Transcript: Textbooks Should Be Great Books!

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Joy Hakim – “Textbooks Should Be Great Books!”

Keynote presentation for the 25th annual conference of the Text & Academic Authors Association (TAA)

Recorded Saturday, June 9, 2012

Presented by special arrangement with TAA

For podcast release Monday, July 2, 2012

RICHARD HULL: TAA greatly appreciates the support it receives from sponsors, and they have been wonderfully generous again this year. We are especially grateful for the support of the Copyright Clearance Center, who sponsored our breakfast yesterday morning. We would also like to give special thanks to Delmar Cengage Learning and New Forums Press for donating books for early conference registrants.

I’d like now to introduce our keynote speaker, Joy Hakim. Joy is the author of the 10-volume K-12 textbook series A History of the US, and the trade book Freedom: A History of the US that accompanies a 16-part PBS series, all published by Oxford University Press. She’s also the author of The Story of Science, a three-volume series co-published by Smithsonian Books and the National Science Teachers Association.

And now, welcome with me our keynote speaker, Joy Hakim.

JOY HAKIM: Thank you, Richard. Thank you, it’s so nice to be here. My history books are A History of Us. There’s a pun there, as a 10-year-old told me. And I do write for younger readers. I know most of you, or many of you, write for college texts. It’s a different world. I don’t know your world, and maybe I’ll tell you a little bit about mine.

A few years ago, I was working in my garden. It was spring, and I had a flat of flowers to plant. I put them down on the left side of a large flower bed just as a neighbor came by to watch and talk. But as soon as I began digging, I discovered shoots that needed transplanting, so I carried them to the right side of the flower bed, where I found much to do. My friend followed. I’d hardly settled in when I noticed a spot in the middle of the bed filled with tall weeds. I headed there to deal with the weeds.

My neighbor, an incredibly well-organized woman, couldn’t believe my gardening method, or lack of same. Don’t you ever stick with anything? she asked. The truth is, I have a hard time doing it. I’m inclined to flit about, which is what I’m going to do today. I have several subjects on my mind, so I hope you’ll stay with me as I traipse around the textbook garden.

I’d like to talk about a major intellectual change that is brewing worldwide and beginning to impact informed thinking. I’ll tell you a bit about my adventures writing story-based history and science books, and then something about textbooks and the astonishing impact that they can have, with commentary from some great textbook writers.

To start with a big thought, for as long as we’ve had that thing called culture, no matter when or where we lived, we humans have asked the same vital questions. Who are we? Where did we come from? And where did earth and this universe that we inhabit come from? We began answering those questions with what we now call myths.

In the Americas, thinkers described a great turtle that carried another turtle on its back, and another and another. It was turtles all the way, and they supported earth. About 3,000 years ago, in the Middle East, some amazing prophets told the story of a creation that took seven days, which may have been a metaphor for a great expanse of time. Theirs was a wisdom story. It was not science, which depends on proofs.

Meanwhile, there were thinkers from as far back as we have records who were trying to find provable scientific answers to those creation questions. That wasn’t easy. For the most part, they didn’t have the wherewithal to garner the proofs they needed. Then, just before 1600, a Polish priest named Copernicus figured out that the Sun is the center of what then seemed to be the universe. You know that story, and how it impacted a charismatic professor in Italy named Galileo. It would take about 200 years before most people and most authorities could accept the scientific proofs that Earth circles the Sun, and not vice versa.

When that happened, we began embracing what is now known as the scientific revolution. It was an enormous paradigm change in human thought. Something as big as that revolution is occurring right now. I believe our time will be seen as the end of one era and the beginning of a whole new one. We as textbook writers need to be aware of what’s going on.

For the first time in human history, we actually know how the universe began. It was with a bang, a big bang. We have the information and we have the proofs. We now know, and can prove, that our home Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. We know that there was single-celled life here on Earth 3.8 billion years ago. We have the fossils that prove it. We know those single cells were already divided into life’s three domains, Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukaryota, and that all carried the same information system, informed by RNA and DNA. That shared code strongly suggests a common ancestor.

