Why textbooks?

Do we really need textbooks?  In this age of swelling enrolments in undergraduate math classes, students with diverse interests and backgrounds, new modes of teaching, and alternative media, are textbooks too rigid?  Are they too expensive?  Would it be better for department faculty to write-up specially tailored notes for their students to download for free?

As a teacher, I see two important reasons for textbooks in academia.  The first, mundanely, is time. Faculty members are busy, and it doesn’t make sense to reinvent the wheel for each new course or move to a new institution.  The second deeper reason is orientation.  Though there should always be room in teaching for variation and individualization, it is also handy to have a few universally recognized reference points from which to measure knowledge in a subject.  For students, books help to give structure to their study, and a way to reference the material in later years.  Every now and then a textbook will be so good at capturing  how the mathematical world sees a subject that it becomes “the canonical textbook”, a sign-post.

In these days with so many sources of information, maybe the role of textbooks is less clear.  Maybe we are preparing for a jump in the evolution, similar to the jumps from  oral tradition, to scribing, and on to mass publications.  In the current system, a professionally produced textbook has a panel of reviewers to decide whether a book meets high standards of academic rigor and language, and has the necessary scope for its purpose.  A variety of specialists put care in copy-editing,  lay out, packaging and marketing the book to its intended audience.   All these additions to the value of the book incur costs.  Even for a non-profit publisher like the AMS, the expenses entailed lead to prices that can seem high when so much information is available to the public for free.

If the jump in the evolutionary process is leading to a brand new form of “book”, we have not yet seen a consensus on what it should look like.  What will be the new landmarks in mathematical history?  What are your thoughts?

Your comments are welcome!

Featured Book of the Day

Mathematical Understanding of Nature: Essays on Amazing Physical Phenomena and Their Understanding by Mathematicians by V.I. Arnol’d

This collection of 39 short stories gives the reader a unique opportunity to take a look at the scientific philosophy of Vladimir Arnold, one of the most original contemporary researchers. Topics of the stories included range from astronomy, to mirages, to motion of glaciers, to geometry of mirrors and beyond. In each case Arnold’s explanation is both deep and simple, which makes the book interesting and accessible to an extremely broad readership. Original illustrations hand drawn by the author help the reader to further understand and appreciate Arnold’s view on the relationship between mathematics and science.





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