.

    The New School graduate ones are excellent and available online. You get a good grounding in the orthodox textbooks and in critiques and alternative approaches.

    They start basic with introductory macro, micro and even maths and econometrics. Then the second-level courses get quite complex.

    Comment by Mike Beggs — April 14, 2008 @ 2:53 am

  2. Mike – thanks, this is really helpful, the course looks great. I’ll get back to you in more detail in twenty years, when I’ve almost finished it. 🙂

    Comment by praxisblog — April 14, 2008 @ 11:08 am

  3. Just a passing thought: I would concur that textbooks are never without an “agenda” of some sort. Here in the U.S.
    California is the state which purchases the most textbooks. The authors and companies that make textbooks, therefore,
    inject a certain (how shall I say?) California-ness into their textbooks. Recently there was a deabte over a California
    state senate bill (SB 777) which would have required state agencies to monitor how well anti-discrimination procedures
    were being enforced by educators and administrators in the public school system. Legislators pushing the bill wanted to
    ensure that a safe learning enviornment was being provided for (among other minority groups) gay and lesbian students.
    Christian groups all across the country feared that California’s propsed tolerance of GLBT individuals would spill over
    to other states since textbooks would portray gayness in a favorable light.

    As someone who has taught in public schools in New York state I can also attest to the fact that textbooks have become
    increasingly agenda-driven since my days as a school boy twenty years ago. New York’s textbooks reflect the state’s large
    and diverse immigrant population. History books are teeming with lengthy accounts of insignificant minority figures while
    the caucasion heroes like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington have had their legacies trimmed. In addition, the writing
    styles and pictures in textbooks of every subject make for a jaunty read. This is probably to mimic the style of hip-hop and
    rap which has become so popular among the younger age groups all over the country in the last decade. I guess educators think
    kids will learn better if learning is “fun.” Maybe the teachers could just rap their lectures to a staccato drum beat while
    the kids did headspins and chimed in during the chorus. Dumb.

    Comment by robertjerome — April 15, 2008 @ 5:22 am

  4. On SB 777… and promoting “gayness”… (homosexuality?)… I don’t know anything about the history of the bill, but not allowing schools to “promote a discriminatory bias” (which google tells me is the final wording) as regards sexual orientation, seems a laudable goal to me. Also – I’m not sure how pictures (or a jaunty style) could mimic hip hop – unless they’re pictures of Fifty Cent (who isn’t really jaunty, so that’s a non-starter… ) And, like, hip hop isn’t exactly known for its tolerance towards homosexuality either… Also – “History books are teeming with lengthy accounts of insignificant minority figures while the caucasion heroes like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington have had their legacies trimmed.” That’s because Jefferson and Washington were slave owners, and the U.S. is trying to come to terms with the legacy of slavery. (Doing a better job of it than Britain re Empire, I’d say). The textbooks are presumably trying to foster a society in which those who were made historically insignificant, by oppression, can be lauded. The books may be ridiculous (or may not; I don’t know), but I find it hard to get annoyed.

    Comment by praxisblog — April 15, 2008 @ 11:44 pm

  5. Perhaps “jaunty” wasn’t the best word choice to try and convey the similarity between many of the NY textbooks and
    hip hop culture. I’m glad you didn’t point out my one little glaring malapropism. I don’t think a “staccato”
    drum beat has ever been used in a rap song before. I’m still not entirely sure what a staccato drum rhythm is but
    an instructional video on You Tube informed me about the differences between staccato and lagato drum strokes. (Note to self:
    do not try to sound smarter than you actually are.)

    You are right, however, that history is finally catching up with the times. Certainly the achievements of the caucasion men
    in America cannot be overlooked, but the legacies of minority figures have been mostly suppressed until recently. I guess
    I’m old fashioned because it seems odd that obscure Native Americans should be allotted as much ink as someone like
    William Clark (from the Louis and Clark Expedition). I guess history has to kind of go back and rewrite itself due to the
    ignorance and of our ancestors.

    The future generations will be better off for having learned about seminal historical figures of all races and creeds. I’m
    sure when I have kids some day I will feel misinformed when they tell me about people who changed history who I have never
    even heard of.

    (The homosexually inclusive textbooks won’t likely appear right away because the SB 777 debate occurred very recently. I’m
    not even sure if the bill has been signed into law by Arnold Schwartzenagger yet or not. Having lived in California, however, and
    being familiar with the way their underfunded schools operate, it’s safe to say the new gay-friendly textbooks probably won’t be available to students for, oh, another 11 years.)

    Comment by robertjerome — April 16, 2008 @ 5:55 am

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