From where did those creatures come? Who was the common ancestor? Those are questions we can’t yet answer, but we’re working on them. We do know that Darwin’s tree of life, with its two branches of plants and animals, is way off. We know the Prokaryote and Eukaryote division, still in many textbooks, isn’t right either. We can establish the antiquity of life’s three domains, all of which are still with us today, but we don’t know their origin.

That is today’s big scientific question. The search to answer it has become a kind of Holy Grail quest, among the most exciting of all human time. That search is not only absorbing the scientific world, where evolutionary science is impacting all the others, it has been embracing philosophers, religious leaders, and other big thinkers. Our readers, especially our young readers, need a picture of this astonishing dynamism. It’s a challenging and very important task.

Now to another part of the garden. I was a newspaper reporter 33 years ago when I read Frances FitzGerald’s book, America Revised. Its subtitle is, What History Textbooks Have Taught Our Children About Their Country, and How and Why Those Textbooks Have Changed in Different Decades. The book, which was serialized in The New Yorker, tells a sorry tale of the then-current history textbooks, comparing them with books children had read early in the 20th century. It’s a story of the demise of the thoughtful, well-written textbook, and the rise of the formulaic, publisher-managed text. I had no idea then, but that book would begin a process that changed my life.

FitzGerald made it clear that there was a time when textbook writers, like other writers, made the major decisions on the books they wrote. The most popular book in American schools in the early decades of the 20th century, a book that broke all kinds of sales records, was David Muzzey’s American History. Published in 1911, it stayed in print for 65 years, was a huge bestseller, and made several generations of Americans devotees of American history.

At a time before a high wall divided text and trade, Muzzey was the popular spokesperson for American history. His book dominated the field. I found a used copy. What’s it like? Like most good books, it reflects the ideas and intelligence of its author, attributes that a textbook industry, soon to take over the field, would not appreciate. Muzzey embraced what once seemed enlightened ideas on issues of race and ethnicity. Today, we wouldn’t see them that way.

And that’s one of the things about writing history, or any textbook, that makes you humble. Even the best of our interpretations reflect our times. We all know that the next generation of teachers and students will want the past reinterpreted to reflect their concerns and values.

About the same time that I read FitzGerald, I also read Harriet Tyson’s A Conspiracy of Good Intentions, which provided another look at American textbooks. I’ve always loved the title. A Conspiracy of Good Intentions. Tyson’s thesis is that no one intends to write or publish a dull book, but the publisher-directed methods of producing textbooks makes those dull texts almost a certainty. She made it clear that the primary goal of textbook publishers is to make money, not to educate.

Those two books were resonating in my mind when I learned of a meeting to be held in Richmond, Virginia, with the intent of tackling the textbook issue. I was a newspaper reporter in Norfolk, where I had worked with some terrific editors. Looking back, I feel tremendously lucky to have been part of what I now see as a golden age of American journalism.

A daily newspaper is relentless. It’s coming out tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, so late work is unacceptable. The two papers where I’d worked, The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, had high, no-excuses-accepted standards. Much of the staff, and almost all the editors, had come out of the iconic journalism school at Chapel Hill.

Good writing is good thinking, said one of the editors, who terrified me. I was the first woman he’d hired to be part of his inner sanctum, but because he was a Southern gentleman, he didn’t feel free to yell and swear at me as he did with my colleagues. I made a few colossal errors. He was right to be furious, but he didn’t know how to express fury with a woman. I was afraid I might be responsible for a heart attack. I can still see him turning purple.

I quickly learned you got things right, or you didn’t work for him for long. One of my colleagues actually threw up. Yes, he ran for the bathroom when that editor-in-chief did a number on a story he’d written. In hindsight, it was great training that I’m glad is behind me.

