Paradigm, No. 3 (July, 1990)

The Textbook:
Further Moves towards a Definition

Keith Hoskin

Warwick Business School,
University of Warwick,
Coventry CV4 7AL

Two things become clear: first the emergence of 'the textbook' postdates the development of what Walter Ong has called 'typographic culture'. Second 'the textbook' is not therefore necessarily a direct outcome of the print revolution as such.

I suggest the following distinction. Firstly books after print discover a new 'semiotic complexity': which means that it becomes technically simple to produce texts that artfully combine linguistic and pictorial information. When supported by an apparatus of footnotes, captions and numbered items, teaching texts prove able to produce a pedagogic message which was literally unachievable before print. (Comenius is one of the great virtuosos of this textual art-form.) But this is not necessarily to produce 'the textbook'.

Where should we look for the textbook, then? Not back, I propose, to the print revolution but forwards to a later and specifically pedagogic revolution: that which brought us learning under examination. In my view, the invention of 'the textbook' is a sign, and a central part, of a historically new way of learning, or more properly of 'learning how to learn’. Chronologically I would therefore place the invention the textbook around 1800. For that is when the written form of examination which is also subject to numerical grading gets invented, beginning in the elite higher educational institutions of the late-18th century.

My recent research has been showing how, once people learn under examination for grades, this has a dramatic effect both upon them and upon the social world.1 I believe it is now worth considering whether teaching texts turn into 'the textbook' as part of this transformation, and I would suggest that we consider the three central features of any textual problem:

(1) the users/readers of teaching texts,

(2) their writers, and

(3) the texts themselves.

Here are a few preliminary observations on each.

On (1): I have been struck in my archival researches by a change in the format of student writing around the end of the 18th century. Up till

then students keep commonplace or note books, which are idiosyncratic repositories for academic and non-academic material. But 19th-century student books take on a new format: dedicated to a particular course and showing striking uniformity across classes and years. In each US case where I have found this it postdates the change to a modern mode of examining practice: a sign that students begin to read the material they are taught in a new systematic way once they have to learn for rigorous graded examination. (Perhaps also, we have here the forerunners of the school exercise book.)

On (2): Lady Fenn's Cobwebs to Catch Flies (1783) is the first reading book I know of that differentiates its childish readers by dividing them into two age-defined groups: Book One is for 3 to 5 year-olds, Book Two for those aged 5 to 8. Thus begins the 'psychologizing' of the Child, by making it an independent and significant factor in the writing of teaching texts.

Before this time authors had focused purely on getting their educational content perfectly and transparently clear. (The 'total systems' of Comenius and La Salle are good examples.) While such authors had exploited semiotic complexity, they paid no special attention to the Learner. Learning was presumed to follow automatically. Books like Cobwebs suddenly acknowledge that the learner is part of the learning problem.

Again examination plays a key role. For it systematically differentiates learners as they get different objective marks: if divides them into different 'classes' or 'standards', thus providing objective proof that they are a problem that will not go away. Thus a new psychologizing discourse becomes part of writing teaching texts. Authors simply accept it as a 'natural' part of their job to produce a text that will be meaningful and accessible right across the 'normal' range of learners. 2

Finally on (3): I would suggest two driving principles that distinguish books as a form of textuality: normalization and expansionism. Textbooks as a genre are driven by normalization, as they shape their message according to normalizing constraints: (i) the presumed psychological demands of the 'normal learner', just mentioned, and (ii) the presumed disciplinary boundaries of the subject. Similarly they are driven by expansionism, in two complementary directions: (a) outwards, from the production of individual books to whole series and now to whole networks of highly-funded and marketed publishing houses; (b) inwards, by supplementing the basic textbook with all manner of add-ons, e.g. worksheets, test batteries. (The marketing now seems almost overkill, except marketing is never overkill. 3) This expansionism is a double process that to date seems set to expand indefinitely in both directions.

