How Textbooks Lie to Us

We read an econ textbook and we were not impressed.

An emoji couldn't've captured our unimpressed-ness better than this (stock photo).

Well, folks, Andrés Cruciani of Toho Publishing here, and one of the things we do at Toho Publishing is help college students with their writing (and subject content too).

Now, at the moment, I'm helping one student with economics (which is what I studied at Cornell—well, that and psychology). And in preparation for our tutoring/coaching session today, I was reading through his textbook (Pearson's Macroeconomics). Some of the things I read in that textbook kind of floored me.

First, I think it's important to acknowledge an implicit bias many of suffer from: we take what we read in textbooks as truth. There's so much to unpack here I don't even know where to start.

I guess I'll start with saying that textbook ≠ truth. Despite how much our high school teachers may have drilled these books into us, may have espoused their textbook as some ultimate arbiter of reality, as a one-time editor/writer of textbooks myself (well, actually, I've only written part of one for a tutoring company called Bespoke), I can tell you with direct knowledge that even the most carefully of researched textbooks is not all true.

I mean, imagine a textbook back when everyone thought the Earth was at the center of the universe. Or imagine a physics textbook even more recently when quantum physics hadn't been discovered (created?) yet and neither had general relativity. Which is to say, imagine textbooks proclaiming fiction as fact. Even, yes, math textbooks. Before mathematician Gödel came along, it was thought that everything in math was TRUTH and universal and, therefore, ultimately provable. After Gödel, not so: he proved that not everything in math is provable, that there are fundamental axioms that CANNOT be proven—which is to say, that you have to, in a sense, trust/believe/be-non-mathy about the foundations upon which math rests. I.e., the foundations of math are shaky. Crazy stuff!

Now, don't go mental with this. I'm not therefore saying that everything in textbooks is false. Or that there's no such thing as fact (my first pet is dead = fact). So, please, don't start running around saying the Earth is flat (if you actually believe this, I challenge you to go to its edge). BUT, what I am trying to point out is that a lot of the stuff in textbook is theory—and these theories get fluffier as you go down the scale from hard science (biology, physics) to the "soft" sciences (namely, psychology and economics, my two college majors!).

Not only that, but textbooks even contain OPINION. That's right. And it's this FACT that was getting me all riled up as I read this student's textbook. I mean, just take a look at this:


In case you missed it (among the number of things wrong with this excerpt), look at this:

"The labor union's decision might have harmed the social interest because it destroyed the jobs of uneducated workers."

First of all, it was not the union that destroyed the jobs of uneducated workers. It was Kiran, the capitalist (as stated in paragraph two).

Second, as a one-time union chapter leader myself (for the UFT teacher's union, which had a chapter at Progress High School, where I worked), I'll happily and adamantly denounce the things unions do wrong. New York City's UFT, for example, got too complacent with a system that was failing TONS of students. (For example, my school at the time was only graduating 50% of its students in four years. That is atrocious.) Instead of figuring out ways to help the population we were serving, the union seemed to me rather obsessed with pay raises, displays of power, and maintaining the status quo.

HOWEVER, I will also be the first pronounce the importance of unions in guarding people's rights and livelihoods. Especially in large organizations with (sometimes) little oversight, the potential for abuse by leadership is incredible. And if we trace unions back to their factory days, it's clear that we have them to thank for the 8-hour work day, the 5-day work week, sick days, retirement benefits, etc. Getting these concessions (which now seem normal) from employers was no small feat and would have been impossible without the power of the group that a union represents.

Yet the implication of the textbook passage above is simply that unions are bad. That by union busting, Kiran made a billion dollars. And that by daring to form a union, the workers put themselves on the chopping block. But ALL of these not-so-subtle implications are opinion, not fact. And yet we find them in a textbook—our supposed conveyor of facts.

textbook ≠ truth

And so this is the thing to keep in mind: textbooks are not created by ultimate arbiters of truth, they are created by people. As such, textbooks have implicit biases, points of view, and, quite often, agendas. And it seems to be the case that at least with this Pearson econ textbook, the writers think it is their responsibility not to simply tell us what economics is and what has been learned about economies, but to defend economics, to tell us how great it is (there's a whole section about how much money you can make with an econ degree), and to, it seems, capture our hearts and minds. And in so doing, the writers of this book are jsut presenting opinion as fact. Here's another excerpt:

In case it's TLDR, I'll tell you what it says. It says that every action you take is in your own self-interest. Now, you can make arguments that charity, helping a loved one (to your own detriment), and even dying for a cause could be in your own self-interest, but you would have to do exactly that: make the argument. It's not a given that we all are constantly acting in our own self-interest always. Such a claim is an opinion.

And this is what amazed me about the book: That to a young student, everything in the book's pages can seem like truth. Like the textbook writer is syphoning said truth from a fountain of knowledge only they have access to (I'd love to see it). But really, what's happening is that fact and fiction are being blended—and quite often with a big serving straight opinion too.

I'm not a proponent of throwing out the good with the bad, but this textbook reads like its main goal is to establish economics as a positive force. The book cherrypicks, serves fable under the guise of science, but ultimately it just seems like so much economic propaganda.

So, reader be warned: learn from your textbook, but know that all you read ain't fact.

Toho Publishing aims to be the best small publisher in Philadelphia, and we’re publishing Andrés Cruciani’s first novel. Join us (and him) on all the things: Facebook, Twitter, Medium, YouTube, and Instagram.

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