So there I was, a trained writer, when I read the FitzGerald and Tyson books. They made it clear that American textbooks, especially history textbooks, were shabby, and were impacting learning in America’s schools. Those books spoke to me. I had started out as a teacher. I even had a master’s degree in education. While I had become a journalist, I had an abiding interest in schools. Besides, my husband and I have three children, and one of them had just brought home a world history text that was beyond dull. It was unreadable. I was teaching a writing class. I used that text as an example of how not to write.

So when the Virginia State Board of Education called a meeting to discuss textbooks, I was eager to know more. I learned that someone had shown the Board the language arts text used in most Virginia high schools. It included Romeo and Juliet. A fine choice, but wherever Shakespeare had a difficult or arcane word, the publisher had changed it, with no indication to the reader that the changed words weren’t Shakespeare’s. That disturbed the Education Board, as it should have, and they began looking into other high school texts, and then middle school texts.

Appalled by what they saw, they decided to call a meeting and invite publishers to come to Richmond and discuss how textbooks might be improved. That upcoming meeting and the textbook issue were discussed in articles in Time and Newsweek. As a reporter with a background in the field, I decided to cover the board meeting, so I went to Richmond.

The publishers sent their salespeople. Those salespeople were trained to talk about how wonderful their books were, which is what they did. I still remember a good-looking saleswoman in a power suit holding a briefcase, who stated the problem from their perspective. The Virginia educators had too many rules. Some of them didn’t align with the other states, and that complicated things for publishers. I gasped. An Education Board member raised an eyebrow and then sighed. She didn’t seem to know what to say, nor did I.

I was supposed to write about the meeting. I just couldn’t do it. There seemed to be nothing to say. I think today I’d find something, but I didn’t then. It was my first look at the textbook publishing world, and what came through loudly was contempt for educators and schoolchildren from those who were exploiting them.

But I didn’t focus on that. I came home from Richmond aware that there was no current US history for young readers, no good current book, and that there was a stated need for one. I figured if I could write a good US history, the publishing world would fall at my feet. I was an innocent. I had no idea what I was undertaking. I thought I could write a one-volume US history and it would take a year, or at the very most two years.

As it turned out, it became a 10-book series, in part because I was determined to have small books that wouldn’t intimidate my young readers. And it would be 10 years before I had a published book in hand. As for the publishing world falling at my feet, of course that didn’t happen. I now chuckle thinking of the rejection letters. I didn’t then.

Before those rejection letters arrived, there were books to write. Having been a freelance writer, sometimes doing corporate work, I thought in terms of pleasing my clients. I was attempting to write schoolbooks, my clients were schoolchildren. I needed to know how they reacted to my words and what I could do to reach them. So as soon as I had a bunch of chapters, I called the local school system, where I was known because of my newspaper articles.

I told them what I was doing and asked if I could try out some chapters in a classroom. The response was wonderful. An assistant superintendent arranged an eight-week trial using a teacher who taught two fifth-grade social studies classes. One of her classes had a brand new shiny textbook, the other would use my unillustrated manuscript straight from my then-dot matrix printer. She could easily compare methodologies and results.

I soon learned that the teacher was unhappy about the whole project. It meant two preparations for her. And a few parents were annoyed, actually more than annoyed. Their kids didn’t have the colorful new textbook the other fifth-graders were getting. But things worked out. Eight weeks later, the class that used my text had a party for me, and the other fifth-grade asked if they could read my chapters. The teacher said, if I give students three pages to read in the standard textbook, they won’t do it. If I give them 10 of your pages, they want more.

The children wrote commentary. One letter that I still cherish said, I read your whole book, which should please you because I usually don’t read. I’d learned that my storytelling approach worked, but I needed more help from my young readers. I wanted to know what words needed defining and which they already knew. I wanted to know which ideas were difficult and which weren’t. I asked those questions of children in a neighborhood school, but I didn’t get the answers I was looking for. So I decided to pay children to read manuscript and be my editors.

