Textbooks that are Fun to Read
Wandering around the web yesterday, I came across a forum, I think for law students, on which someone mentioned my Law's Order and commented on how much he had liked it—the sort of thing an author likes to see. Like my earlier Hidden Order, the book is intended to fill two different roles, to be usable as a textbook but also to appeal to the proverbial intelligent layman who would like to learn a subject by reading an entertaining and educational book about it.
Which got me thinking about what books succeed in that dual role. Textbooks are notoriously boring, in part perhaps because they are selected by the professor who assigns them not the students who read them, and some have the reputation of being seriously dumbed down in intellectual level while unusably broad in coverage. What books are there that are used as textbooks but also bought and read in significant numbers by people who are reading them because they want to?
One of my models was The Selfish Gene; I don't know if it gets used as a text, but it is certainly a readable and informative book. A famous example would be the Feynman lectures. Other suggestions?
I was thinking about the question in part for two reasons. One is that it ought to be important to a professor adopting a book. When I rewrote my Price Theory, a textbook, into Hidden Order, I was very conscious of the fact that if at any point the (non-student) reader lost interest in what he was reading he would stop. I tried to design the book to keep that from happening, by starting each chapter with a hook that would hold the reader's interest to the end. I think the result was a considerably better textbook as well as a book that sold many more copies outside the textbook market.
But the other reason links to my recent discussion of ways in which self-publishing, both online POD and eBooks, may be radically changing the mechanisms by which books get produced and distributed, in the process largely cutting the conventional publishers out of the loop. I have hopes that something similar may be happening, somewhat more slowly, to the higher-ed industry.
I think there is an increasingly widespread perception that the current model works badly. In large part, it consists of young adults spending four years partying and socializing while pretending to acquire the sort of education that was a social or professional requirement for a small part of the population a century or so ago. There is evidence that a large fraction of those who go to college for four years learn almost nothing of what they are in theory being taught—a result unlikely to surprise any professor who has taught a large required course in his field and observed how many of those taking it are simply trying to memorize enough to pass the exams before going back to doing something they actually want to do. And it is very expensive, especially at the high end, where "high" is more a description of the status of the school and the ability of the students than of the fraction of them who are there mainly to learn what is being taught.
Which suggests the possibility of a more attractive model, in which young adults get on with their lives while educating themselves, in whatever subjects are of interest to them, in a less formal framework. That could mean working, it could mean getting married and rearing children, for those with a little inherited money and simple tastes it could mean trying to write novels, or do volunteer work, or engage in some other activity that they find a satisfactory way of spending their time. It could even mean a life centered on parties and socializing, supported by parents or whatever minimal investment of paid labor it requires, just done outside of the expensive framework of college or university.
And meanwhile getting eduction by reading books, perhaps using educational software, interacting with people online. A sort of higher-ed version of the unschooling I have discussed here in the past in the K-12 context. It is how I got quite a lot of my education; I like to describe myself as having taught at the graduate level at respectable schools in two different fields (law and economics) in neither of which I have ever taken a course for credit.