What is a textbook?  II The textbook definition

8788334358_10a8460c36_mThe OED has some very interesting and definitions for the word ‘text-book’. An entry from 1730’s Dictionarium Britannicum has defines it (“in Universities”) as

“a Classik Author written very wide by the Students, to give Room for an Interpretation dictated by the Master, &c. to be inserted in the Interlines”

So, we go from copying to inter-textual dictating in one book, which must have made reading between the lines easier and more restrictive at the same time.

Our post-modern age means we have to consider putting more than one interpretation in a history textbook, or at least to recognise (perhaps make a nod to) the fact that other interpretations are available.   Finding ‘Room for an Interpretation’ in the sense of this ‘Text-Book’ is at least an explicit insertion of the Master’s view.  I’m enough of a realist to hold on to the possibility that what happened in the past and how people have interpreted it are separate things, even if it might be approaching an impossibility for us to finally decide between the two in many cases. Some books written for children about history make an art of obscuring the line between interpretation and the past itself.

Other definitions are perhaps more obvious.  The second in the OED is

“A book used as a standard work for the study of a particular subject; now usually one written specially for this purpose; a manual of instruction in any science or branch of study, esp. a work recognized as an authority”

Do we have ‘the standard work’ in history teaching?  I guess the closest we have come to date is the various editions of Ben Walsh’s Modern World History, and perhaps Ian Dawson’s books on medicine through time, and I hear that his The Tudor Century is highly regarded.

Apparently one of the main reasons why Ian’s Tudor book changes hands regularly in second-hand editions on Amazon is the exercises and tasks, which teachers really appreciate as helping students understand the topic.  One of the things that I look at when working out whether to buy a textbook is whether the tasks and exercises are any good – and it is also something that I pondered over whilst writing my own books. I have used Ben’s book for most of my career as a teacher, and found that the breadth of information and the tasks were invaluable.  I added my own expertise as a teacher of my pupils, and my knowledge of the exam they were going to sit when using it in my lesson.

As an aside, the Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science tells us that these exercises are a new thing – before the early 19th Century textbooks contained information only.  They were standard sources of information on topics which presented this information without any need or any way for the person reading to assimilate, check or test their understanding.

Interestingly these two themes – the instrumentalist purposes behind textbooks which refer to and help students pass examinations, and the ‘expansive’ focus of those textbooks which teach beyond or around the specification also emerge as the foci of Tim Oate’s policy paper ‘Why Texbooks Count’, which I hope to write a post on later when I’ve finished taking it to bits to see how it works.  For now it is interesting to note that neither of these two books could be accused of an instrumentalist approach, but as a teacher I have, when needed, brought that approach to books that I have used.  This seems to run contra to Tim Oate’s position that much of the textbook publication in England has been far too narrowly instrumentalist.

A couple of more points to close:

In law a ‘textbook’ is a book of legal discussion and theory which can be cited in court.  By convention only works written by authors who had since died could be used in court, though nowadays even living writers are referred to. There is a special category of legal textbook called a ‘Book of Authority’ – a (classik?) book which has the same authority as case law from the period in which it was written.

Finally, textbook can (and more often did) have a derogatory use – textbook meant ‘general’ or perhaps a superficial examination of something, but now it has come to mean something more like an ‘exemplary’ version of that thing.  A textbook manoeuvre, case or approach is exactly the perfect one to use.

This seems to suggest that there is power in the textbook, and perhaps also that the ‘Master’ of this power is the person doing the writing, the dictating. I’m not sure about this though. As an author of textbooks I certainly felt that there were many other people and places where and from whom power was emanating, as was discussed briefly in the last post.



“text-book, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 9 March 2016.

Olesko, K.(2003). textbook. In The Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science. : Oxford University Press. Retrieved 9 Mar. 2016, from http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195112290.001.0001/acref-9780195112290-e-0730.


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