I had learned that when I asked a child to read and comment, they were usually too polite to criticize an adult. But when I turned it into a job and paid my readers, explaining to them the role of the editor, they took the assignment seriously. I wasn’t a big spender. I paid children $5 for reading a whole bunch of chapters. I also gave them a formula to use in the margins. Write B for boring – every child knows that word – G for good, and NC for not clear. Underline the words you don’t understand, I told them, and write in any comments you want.

In one Civil War chapter, Grant is on a boat in the James River when he sends a wire to Abraham Lincoln inviting the president to spend a few days with him. Why would he send him a piece of wire? my young editor wrote in the margin, and I knew I had some explaining to do. As to words that needed defining, I was astonished. All the 10-year-olds seemed to know the big words that had me worried, but no one knew the word loot, which I used in a chapter on pirates.

Would children in other parts of the country react as my Virginia Beach neighbors had? I sent manuscript to a teacher friend in Rochester, New York, to another in South Side Chicago, to a school on the Denver-Boulder corridor, and to a supervisor in San Diego. That California educator shared chapters with seven schools in her city. I asked for comments from teachers as well as students. Those I got were enormously helpful. Then the San Diego school superintendent sent me a letter saying he would like to do a city-wide trial of the books. Ah, me, I couldn’t follow through. I had no books, no publisher, and no money.

It was while all this was going on that I was sending the manuscript to publishers. I’ll spare you details, but every publisher I sent manuscripts to turned me down, often with lovely rejection notes. One publisher called saying the books were very good, and they needed to be published, but they didn’t meet their criteria or agenda or something or other.

Another publisher was doing a Virginia history and was looking for writers. I lived in Virginia. I was serving on a committee with some University of Virginia history professors. The daddy of Virginia historians, Virginius Dabney, was a friend and mentor. The Wall Street Journal had published a piece I wrote on Thomas Jefferson. Of course I’d like to do a Virginia history. The publisher was paying writers $250 for a sample chapter. I decided to write about the very colorful convention where Virginia ratified the US Constitution.

A parade of founding characters was there, but especially Patrick Henry, who, eloquent as ever, was no longer young and had become a bit dotty. He wore a wig that was too big on his head, and when he gestured and raised his arms, which he did often, he’d hit the wig, and it would swing around. All eyes seemed to be on that wig, especially those of the Kentucky sharpshooters, who came with their guns and stood in the rear of the hall. George Mason, a kind of senior statesman, refused to sign the document because it didn’t outlaw slavery. It was the well prepared Jimmy Madison who carried the day. If Virginia hadn’t ratified, and it wasn’t a sure thing, the Constitution would not have become the national document.

I wrote that chapter, rewrote, honed, and rewrote again. I don’t think there was an extra word anywhere. I still think it may be the best chapter I’ve ever written. I was sure I would get a contract. Maybe they’d offer me a vice-presidency in the publishing house. What I got was a call.

The editor on the other end of the line said, I’m sorry to tell you this, but your chapter won’t do. Why? I asked. Well, I don’t know how to say this, he replied, but it just doesn’t sound textbook-y. He was right, it didn’t sound textbook-y. Oh, and there was something else wrong with my writing, he told me. We couldn’t figure out how to edit it. I got the $250, and he actually offered to let me try again, to see if I could write in “textbookese.” I declined.

Meanwhile, I was sending copy to leading educators. Al Shanker, the wonderful head of the AFT, liked what he read and learned that I needed help. By now, we had a son in college and were borrowing money to keep him there. Shanker gave me a bunch of freelance writing assignments and paid me well to do them. Diane Ravitch called. I was thrilled to talk to someone from the big-time educational establishment. But she made me realize I was a bit wacky. You’re courageous to write a book without a contract, she said. I hadn’t thought of myself that way. I thought I was acting logically. There was a need for a good US history, I was writing one. Why wasn’t the publishing world responding?

