Paradigm, No. 14 (September, 1994)
E. B. Johnsen Textbooks in the kaleidoscope. A critical survey of literature and research on educational texts (Oslo, Norway: Scandinavian University Press, 1993) [Distributed outside Norway by Oxford University Press], 455 pp., ISBN 82-00-21506-7.
This wide-ranging survey of published work on textbooks lies somewhere between an annotated bibliography and a systematic discussion of the field. Johnsen's survey is impressive in its scope. It is noteworthy both for its survey of Scandinavian literature on the subject -- much of it hardly known elsewhere -- and its ranging across the divide between English-speaking and other countries. Both features are important in a field where international contacts are beginning, and where the Scandinavian countries are poised to enter the European Community. Johnsen has read the English and North American literature as well as the work produced in France and what were both Germanies. Both an analyst and a writer of textbooks, he comes to the task well qualified to take an overview of some aspects of the field.
When it comes to such areas as semiotics and sociology, his relative lack of familiarity with the traditions of writing leads to brief and cautious comments which are often based on quotations from the works he refers to. Flying, as it were, in mid-air, he has the problem of trying to maintain height, and hence perspective, while needing to map the ground below in some detail. Even where this leads to a sense of imprecision, however, the listings and comments he gives offer a useful start for the intending researcher.
The book is divided into a number of sections. The Introduction discusses the concept of the textbook. The next chapter surveys historical investigations, looking at studies of individual books, genres and subject areas. Johnsen is right to emphasise how few individual books have been studied in depth, but surprisingly omits to mention Jennifer Monaghan's excellent study of Noah Webster's blue-back speller, A Common Heritage (Hamden, Conn: Archon, 1983). The third chapter is devoted to ideological research traditions. Here it becomes clear how much textbook research has sprung from a concern with racial and nationalist stereotypes. The problem with some of this work has been that the books studied have not been studied as books, but as repositories of attitudes. In some areas a naïve positivism, notably manifested in some of the cruder forms of content analysis, has underpinned a large but boring literature. In the USA, for example, this is exemplified by the work of J. A. Nietz. Johnsen mentions Nietz, but not the 30 or so dissertations, largely mechanical exercises in the counting of pages, illustrations and content categories, written under his supervision.
Chapter 4 looks at the use of textbooks. This category turns out to cover a vast field, from textual authority, through syntax to 'metadiscourse' and illustrations. It is perhaps here that the analytic structure is least effective in organising the material. The fifth chapter deals with the development of textbooks, reporting research on authors and publishers, patterns of state approval, the finance of textbook publishing,1 and the relation of books to curricula and teaching. The conclusion surveys the field as a whole and makes some straightforward and sensible points about possibilities for research.
Any reader who has read in the field could of course point to omissions in a book of this kind. A piquant example is provided by Alan Purves of 'the University of Albany' (sc the State University of New York?), who provides a preface to Johnsen's text. Purves mentions that he has himself written on textbooks, and was presumably asked to contribute his preface because he had worked in the field. Yet not only does he not give us any titles, but his name does not appear in Johnsen's own text or in the bibliography. If one looks for omissions at a higher level than that of individual titles, then one might point to the history of the book as a field of which textbook research must surely take account, but which is hardly mentioned. Of course, much of what has been written in that field has dealt with books, not textbooks; but textbooks are books. This suggests that a fruitful approach to the analysis of textbooks is to ask exactly what is special about them in particular, as opposed to books in general. It also, perhaps, hints at a broad analytic approach which might consider the text and the book, before looking at their interaction. Geographically, the book is weakest in its Australasian coverage. The literature here is not large, but I miss, for example, references to Ian McLaren's standard bibliography of the schoolbooks published by Whitcombe and Tombs, and the publications of Colin McGeorge and Hugh Price on New Zealand textbooks.
Johnsen's book ends with a 36-page bibliography and name and subject indexes. These are largely accurate, though they contain a few puzzles. A translation into English should surely not have retained the Norwegian custom of placing names beginning with Aa after Z, where they are located here together with an entry beginning Oe. The mysterious author DS U provides two mysteries. Some of his/her/its entries appear to have the pages of the book referred to listed, where one would expect to find the pages of Johnsen's own book. More interestingly, what is Ds? who is she/he/it? (Your reviewer, who has recently found that his own surname is Norwegian and is glowing with reflected national pride, has never encountered the name.)
This book represents a gallant first attempt to survey the sprawling and varied international literature on textbooks. The sprawl, as well as the fascinating hybridity of the subject-matter, is well caught in the image of the kaleidoscope in Johnsen's title. The literature crosses national, disciplinary and methodological boundaries. Some of it is introverted and ideologically saturated: for example, the US debate on evolution. Some of it is methodologically simplistic. In many areas, the baneful influence of the ghettoisation of 'educational research' as a subfield can be seen. We should be grateful to the author for having the courage to attempt the task for the first time. Despite the passing criticisms I have made, I regard this as an extremely useful step forward in the mapping of the field.
Department of Classics and Ancient
University College of Swansea,
Singleton Park, Swansea SA2 8PP
1. Other studies which could have been mentioned include the papers of J. P. Tuck and G. C. Allen on Lily's Latin grammar, and Frank Swetz's book on the Treviso arithmetic.