On School Books


With this post, the trilogy about teachers’ frustration, or at least my frustration, for what concerns parents’ expectation from the school system comes to an end. Hence, having analyzed old and new attitudes towards the “pointless” habit of assigning homework, I would like to add few words on school books and how they have changed in time according to the new methodological requests.

As soon as you open a school book of your children, I guess you may promptly spot what’s new: pictures. Nowadays school books are mostly made of pictures rather than words. Even books of subjects which are less likely to require pictures, as for example, philosophy, are assembled with colorful paintings, drawings, fun activities and such. Books must be engaging and attractive, and to be attractive pictures work better than words, of course. I do understand this, because in my school days books were dull. When my philosophy teacher, for example, assigned us 12/15 pages to study, my first thought was: are there any pictures? We were really lucky if there was at least one, as once, books were made of words. If I had to study the Socratic method, for instance, I would have read pages and pages about the way Socrates succeeded in eliciting knowledge in the mind of a person by interrogation and insistence on close logical reasoning, plus extra essays on his famous disciples like Plato, plus notes at the bottom of every page without a trace of a picture. All grey.

Nowadays, it would impossible to propose such a book and I would not do it myself either. All these words would cause a shock to the Instagram , Facebook, “Why bothering about writing, there are emoticons” generation. The same topic, very likely , would be better and easily explained on modern books just using three drawings, yes, three would be enough. The first one would show Socrates while speaking to his disciples who look at him in silence😕, then in the second one he starts to asks questions and questions thus catching his disciples’ attention 😮and the final one the enlightened devotees eventually start to speak while Socrates displays his satisfaction 😄. His method had worked 👍.

Teaching has become mostly visual nowadays, which is fun for us teachers too. However, I have noticed that too often when our students are asked to read, because it happens sometimes, and analyze a text, they don’t understand the meaning of many words. For example, one day in a class with students of about 19 years old, we were talking about the “welfare state”. I gave for granted that they knew the meaning of the word, as even if we have borrowed it from the English language, it is commonly used on newspapers and political debates every day. However; nobody, and I say nobody, knew exactly the meaning of the word “welfare”and things did not improve significantly, when I translated it into the correspondent Italian “stato sociale”. A thick fog surrounded them. They were 19 and potential voters.We are so focused in transmitting knowledge with the help of images that we do not realize that words are starting to become meaningless for many of them and us too .

Hence, I cannot help but wonder, when every now and then we are asked to give our opinion on such “irrelevant” matters like Brexit in the U.K. or to vote the reform of the Italian Constitution, as it will happen here in Italy on the 4th of December, we should assume that all these people are informed as they can read and fully understand what they read, otherwise, upon what ground will they choose? I guess that the 40 something millions of citizens who are demanded to decide to vote YES or NO for the reform of the constitution, should, as prerequisite, at least be acquainted with the 139 articles which form the constitution plus the various sub-paragraphs and then analyze carefully the amendments to form an opinion. All this without the help of explanatory pictures? I have my doubts.


29 thoughts on “On School Books

  1. And just as frequently people — and by people I mean ‘we’ — don’t know how to read a picture, a photo, a symbol. I find myself on, say, Instagram whizzing through scores of photos, ‘liking’ them but rarely stopping to look and properly scan and appreciate them. It’s all gut feeling. And if, as the poet said, a picture is worth a thousand words, then what chance do words have? So much that we thought of as solid and dependable — articles, reports, pictures — has become ephemeral as our mouse or finger moves them off our screen and away from our consciousness and critical thinking.

    Sorry, an intended quick comment has somehow turned into polemic! But it’s not so far removed from text books.

    • Hi Chris, the point is that nowadays everything is so fast. We are no longer used to the slow exercise of pondering, understanding , whether the subject may be pictures, words on books or even people. Whatever is fast is also shallow, it cannot be otherwise and I hate the prospect of teaching shallowness.

      • I find myself falling into the same old trap on social media, of ‘liking’ and sharing a post that chimes in with my point of view, only to find it’s a made-up quote of somebody famous, or a fake fact or a completely and deliberately fabricated ‘news’ item.

        If someone like me with a critical instinct is failing to verify sources and unwittingly propagating false memes, what hope is there for those whose critical faculties are blunted or less well developed? They may well be the demos who make life and death decisions (like Brexit or voting in Trump) in the workings of a warped and flawed democracy.