There were then about 40 Main Street textbook publishers. Today, there are only a few players, and soon there may only be one. The fewer the publishers, the more limited and formulaic books become, because they have to sell to a very broad market and can’t offend or challenge anyone. I now know that the textbook industry is a business with business values. Selling books is what’s important. Mostly, those books have to be brightly designed, with a gimmick or two that will make them seem cutting-edge. And of course, they can’t offend anyone. Provocative books? Why would anyone publish one of them?

Bad as history textbooks were when Frances FitzGerald wrote America Revised, there was then at least variety in choice. In recent years, the K-12 field has been dominated by three publishers, Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin. Houghton Mifflin recently announced bankruptcy. Some are predicting that Pearson may become the only major survivor, so one commercial entity may come to own school learning in this country.

This has come about for a number of reasons. But certainly the widespread adoption system, where every school and every teacher in a city must use the same text, leads to very lucrative big-city and big-state adoptions. It has helped create a synergistic relationship between education executives and publishers, and because the stakes are so high, it sometimes leads to big-time corruption.

This is a system that pays little or no attention to the opinions of individual teachers, and children’s opinions or needs aren’t even in the mix. A ditty that I heard again and again in publishing houses goes like this. You don’t write books for children, because children don’t buy books. In much the same way that lobbyists work with Congress people, textbook salespeople make themselves valuable to school systems. And perhaps in return, the states make the adoption process so expensive that small publishers can’t compete. It’s a process that makes savvy sales teams essential, and keeps out innovation.

According to recent articles in The New York Times, the Pearson Foundation has been taking educators, especially state decision makers, on European and Asian junkets. Pearson salespeople come along. And for reasons I can’t quite fathom, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been giving tax-exempt money to Pearson. Using a winning tactic, that mega-publisher has bought a big-name scientist whose name will be attached to a new science series.

It’s a system they have perfected. Celebrity authors don’t do actual writing, but their prestige names do help with sales. Ghostwriters, mostly teams of underpaid freelancers, do the actual writing. Harriet Tyson described that formula many decades ago. The head of the American Textbook Council commented to me, it puts a Mercedes in the professor’s driveway and it sells books for the publisher.

It’s part of a process that lies to teachers and young readers, claiming authorship where it doesn’t exist. There is no reason for that process, or for poorly written books, or for a monopolistic textbook establishment. It is garnering big money for few, while those few steal learning opportunities from our children.

In April, the Brookings Foundation published a study that found, in the words of their report, strong evidence that the choice of instructional materials has large effects on student learning, effects that rival in size those that are associated with differences in teacher effectiveness. The report continues, whereas improving teacher quality through changes in the preparation and professional development of teachers is challenging, expensive, and time-consuming, making better choices among available instructional materials should be relatively easy, inexpensive, and quick.

Here’s still more from that important report. Students learn principally through interactions with people and instructional materials. But education policymakers focus primarily on factors removed from those interactions, such as academic standards, teacher evaluation systems, and school accountability policies. It’s as if the medical profession worried about the administration of hospitals and patient insurance, but paid no attention to the treatment that doctors give their patients.

In other words, what we textbook writers do is very important, perhaps more important than we realized. But in part because of factors that have been beyond our control, we’re not doing a good enough job of it. We’re participating in a corrupt endeavor that – and this is what makes it so awful – is impacting our children and our nation’s future.

Textbooks should be page-turners. They should be books that stay with their readers, and some are. But too often, textbook is a synonym for boring. Change is not likely to come from the monopoly that took more than $8 billion in education funds last year, at the very time that teachers are losing their jobs, and school arts and activities are being cut to a minimum.

What can we writers do? At least insist on honesty. Authors are people who write books. The names of non-writers should not be affixed to school materials, the names of the actual authors should be. We should also fight to get good writing and good thinking into the materials our children read.

As you know, I write science books as well as history books. They weren’t easily published either, but that’s another story. One of my science books, a narrative approach to physics, is named Einstein Adds a New Dimension. Writing it, I spent more than a year under the tutelage of an MIT physicist, Edwin F. Taylor, who volunteered his time to make sure I got things right. Working with him was mind-stretching.

