Think the cost of health care has been going up? Check out the cost of college textbooks.
Maybe we should all think about replacing our usual textbooks with something like Robert Remini’s A Short History of the United States. Students would still be getting their background and context from a distinguished and reputable historian, but at a fraction of the cost of the glossy, illustration-heavy volumes put out by textbook publishers. They’d also save time and money that could be spent on other reading material, material which would demonstrate what historians do and how they do it.
Or maybe we should ditch the background, textbook-type reading completely. I’m gradually becoming convinced that survey-level history texts aren’t just overpriced—they’re a little superfluous. When I teach survey courses, I spend most of my time lecturing on important historical trends, covering critical events, providing context, and so on. In other words, I’m doing the very same thing the textbook is doing, except I’m doing it verbally. Is the textbook really necessary when it does nothing but elaborate on the same material we cover in lecture?
In the past, I’ve tried to save my students’ money by replacing the supplementary source reader with material from the Internet History Sourcebook or another online primary source collection, and assigning the main text as the only book to buy. Maybe I’ve been doing it backwards. Perhaps we should all ditch our textbooks instead, and assign a good primary source reader along with an accessible monograph or two. Thus we’d have lectures for background coverage, and assigned reading to learn interpretation and historical thinking. Some professors have been doing this for a long time. Is it time to take that approach mainstream?