Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Good Textbook?

In his History 5 lectures, Thomas Laqueur says that there is no such thing as a good history textbook. Since I have lately been reading a lot of textbooks in my attempt to review Greek History, I thought I would explore the issue.

The Greek History class that I originally took in my sophomore had no textbook. Originally I thought this was a better option. Reading primary sources and the scholars that discuss them is a wonderful way to learn. However, for an survey class, when there is no lecture and no textbook, just professor-lead discussion, there is not enough background information for someone not already with a narrative sketch of the subject. I know I became lost and overwhelmed. On the other hand, this was the perfect format for the classes that I had which took an in-depth look at Herodotus and Thucydides.

Laqueur seems to imply the same thing when he says that in the age of easily accessible textbooks, the internet, and wikipedia, students can learn facts and timelines by themselves (especially if the class provide a guiding resource). However, he states, that the professor's job is to provide a narrative that sews these facts together in context. This makes a lot of sense to me.

The Greek history textbooks I have been reading are the following: Ancient Greece: A Political, Social and Cultural History by Pomeroy et al., Early Greece by Oswyn Murray, The Art and Culture of Early Greece, 1100-480 B.C. by Jeffrey Hurwit, and Archaic and Classical Greek Art by Robin Osborne. I would consider Early Greece and The Art and Culture of Early Greece, 1100-480 B.C. to be "good" while I consider Ancient Greece: A Political, Social and Cultural History and Archaic and Classical Greek Art to be "fairly decent." The good ones provide an interdisciplinary approach and provide an overarching narrative. The writing is reasonably placed and enjoyable-- it manages to make the reader realize she is learning things. However, this means that the books do not provide the "just facts" [1] approach which allows a professor to provide their own context and narrative for their students. The other problem might be that it would omit a specific instance a student might be seeking to compose a paper or to check a fact. The latter two both provide a less mediated approach and provide a much greater amount of pictures than the others. However, frankly, neither of these books are particularly interesting or enjoyable reading (and the analysis in the Osborne book is quite shallow). So although I like the former two much better, I can see arguments to be made for the latter two.

I think that this sort of problem can be applied to textbooks in almost any subject, although I have not (yet) done an anecdotal comparison (like this one ) on other subjects (as of yet).

Do you think there is such a thing as a good textbook?

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