Taylor is the author of the best contemporary science text of which I know. Called Spacetime Physics, it’s exquisite science, it’s eloquent prose, and it begins with a parable. His book Exploring Black Holes, written in its original edition with the legendary physicist John Archibald Wheeler, is just coming out in a new edition. Edmund Bertschinger, Head of the Physics Department at MIT, is co-author. It’s an informed, literate look at general relativity. And, to be fair, it is published by Pearson. I want to make it clear, my expertise is in the upper-elementary and middle school world. College textbooks are beyond my canon.

Back to Edwin Taylor, who, as a mentor-tutor, instructed me on relativity and quantum theory. But we often talked about textbook writing. First you need to tell a story, said Taylor, even if that story is implicit. There should be a big picture, a goal, and streams that pour into the river heading for that goal. Of course I agreed. I’m a storyteller, and very aware that the great educational psychologists, like Canada’s Kieran Egan, see storytelling as the classic way cultures have conveyed important information.

Today’s brain scientists are suggesting that stories are a characteristically human way of learning, part of what differentiates us from our animal cousins. But for textbook writers, those stories can’t be fuzzy. As Edwin Taylor put it, the information must be correct and up-to-date. I reminded him, that’s why I turn to experts like you, for review and insights.

He made a third, and for him, crucial point. The book must have a human point of view, because science is essentially a human enterprise. Now I had questions. As a writer of story-based history, I have always thought in human terms, but science had changed my thinking. I was beginning to think in terms of the whole universe, with stars and planets and life forms all part of a grand story that is no longer human-centric. Science is a human enterprise? That isn’t the way I usually thought of it.

For me, science was just out there, with laws and a history for us humans to discover. Something Taylor had read made him think differently. It gave him insights I’m still struggling to reach. He told me those insights came from a textbook, a textbook that impacted his thinking with ideas that have never left him. Let me tell you about that textbook.

Albert Einstein’s friend, Leopold Infeld, needed some income. Einstein tried to get him a job at Princeton, but couldn’t manage it. So Infeld came up with the idea that they would write a textbook on physics together. But when he went to Einstein to explain what he had in mind, Infeld got so flustered he couldn’t say what he wanted. His tongue was tied in knots. Einstein understood. This is not a stupid idea, he said, not stupid at all. We shall do it.

Out of that came their amazing textbook, The Evolution of Physics: From Early Concepts to Relativity and Quanta. Published in 1938, it became a great success. Physicist Stephen Hawking would later describe the book as a revolution. It includes a concept that has guided my MIT friend. Here it is, in Einstein’s words. Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind and are not, however it may seem, determined by the external world.

Let me repeat that, changing it a bit to clarify. Physics is a free creation of the human mind, and is not determined by the external world. Taylor has embraced that thought. I’m still struggling to understand it. But what is wonderful about big concepts, and the 10-year-olds I write for understand this, those concepts can stick in your mind and they can change you.

Here’s a bit more on Einstein and Infeld’s book. Its two physicist authors had a mutual friend, Max Born. All three met in Berlin, when Einstein and Born were young professors and Infeld a student. Later, Max Born, no slouch as a physicist, became a Nobel Prize winner, as did, of course, Albert Einstein. All three were forced to flee Germany. Einstein ended up in the United States, Infeld in Canada, and Max Born in England, where, today, he’s mostly remembered as the grandfather of pop singer Olivia Newton-John.

Like his two friends, Born was a wonderful writer. Aware of their project and eager to encourage them, Max Born wrote these words about textbooks. To present a scientific subject in an attractive and stimulating manner is an artistic task, similar to that of a novelist or even a dramatic writer. The same holds for writing textbooks.

Which is the thought I’d like to leave with you. Textbook writing is, or should be, an artistic task. What we do is very important. We need to do nothing less than write great books, books good enough to inspire and educate a generation of learners. Thank you.