Textbooks and Knowledge3

Textbooks, Information and Knowledge

Textbooks have historically been seen as storehouse of information and knowledge. Their ‘over-use’ however, has also drawn heavy criticism in the recent past from many educators who see textbooks as ‘being closed, stifling creativity, leading to teachers’ lack of autonomy and promoting an emaciated view of knowledge’. In this provocative talk, Rohit Dhankar, Professor of Philosophy at Azim Premji University, Bangalore attempts to distinguish between understanding, information and knowledge and highlights their relationship with textbooks. On the one hand, textbooks are essentially incomplete, he says, and cannot contain information or knowledge. One the other hand, when we put the burden of all educational ills on the textbooks, he argues, we are barking up the wrong tree. 

I racked my brain for about two weeks to say something very radical, very profound, very new, very original – and sadly, I found nothing of that nature. Therefore I will talk about quite mundane kinds of things which we already know, but perhaps from a slightly different perspective. And I will share with you the conclusions that I came to, first. Then I’ll try to present my arguments for them, from a slightly different angle. That is all that I will try to do in this presentation.

Another thing I should clarify at the beginning is that I am going to focus on the textbook, the notion of the textbook, and what you can do with that in education. I am not going to talk about textbook reform, how one can reform textbooks, how one can prepare teachers to teach the reformed textbooks etc. I am just looking at a small piece of the world very intently.

I will argue some of my points and some I will take as assumptions. One assumption I am making (i.e. I will not argue for this) is that education is for the development of rational autonomy. We know that rational autonomy gets a lot of brickbats – people say this is not possible, this is an obsolete idea. I don’t think so. I think rational autonomy is a well-defined, defensible notion. But I wouldn’t say anything more than that on that topic at this moment – if you have questions, we can discuss it in the question-hour.

The second assumption I am making is that in modern society, education is not possible without the use of some kind of text – either written or oral. So those who think that education is possible without text in modern-day society – I wouldn’t argue with them because I am taking this as an assumption for now. But in the question hour, if you are interested, we can discuss that this is impossible. I should also clarify that here I am not using the word text in the post-modernist sense in which everything can become a text. By text I mean something formulated in language and fixed – both these criteria should be fulfilled. The Rigveda was not written, but was formulated in language and was fixed. Therefore it became a text. Ashtodhyaya was not written, but was formulated and was fixed, and it thus became text. So the text could be unwritten; it could be oral. But in the modern world – and this is my second assumption – it is not possible to engage in education without using this kind of text.

The third thing, which I will argue later on, is that in this scheme, textbooks are essentially incomplete. I am not just saying that today’s textbooks are incomplete. I am saying that you cannot logically formulate a notion of textbooks that can become complete. The notion of the textbook itself has something in it – that it will always remain incomplete. It must be essentially inadequate.

And I will also claim – this will be contested, but I will argue for this – textbooks cannot contain information. Textbooks do not contain information. Nor can they contain knowledge. Therefore textbooks essentially have a gap between information and what is presented in them – whatever that might be. There is a gap between knowledge and whatever is there on the pages of a textbook; this is an essential gap which cannot be filled on its own. It could be filled only through humanization.

Textbooks, therefore, can be used only as important pedagogical tools – and nothing more than that. Why am I saying nothing more than that? I will come to that in a few minutes. However, let me state my claim for now – they are necessary and that they cannot be dispensed with. (Here) I am actually reiterating one of my earlier assumptions – that text in the modern society in essential for education.

When we put the burden of all educational ills on the textbooks, we are barking up the wrong tree. I don’t think that helps; and I will talk about that also. All the problems that some people claim textbooks have or create – being closed, stifling nature, lack of autonomy for the teacher and emaciated view of knowledge –  these problems could be seen in any kind of teaching – even in classrooms where textbooks are not being used; where learning-cards are being used or where activities are being used. Therefore, these problems have got nothing to do with textbooks. They have got to do with something else. This is why I say that if we put the burden of all educational ills on the textbooks, we would be barking up the wrong tree. Textbook is not the tree on which your ghost or monkey is residing. It is somewhere else.

So the points mentioned above are the things that I will try to argue for. That was the most interesting part – now is the boring details.

Usually textbooks are supposed to be repositories of socially sanctioned knowledge. And people say that knowledge could be represented in the textbooks. If knowledge ‘is’ represented in textbooks – then certainly textbooks are, in an obvious sense, repositories of socially sanctioned knowledge. This is because knowledge which is supposed to be represented in the textbooks is mediated socio-politically as well. This is not the same as saying that it is a purely socio-political decision. Some people argue for that; and I believe that would be disastrous. What goes into textbooks has other aspects as well. But the content is certainly mediated by socio-political processes.

However, I think it is a misconceived idea that knowledge could be represented in the textbooks. In our everyday language, when we say that knowledge and information are contained in textbooks, such usage of terms doesn’t do any great harm. But when we start analyzing things for either pedagogy, or improving textbooks and education; then such usage might be inadequate and we should perhaps be more careful.

I have noticed that we use three terms very often – understanding, information and knowledge. Since this morning, we have heard more than once that textbooks have information, or textbooks have knowledge. And that knowledge and information are different. And this contention is replayed in most of our discourses in education today. But I am quite sure that if we start a discussion just now on what is the difference between knowledge and information, then we all will have about 120 views within half an hour, and all of those views are going to be very unclear. So I am taking a particular view – which might be right or wrong – on three ideas. And I am talking about these because I want to link these discussions to our larger discussion on textbooks.

First, I will talk about understanding. Second, I will talk about information. And third, I will talk about knowledge. And then we will come back to textbooks and see which of these textbooks can have.

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