Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


Where textbooks come from

File under: Those Who Can't, When We Were Young. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 9:51 am.

When I was a kid, my father told me about a strange phenomenon, which was later explained to him, that he’d observed while eating on airplanes. Back in the seventies and early eighties, Dad travelled a lot on business, and he noticed that the slices of hard-boiled eggs he received never included any ends. Each egg slice that made its way onto his tray consisted of yellow and white concentric circles - and, even more curiously, they all appeared to be congruent. At first, my father chalked this up to coincidence - maybe he just always happened to get the middles of the eggs? - but soon, he noticed that his seatmates also received only egg middles. It was nearly a statistical impossibility that such a large random sample of egg slices would never contain the end pieces. Were the airline chefs throwing out the yolkless ends? It didn’t make any sense.

Dad’s question was answered some time later, when he had the opportunity to watch a video on the production of airline food. Included was a segment specifically devoted to the preparation of eggs. At last, a chance to settle this question!

The documentary showed a huge, industrial-sized kitchen, where several chefs were diligently cracking eggs, separating the whites from the yolks. One large mixer processed hundreds of egg yolks; a second contained the whites. The chefs then poured the yolks into a long, hollow tube, where they were boiled. Then they formed the whites into a sheet half an inch or so thick, where they were hardened just enough to be moved without collapsing. Then, the whites were positioned to surround the stick of yolk. The entire apparatus was cooked one final time, resulting in a symmetric, several-foot-long cylinder of hard-boiled egg - which a machine then sliced into the discs that would be served to airline passengers.

This is why my father never got the ends of eggs.

In related news, friend and reader oxeador sent me a link to The Muddle Machine, a textbook editor’s firsthand account of why elementary and high school texts used in the United States are bland, incoherent, expensive, and updated with every new phase of the moon - even as they offer little new content with each edition. Tamim Ansary has written an appalling exposition of how a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of money, a lot of politics, and hardly any pedagogical or subject expertise has given rise to books that serve their creators and their financial backers rather than the students and teachers that use them.

I got a hint of things to come when I overheard my boss lamenting, “The books are done and we still don’t have an author! I must sign someone today!”

Every time a friend with kids in school tells me textbooks are too generic, I think back to that moment. “Who writes these things?” people ask me. I have to tell them, without a hint of irony, “No one.”

Last year, I did some contract work writing and editing a textbook - elementary school math for college students, more or less. “Writing” and “editing” such a text consists of taking perfectly functional texts and guidelines, and processing them in a manner that is disturbingly similar to the way that our airline chefs of yore mass-produced hard-boiled egg slices. My result, arrived at after hours of poring through specs and sources, differed from the existing texts about as substantially as the egg tube different from its (hard-boiled) constituent parts. Ansary’s experience is similar:

[A]t each grade level, the editors distill their notes into detailed outlines…[later], they divide the outline into theoretically manageable parts and assign these to writers to flesh into sentences.

What comes back isn’t even close to being the book. The first project I worked on was at this stage when I arrived. My assignment was to reduce a stack of pages 17 inches high, supplied by 40 writers, to a 3-inch stack that would sound as if it had all come from one source. The original text was just ore. A few of the original words survived, I suppose, but no whole sentences.

To avoid the unwelcome appearance of originality at this stage, editors send their writers voluminous guidelines. I am one of these writers, and this summer I wrote a 10-page story for a reading program. The guideline for the assignment, delivered to me in a three-ring binder, was 300 pages long.

There’s so little I can add to this piece; it’s a bit long, but it’s an easy read. And Asmary does provide some constructive suggestions at the end, the second of which I especially support:

Reduce basals to reference books — slim core texts that set forth as clearly as a dictionary the essential skills and information to be learned at each grade level in each subject. In content areas like history and science, the core texts would be like mini-encyclopedias, fact-checked by experts in the field and then reviewed by master teachers for scope and sequence.

Sounds a lot better than the current state of affairs, where politicians and lobbyists play those roles.

[Related article that I’ve linked before: Underwood Dudley’s “review” of a calculus textbook.]