  2. It becomes really alarming to see many students fall into seeing instead of thinking. They should practice and use both essential faculties. How can they picture “ethics”, “metaphors”, “aporia”, “paradox”? Are these times showing the decline of language because of the increment of emoticons? I consider thinking may cause fatigue in some; but seeing, alone, would guide people towards the silence of language.

    • I cannot but agree with you Raphael. Only a couple of days ago, while translating “Beowulf’s death”, one of my students asked the meaning of the word “adorn”…in Italian!We will end up using 200/300 words and all the rest is….silence or signs.

  3. While it is true that a picture is sometimes worth a thousand words, some things simply cannot be conveyed with one. Still, as you say, they can be used to focus the attention.
    I don’t know if you find the same, but something I consider most distressing about education here is not the bringing-in of pictures (a good idea) but dumbing-down the words so that proper meanings don’t emerge. Unforgivably, too, the standards of layout, grammar, and punctuation seem to be deteriorating alarmingly.

  4. I have come to realize that the youth of today are visually sophisticated. But they lack anywhere near the skills to be good writers and storytellers. They lack a sophistication when it comes to language and verbal skills. Unfortunately.

    • You are right, they lack that kind of sophistication. But unfortunately communication is more sophisticated that it seems, therefore; an increasing number of them will be more and more easily manipulated ad controlled. It sounds apocalyptic, I know, but I cannot see any happy ending.

      • Unfortunately I agree. And due to the “not understanding” of words – they skip them and get a totally different meaning…

  5. Mrs. Tink! Long time no “see”. Really 19 year old “kids” (you said kids, for crying out loud I was working at that age and on my own) don´t know what a welfare state means? It means you´re screwed really. More money taking out for social programs and all type of pensions and less money coming into the government, eventually the system will crash sooner or later. Spain as you probably know is a welfare state, and I have lived on welfare on and off for the past years and on the side taking crappy jobs. Here is the norm to be paid “in black”, not declaring anything to the IRS, since technically you are not officially employed. It does create what I call a “parasite society”, people always looking up for the government to give them jobs, not up to them to get jobs is the governments responsibility to GIVE them jobs. Plus half of the working population work as “funcionarios” for the State.

    So pictures in the books…… You might as well make them read some cartoon books.
    Socrates….my friend Soc as I called him. We had a strange relationship us two, and philosophy drove me nuts since you could go round and round arguing this and that with this or the other philosophy and never get to a point that you could say, “That´s it, this is how it is and there is no other way.” On the flipside it did made me quite a good debater, I could turn any argument on its head and flip it again quite convincing. Even if I myself don´t even believe what I´m saying.

    Anyways, my favourite teacher give those “kids” hell, you do have the power I think. Would be nice to do some pranks on them. Tell them that for the next day their assignment is to give you a paper of 1000 emoticons. Actually that would probably be easy for them and they´ll do it in half a minute, I only know these: 🙂 😉 😦 that´s it.

    Just curious, what is that all about changing the constitution? Doesn´t sound too good

    • Hi, Charly , thank you for such accurate reply. I know you are on my side as life taught how important education can be. However, for what concerns Italy, in about two week’s time we are asked to give our positive or negative opinion about the reform of the Italian Constitution. One of the biggest changes would regard the Senate , which would not be elected any longer ( majors would be part of this new Senate) and have different tasks . Unfourtunately , this referendum is being used against governament. Hence, nobody actually cares about the essence of the reform,but everybody knows that if you are against Renzi you have to vote No, That is all. See you. 🙋

      • Well, doesn´t seem Italy is doing much better than Spain.
        See ya Mrs. Tink……. and please, no more emojies or emoticons or whatever those creepy little faces are named, they scare the bejesus out of me

  6. Well said !!
    Enjoyed this
    And I expect there will be emoticons in the voting booth
    Pick your person – 👳🏼👵🏼👸🏼💁🏻‍♂️
    Yes to the change 👌🏼
    Or no…. 👎🏽

  7. It’s crazy the dynamic of school has changed so much to picture based text books. I’m in law school and rarely get any pictures in my books. Young kids are in for a surprise when they enter higher education. I recently started a blog about my law school experience check it out if you have a chance.

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