Textbook approach

Tim Birkhead says it's time to broaden students' horizons

July 23, 2009

Higher education league tables are supposed to inform, but they sometimes do the exact opposite. I recently heard of one university that scored badly - and as a result suffered bad publicity - because of how little its undergraduates spent on books. But this particular institution fared poorly in that league table precisely because it did well in another criterion - library provision. Its undergraduates didn't need to buy their own books.

This raises the issue of who should be buying books - undergraduates or their libraries? Now that students pay fees, there is an expectation that the university will provide everything they need, including recommended texts. This is partly because of the "as-a-customer-I-need-make-no-effort" mentality - an attitude we have helped to foster among students and their parents.

When undergraduate numbers first started their upward surge decades ago, it slowly became apparent that expecting students to continue to find information in the library by consulting books or journals (as they had done when numbers were lower) was unrealistic.

There was too much competition: too few copies and too many takers. This competition took various forms, ranging from hiding books within the library to razor-blading articles out of journals. Part of the solution was to encourage students to buy one or more textbooks covering all or most of their coursework, the idea being that ownership would relieve the pressure on libraries and take the sting out of competition for access to information.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but massification has led to the perception that universities should provide more of everything: more teaching, more nurturing, more books. In some academics' opinion, the increase in student numbers also marked the beginning of "dumbing down", and providing course-specific textbooks has exacerbated this trend by reducing the scope of undergraduate reading and the need for any initiative on their part for locating and evaluating information.

Where did the idea of course textbooks come from? Is it simply a clever ploy by publishers, or is it a consequence of academics being asked (or forced) to teach outside their areas of expertise? Perhaps scholars are so busy grubbing around for research money that there is insufficient time for them to teach properly.

Another possibility is that the trend towards rote learning - rather than deep or creative thinking - makes textbooks attractive to lecturers and undergraduates. Pandering to what students like could be part of the problem, too. A course textbook is a security blanket, which, by setting a finite limit on what is required, narrows the open horizons of discovery. Students may know what they like, but they don't necessarily know what's good for them.

The saccharinisation of education simply creates the intellectual equivalent of tooth decay and obesity. Textbooks have always been useful, but the reason that academics aren't unreservedly in love with them is that rarely do they match what scholars want.

The switch towards course-specific textbooks has exacerbated the dumbing-down trend by reducing the scope of reading. A single opinion is intellectually stultifying.

Higher education went down this route partly because the competition for reading matter in the library was unacceptable, but access is no longer a problem because everything (allegedly) is available on the web. So why do we persist in encouraging undergraduates to buy textbooks? Isn't it time for a rethink, or is it too late to go back? If there has been no dumbing down, as some suggest, then why can't we go back to assuming that students can find everything they need themselves, but this time online?

The answer is that things have changed. We now operate in a culture in which undergraduate education is entirely the responsibility of academics to provide to the "customer". This means that asking undergraduates to start fending for themselves would come as a shock. Yet if we are to haul the system out of the morass of banality in which it currently wallows, this might be just what we need.

When I was an undergraduate, I bought books - not all of those recommended, for sure, but a fair number. I loved books and the mere process of buying them made me read them. I still have most of them. One text recommended by my lecturers was Animal Species and Evolution (1963) by Ernst Mayr, who has been described as the 20th- century Darwin. The book was incredibly expensive at £4 - you could get a package holiday for that in 1970. Having bought it, I was terrified that it might prove to be too difficult, but the clarity and enthusiasm with which Mayr wrote was wonderful and helped to make me into an evolutionary biologist.

Part of students' reluctance to buy books is their expense, but other add-ons to degrees, such as field trips and alcohol, are also expensive and they don't seem to mind paying for those. The commodification of degrees also plays a role. Most undergraduates want a degree with as little hassle and expense as possible. We have to start re-educating them to recognise that they have got this wrong.

We are in the business of providing opportunities for students, and we must make it clear that a degree is useful both for the subject matter itself, but also because it trains them how to think. Owning a few books, borrowing others from the library, and reading them is an essential part of the process.

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