No Wonder Kids Hate Textbooks

<i> Joy Hakim is the author of "A History of US," a 10-volume U.S. history for young people and their parents (Oxford University Press, 1995)</i>

Have you ever had a child implore you, “Can I stay up tonight and read my textbook?”

Read a textbook? Eagerly? Teachers know better. So do kids. Who would willingly read one of them?

This isn’t funny. We have a reading, thinking and learning problem in our schools and we give children books that are so dumbed-down that most people laugh at the idea of anyone actually wanting to read them.


Meanwhile, in Texas and California and around the country, both sides of the ideological textbook debate--the multicultural left and the Christian right--shout invective at each other. They miss the point. We’re losing our children to insipid, boring texts that provide the underpinnings for most instructional time. And we’re shoring up teaching methods that have been a failure for decades. Despite dedicated teachers and years of educational initiatives, the system isn’t working.

Nowhere are the problems more visible than in the debate about history education. Let me take you into some classrooms I’ve visited recently. In San Francisco, in a middle-class school, I asked eighth-graders, “What happened in July of 1776?” No one knew. In a Virginia school, I asked fifth-graders when Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Everyone looked puzzled.

I can tell you more and worse, but you have the idea. We’ve taken a subject that gives us the information to make judgments and frittered it away. History, which is all about people and their adventures and should be a natural with children, is often disliked and ignored in our schools.

The political extremists, who were first to ring alarm bells, have been joined by middle-of-the-roaders. In response, we now have teaching standards--basic lists of what children should know at each grade level. Teachers soon will be judged by their students’ performance on social studies tests. But what is our goal? To produce good test-takers or thinking citizens? Just how important are facts? And how do we best present them?

Which brings me back to textbooks and pedagogy. Traditionally, cultures have passed on their history through stories. The narrative tradition goes back to Homer and Gilgamesh. It was the center of history teaching in this country until about 50 years ago, when “methods” and “skills” texts began to change the focus. It was then that history’s stories got discarded or trivialized. Real books--story-centered books--became once-in-a-while supplements to manufactured texts and teacher-directed lessons. (Check Charles Dickens’ “Child’s History of England” to see a book used in schools a century ago, when history was a favorite subject.)

“Human beings make sense of the world by telling stories about it, by using the narrative mode for construing reality,” says educational psychologist Jerome Bruner. But stories demand intellectual work. You have to follow a story and, if it’s any good at all, it leaves you with something to think about. Facts take on meaning if they’re part of a tale.


The interesting thing about the questions that stories ask is that they don’t have pat answers. Textbooks and tests demand particular answers. Life--which is a story--isn’t like that. It’s complex. The children whom I know, including inner-city kids, see through those predictable books. They are thirsting for real-world stories.

Kieran Egan, the author of “Imagination in Teaching and Learning,” says that the minds we admire most are those that can organize creatively. And, he says, that ability is developed by reading and writing in story form. Teacher Vivian Paley writes, “Hardly a child breathes who will not rise to a mind-tingling state of alertness at the sounds of ‘Once upon a time.’ ” Stories don’t have to be fiction, but they do need a structure and momentum that connect people and events.

So when I hear that we don’t have good schoolbooks because of political pressures, I sigh. I’ve been subjected to some of that pressure from both right and left. It’s an annoyance. But the publishing industry wants you to believe that’s the heart of the problem. It helps excuse voiceless elementary and middle school texts produced by teams of freelance writers with prestigious academic names added as “authors.” Graphics and gimmicks replace good writing. Headings and inane questions interrupt the flow. Textbooks are designed to appeal to adult purchasers, not young readers. It’s a system that leads to books that no one wants to read under the bedcovers or in school.

Many of our education problems are societal and will need long-term, expensive solutions. Books are relatively inexpensive. Given exciting books, most children, even those in the worst environments, will read and think and learn. That we don’t demand the best books for our schools is appalling.