Paradigm, No. 24 (December, 1997)

Editorial

It seems reasonable, in this first issue of Paradigm under my editorship, to set out my reasons for taking the role and to indicate my approach and style. As I was puzzling over how to begin, I challenged myself with the question -- why are textbooks interesting? My answers, evolved from meandering across very varied academic terrain, have re-inforced my interest and confirmed to me that the study of textbooks provides a rich vein of intersecting lines of research. Mining away at textbooks yields new insights and new questions (sometimes the same thing), and offers illumination of such eclectic realms as book history, readership experience, pedagogical technique, the development of publishing and the history of ideas, to name only a very few. The questions which continue to intrigue me are as interesting when addressed to historical as they are when addressed to contemporary textbooks and can be divided into two sorts. There are the questions which provide us with vital empirical information about where we can locate copies, about the nature of their contents, and about their history and commercial success. Such information is interesting in itself, but also grounds academic work in the social history of textbooks.

A second and more complex set of questions emerges once we try to set textbooks into context and try to locate them against the background of cultural change. Questions offer themselves about how the form of textbooks relates to the content, about the aspirations of the authors, about changing readership and reading styles, about the status of the textbook as a cultural object, about the various practices associated with their ownership and use, and about the status of the knowledge they held. The list goes on and on and the questions can be re-defined, built upon, and collapsed into one another. I'm sure that readers of Paradigm have their individual views of what constitutes the most insightful questions and the appropriate ways to frame them. Indeed it is this variety and range of scholarship that promotes the Colloquium and its organ Paradigm as a forum for a rich interchange of ideas. Textbooks can serve a wide range of interests -- from book historians, book collectors and those interested in specific textbooks to those interested into the history of specific disciplines and to those interested in the epistemological assumptions built into the presentation of knowledge (myself). Such interests find many intersections and hopefully the pages of Paradigm will provide an opportunity for this community of scholars to make connections and see in their own work echoes and parallels in the work of others. My editorship will be focused on facilitating the engagement with these and other questions through collecting and presenting the written contributions to the forum.

One issue which, it seems to me, is acutely relevant to the analysis of textbooks and about which I invite contributions and views, is the question of appropriate historiography and how our assumptions inform the process and products of historical writing. It is clear that a lot of modem scholarship does not simply assume the classic precepts of empiricism and that many scholars use analytical categories which are based on relativist notions of discourse and ideology and which take a different starting point -- beginning from a philosophy of language rather than 'objective data'. Putting the case, which many readers will recognise, as simply as I can, the argument runs that textbooks -- particularly textbooks produced in the early part of the nineteenth century -- represent a new way of talking (discourse) and rather than simply making new knowledge accessible to a wider and developing audience. They served to police its ownership. Such control, goes the argument, results from the organising principles inherent in discourse and rather than unlocking knowledge of the natural and social world, such discourses define what types of knowledge are possible and therefore make sense and are therefore legitimate. I can almost feel the kinds of responses such an argument is likely to receive -- from groans of dismay and snarls of disapproval to signs of welcome recognition. Debates in this area are moving on all the time as they are reconfigured and reformulated; nevertheless they tend to lead to a spectrum of heart-felt sentiment with some thinkers viewing the outpourings of those influenced by trendy French writers as baloney, yielding very little and insufficiently grounded on hard evidence. At the other end of the spectrum some feel that the relationships of language and power construct the process of knowledge-acquisition and experience in general, to the extent that they simply cannot be excluded from the processes of writing and historical investigation. Whilst as an editor I have no intention whatsoever of discouraging traditional and non-theoretical historical work -- which probably describes my own current research work -- I do feel the pages of Paradigm should contain examples of work that uses some of what we can loosely call new cultural history.

The pages of Paradigm offer an opportunity for an airing of this debate and I hope to encourage such discussion in forthcoming numbers. I am not asking for treatises on the philosophical underpinning of historical methodology, but very brief sentiments and arguments which express readers views on this and other issues to be entered in a 'news and views' section. Such discussion will add a broader context to Paradigm and supplement larger contributions dealing with specific subjects.

Many readers of Paradigm will have puzzled over quite how to consider Paradigm in relation to the plethora of other publications. It has always amazed me how different forms of text are allocated such widely different status when text in general might be apprehended by an alien unfamiliar with the use and conventions of language as very similar collections of ink-stains on wood pulp. Such an alien might further wonder why it is that one collection of such ink-pulp mash under the title 'textbook' has been virtually left out of consideration by literary historians. The strange vagaries of my mental disposition apart, the question of what Paradigm is, remains unresolved. Is it a journal? Is it a newsletter? To what does it aspire?

Risking the charge of naïve belief in intellectual democracy, my view of what Paradigm is, is that it is what we make it. What we have is an interested group of scholars and I propose faith in the quality and interest of their work. The question of whether Paradigm should be considered either a journal or a newsletter is a question imposed by current conventions in the scheme of academic professionalism. We could reject the restraints of such conventions. As long as we have researchers interested and willing to contribute, my editorial role is simply to nudge and cajole contributions into a coherent presentation and a consistently high intellectual standard. Readers may find it useful to share views of the status of Paradigm and I invite readers to pen their thoughts on where they think Paradigm fits in the process and productions of scholarly endeavour -- again to be entered in a 'news and views' section in forthcoming numbers.

In this issue we have four contributions. Bill Marsden traces connections between the early nineteenth-century study of 'nature' and the contemporary study of the 'environment'. He argues that the same religious and pedagogical impulses, whilst differently labelled and differently counterpoised, played significant roles in the formulation of both studies. John Mannion provides an account of a now-rare history textbook for Catholic children and illustrates how a Catholic perspectives on the history of England, encapsulated in a textbook for children, both shared and challenged the dominant view of national identity. The theme of a unified national identity is also treated in Patrick Brindle's contribution which considers the practice of history teaching in the inter-war years. He addresses the dislocation between the content and attendant values, of pre-war history textbooks and the practice and demands of teaching in the inter-war classroom. John Hersee provides an interesting insight into the processes of nineteenth century mathematics teaching through an account of surviving arithmetic copybooks.

I will be continuing the practice of trying to elicit written contributions from those who present papers to the Colloquiurn but I am eager to receive contributions on any aspect of textbooks. Papers will be sent out to referees with relevant specialist knowledge. I hope that my editorship will make a further contribution to the excellent work of the previous editor -- John Wilkes -- and of continuing members of the editorial board and that I can extend Paradigm's readership. Please feel free to contact me -- by telephone, letter or email. Email is a useful device for quick exchanges of ideas and information and I hope to supply an email directory of members -- can I request that those on email contact me on j.r.issitt@open.ac.uk for this purpose.

John Issitt

 


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