Sunday, June 26, 2011

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.


jimbino said...

A lot of structural changes need to be made in tax policy and nanny benefits and regulations before folks are free to gain an education for themselves.

If you serve in the military, you get great educational benefits, but they can only be used in a conventional school.

You need to attend a conventional school for licensing, from HVAC, plumbing, and electrical work to medicine, law and nursing. You can't just learn the stuff and pass and exam. Indeed, if you spend 20 years teaching ed classes in college, you will have to go back to school and take those same classes before you are qualified to teach in public high school.

Companies offer their workers educational benefits, which are tax deductible, but only for conventional education.

Feds offer tax credits for education, but only for conventional schools.

If you go overseas to learn a new culture, language and skill, you will not enjoy medicare, medicaid or obamacare, regardless of how many years you, your spouse or your parents have paid into those systems. But you will still be fully liable to pay income tax to the Amerikan gummint.

If you are laid off, you can hang around Amerika and collect $40,000 in two years, but if you go to school or overseas, you don't get a dime.

dWj said...

1) I had a girlfriend who once told me that she considered me to be homeschooled; I attended public schools from age 5 until I graduated from high school, but my parents provided me with a lot of books and educational experiences, and I do remember the clear impression at times that school was time I was forced to waste when I'd rather be somewhere learning something instead.

2) I entered the workforce in the nineties as a computer programmer. About six years ago, I moved to a job in finance. I'm now in a PhD program, headed for a life in academia. Watch out; the days of the bubble are numbered.

Skip said...

As an example, I'd actually use a different Feynman book. "QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter". I don't know how often it's used as a textbook, although that's where I was assigned to read it, and it's the cleanest, clearest, most enjoyable treatment of a subject that's really hard to understand that I've found.

Anonymous said...

David, you've described my exact views on college ever since I dropped out to play poker.

In my view, over 90% of the people that do get value for their time in college are in technical fields such as engineering and medicine. Liberal arts I view primarily serving as social clubs and status symbols.

Besides, there is so much material online for the aspiring self-taught learner that it really makes no sense to pay up 100k for a diploma. The internet has really made most courses redundant.

William H. Stoddard said...

There's a book called The Mechanics of Pre-industrial Technology that I've had on my shelves for years. It's full of all sorts of interesting information, and is quite entertaining to read. But its content is more or less presented in textbook style. I recommend it giving it a look if you can find it.

Anonymous said...

what a coincidence, was just looking at a list of videos of interviews with great thinkers ( and first one I open is Asimov talking about self-learning and education:

Anonymous said...

Steven Landsburg's Price Theory text is fun to read. So is yours, David. A friend of mine is reading your Price Theory text right now and he remarked to me how similar it was to "Hidden Order." By the way, I'm anxiously awaiting a book by you called "Legal Systems Very Different From Our Own."

David Friedman said...

Hidden Order was basically a rewrite of Price Theory designed to convert it from a textbook to an intelligent layman book; I think it got improved in the process.

I'm afraid the legal systems book is going to be a while yet.

Harry said...

I recommend "Security Engineering" by Ross Anderson - quite clearly a textbook, weighing, as it does, over a kilogram, but absolutely fascinating from end to end. I thought security was going to be a dull subject, and I found Anderson's book to be absolutely riveting, a real page turner... the fact that he concentrates on the aspects surrounding security is what makes it - instead of pages and pages on the mathematical theory of cryptosystems, it's chapters on door locks, forging bank notes, car alarms, cheating on freight lorry odometers, and the economics of the inkjet refills market. riveting stuff, I've recommended it to lots of people outside of IT...

TheVidra said...

I would recommend Basic Economics and Advanced Economics, both by Thomas Sowell, with emphasis on the first book. The chapter on Prices is genius. It is written so well, that to a curious individual, it is excellent reading; it also touches enough topics in Economics that it can be used as a textbook. The author's biases do come up (barely) in a couple of instances, but Sowell is such a wonderful writer, that he makes everything very clear, informative, and entertaining at the same time.