Again it appears to me that we are looking at a discontinuity that takes shape in the early-19th century. Before 1800 such 'driving principles' are conspicuous by their absence; in the modern world they have come to be taken for granted. I would just end with two brief vignettes to illustrate how this transformation may have begun, taken from the US. Jeremiah Day is credited with producing, in 1814, the first modern algebra in the US. It is meaningful and it becomes a widely used school text. In his Preface he makes bold claims (of a kind not unfamiliar in the history of teaching texts). He has jettisoned: 'rhetorical elegance . . . . exciting the passions . . . presenting images to the imagination. It is the logic of the mathematics which constitutes their principal value. . .' (Day S. L. Introduction to Algebra, New Haven, 1814, p.4)

However Stephen Granitic, who has produced the definitive study on these textbooks, claims that in this case Day's claim is justified: 'The modern reader would have great difficulty in trying to understand the object of a discussion in an 18th-century arithmetic, but would have no problem following Day or subsequent authors.' 4

But there is an extra fact to add. Day produces his Algebra in 1814. He becomes President of Yale in 1817. And the records show that Day is the man who, without any precedent, introduces graded examination to Yale in that year. (His system is in fact the 4-point system, still used throughout the US today.) So we have one previously-unremarked connection: a man credited with innovation in the textbooks here turns out to be a key innovator of modern examination too. Coincidence? Perhaps.

My second case is Charles Davies who is an early example of the 'textbook millionaire'. He produced an Elements of Geometry and Trigonometry (1834), an Elements of Algebra (1835), and an Elements of Analytical Geometry (1836). All were first-choice college texts for decades: the first went through 15 editions by 1860 and was still in use at the end of the century.

What if anything marked out the Davies textbooks? They were produced at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point; and West Point, along with Yale, pioneered the adoption of numerical grading in the US in 1817. Sylvanus Thayer, who was appointed Superintendent in that year, introduced a new examinatorial regime out of the blue, by importing the educational system of the French Ecole Polytechnique. This included (i) a whole range of French maths and science text-books (invented for the Ecole Polytechnique), (ii) a Frenchman, Claude Crozet, who knew the system and (iii) Thayer's new improved version of the French obsession withexamining and grading.

Davies happened to be the right man in the right place. He had graduated from the Academy in 1815 and had been kept on as an instructor. Over the next decade he translated his own versions of the French texts, which he then subsequently published. Again we have the direct connection between examination change and the modern textbook form. Consider the extraordinary rigour of the West Point system. It utilized constant examination, with daily and weekly tests, marks constantly updated to give class positions, and all crowned by rigourous half-yearly examinations in each subject. Both students and teachers were rendered accountable under this system in a way never achieved before.

As a pedagogic author, Davies therefore had a special competitive advantage (perhaps without knowing it), because he happened to teach in the 'School Of Tomorrow', the first truly examinatorial institution in the U.S.. The rules of the teaching game had changed. 'Textbooks' were to become the new order of the day, because people had to learn under examination. The textbooks that emerged from West Point were quite simply the best form of authoritative exam-directed path for any learner to follow. 5


1. The invention of modern accounting systems and of managerialism are just two areas where this approach brings new insights (e.g. Hoskin, K. & Macve, R., 'The Genesis of Accountability: the West Point Connections'. Accounting, Organizations and Society 13, 1 (1988), pp. 37-73.

2. This perhaps is why many 'anti-textbook' school readers remain within the realm of textbook discourse. They simply outdo the textbook in being accessible and guiding the learner to meaningfulness.

3. One current Student Accounting Package offers the following in addition to the Hardcover Textbook: Instructor's Manuals; Instructor's Resource Kit; Teaching and Solutions Transparencies; Achievement Tests; Test Bank; MicroTest; Computerized Test Bank; Call-in Test Service; Working Papers with Check List of Key Figures; Computerized Tutorial; Spreadsheet Problems for Accounting; Ten Manual Practice Sets; Four Computerized Practice Sets; Five Computerized Job Simulations; Computerized General Ledger; Videotape and Video Guide.

4. Granitic, S., Science and the Ante-Bellum American College (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1975) p. 50.

5. West Point is also the place where the pioneers of modern management and accounting systems all 'learn to learn' under, naturally, the self-same power/knowledge system of examination [see Hoskin & Macve (1988)].

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