When I saw a small, unfamiliar textbook lying on the coffee table at home a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t think too much of it. My mother is a sociology professor and honestly, I’ve seen too many editions of too many sociology texts lying around the house. But this book was different.
I can describe it to you, but to really know what I’m talking about, go to amazon.com and look it up: “SOC” by Jon Witt. With a flashy cover that’s more “Teen Vogue” than any textbook in your school bag, the book even had those little blurbs that magazine covers have about the stories inside. Sure, instead of “20 bright beauty ideas to try” or “Spring fashion at every price!” this cover had bits like “Sociology is a verb,” but exciting nonetheless. Right?
Falling for the gimmick, I began flipping through the book. Introducing the author was a fill-in-the-blanks questionnaire with scribbly answers, similar to the American Express magazine ads featuring celebs like Jerry Seinfeld. Every so often, features like “Pop Soc” and “At the Movies” crop up, just in case you can’t understand, for example, the concept of “The Individual and Society” without a Harry Potter reference. Capping it all off was a back cover inviting students to check out the author’s blog.
Dude’s got a blog!
Why would a publisher feel the need to make a textbook that resembles a magazine? Luckily, the book’s inside flap had the answer, which I’ll relay by paraphrasing it in the language the publisher clearly supposes students are always using: Being totally hip to modern trends, the straight-up phat publisher rocked the illest research, and, like, kicked it with some student interviews and what not.
How very dope.
The publisher’s research indicated that students feel textbooks are “boring,” “outdated” and “irrelevant to me.” But throw in some Beyoncé, “Juno” and Kanye, and boom — relevance city. The publisher is just trying to understand its consumers and give them what they want. What could ever be wrong with that?
Well, plenty — not the least of which is that a college education simply must not devolve to the studied consumerization of cable news or designer handbags. Dictating what you already understand kind of defeats the purpose of an education, no? Simply put, as a college student, I felt insulted by the assumptions at work in the creation of “SOC.”
I don’t need gimmicks to read my textbooks, and I definitely don’t need Diddy or iPhone references every other page to stay engaged. I know publishing is a business and selling is the game, but we’d all be better off if education didn’t go the way of a Mr. Alan’s “$29-or-two-for-$50” sale.
The central question is simple. Is education something we bring down to our level, or should we work up to its level? If education is about the betterment of individuals, then surely the latter is the smarter choice. The philosophy at work in “SOC,” however, is clearly the former, because publishers have incentives to advertise their products as responsive to students’ needs. Professors and students must not falter in our duty to decide which products improve the educational experience and which ones are simply ploys to feign responsiveness for the sake of better book sales.
There’s an old book in my basement that I took from my elementary school years ago when the book was about to be thrown out. Printed in 1937, “Where Our Ways of Living Come From” is a sociology text of sorts. In the introduction, it says it provides a new approach to grade school social studies that eliminates older materials that students found meaningless. Sound familiar?
Flipping through the old book, I found that the thinking that went into it isn’t so different from “SOC.” The authors of “Our Ways of Living” also tried to target their audience better by making the book more appealing and interesting.
The difference is that they did it by rewriting the material, by broadening the perspectives presented and by suggesting and tying in classroom activities. “SOC” doesn’t seem to do any of those: It’s simply a repackaging of the same textual material with snazzy celeb photos and multiple uses of the word “blog”.
Nevertheless, “SOC” may still be as competently written a textbook as any that I’ve recycled for my mother. It’s simply that I worry about the philosophy behind its creation. While we benefit from the personalization of many things, I’m not sure Twitterizing education is going to work out so well for any of us.
And, in case you’re interested, I too am still trying to figure out how sociology is a verb.
Imran Syed was the Daily’s editorial page editor in 2007. He can be reached at email@example.com.