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In Praise of “Wonderfully Arrogant” Textbooks

In Praise of “Wonderfully Arrogant” Textbooks

A revival of the traditional general education textbook could help widen the lens on a hyper-fragmented scholarly landscape.

Peter J. Dougherty

In August of 1972, soon after I moved into my new home in Baltimore, a UPS truck stopped in front of my St. Paul Street apartment to deliver a truckload of boxes from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, which I had just joined as a college textbook salesman. (Nowadays, it would amount to a handful of zip files.) Within an hour, I was knee-deep in hundreds of titles covering the floor. Here were Harcourt’s finest texts, most of them, notably, in our strongest fields: the humanities, history, and the qualitative social sciences. They included Noam Chomsky’s Language and Mind, Irving Howe’s Classics of Modern Fiction, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren’s Modern Rhetoric, Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity, Helen Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, and scores more. Rounding out the delivery was Harcourt’s leading U.S. history survey, The National Experience, by John Blum, Edmund Morgan, Willie Lee Rose, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Kenneth Stammp, and C. Vann Woodward.

I was reminded of a comment by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Romer: Europe was able to rebuild from the rubble of the Second World War mainly because of its accumulated knowledge. Europe, that is, knew how to rebuild. If civilization had needed a similar reboot in the early 1970s, it could have started with that UPS delivery from Harcourt, plus similar texts being produced by other great publishers.

Romer’s comment, in turn, reminded me of how stylish Harcourt’s books were. I thought of the way artist Richard Merkin once described the men’s suits designed by the New York tailor Alan Flusser: “very haughty and snappy” with a “wonderful arrogance about them."

Harcourt published textbooks with a “wonderful arrogance about them”—authoritative, elegant, field-defining, and full of flair. And these qualities reflected on us, their publishers. We were proud to publish the best book for each course. David Perkins’ English Romantic Writers was essential to the Romantic literature survey. Walter Jackson Bate’s Criticism: The Major Texts held the franchise in literary criticism, as did Laurence Perrine’s Sound and Sense in the introduction to poetry. Lewis Coser’s Masters of Sociological Thought defined the course in social theory.

Other publishers excelled as well: There were Nelson Polsby and Aaron Wildavsky’s Presidential Elections, published by Scribner’s; Michael Parenti’s radical Democracy for the Few, from St. Martin’s Press; and Basic Books’ innovative Social Psychology by Harvard psychologist Roger Brown. Little, Brown and Company had long published Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. And then there was—and, thankfully, still is—The Norton Anthology of English Literature.

The competition created an abundance of choice—for example, in the near-universally offered Shakespeare survey course, where there must have been a score of “complete works” vying for adoption (described by critic Hugh Kenner as a “centipede’s shoe order”).

Texts in Context

You could draw a map of the humanities and social science curricula around the texts of that time, capturing what was then known as general education. The idea, as Daniel Bell put it, was based on two assumptions: “first, that there existed … invariant truths about human behavior,” as “established by human reason;” and, second, that there was a “common body of knowledge that every educated person ought to know,” on pain of being judged “uncultivated.” The available textbooks helped to define this common body of knowledge for students at elite and average schools alike.

By the early 1980s, though, pedagogical developments would challenge these conditions. In publishing there began a corporate consolidation that would, over four decades, shrink the number of college textbook houses from several dozen to a tiny handful of gigantic corporations and, in the process, squeeze much of the liveliness out of textbook publishing. The editorial innovation that had produced the “wonderful arrogance” of our books receded. Economically, we came to resemble the beer business. In academia, despite the impressive technological advances made in scholarly communications especially since digitization, the synthesizing value of textbooks for general education has been lost.

Once More, with Feeling

Yet today brings opportunity. As giant educational publishers steadily morph into the technology companies they aspire to be, the remaining presses can join with new authors to produce the next generation of exciting texts. Especially in the humanities and social sciences, there is abundant opportunity to consolidate a half century of research and theory, include the works of the world’s underrepresented and excluded authors, and map out the theoretical conversations that define specific fields. This new wave of textbooks could reanimate the outlines of scholarly knowledge in what is now a hyper-fragmented academic culture. Publishers could even help revive enrollments in long-declining humanities majors even as they worked to restore general education.

But which sector of the business should respond?

In the 1970s, a rich and diverse ecology prevailed in publishing. Trade and college departments often worked together and even shared authors. Competing editors in every field traveled the country, intent on signing the next Noam Chomsky or Robert K. Merton. Today, except for a few houses like W.W. Norton & Company, Oxford University Press, Macmillan’s Bedford/St. Martin’s, and smaller boutique presses, the big higher education publishers concentrate much of their investment on expensive introductory and intermediate-level text packages, retrofitted with elaborate ancillaries, mainly in the sciences, economics and business, and other technical subjects. There is a minimal sense of authorship at the center of the publisher’s craft, and little attention paid to humanities courses, broadly defined.

Any editorial renaissance, then, would require other parts of the publishing community to rekindle the ardor for exciting texts. The outstanding candidate for the job is the university press: University presses have the authors, editorial talent, disciplinary range, marketing machinery, and financial incentive to revive the lost textbook tradition by strategically investing in texts in the areas in which they specialize. They are, in effect, microbreweries come to the rescue.

There is precedent for such publishing. More than a few university presses have published great texts; others have successfully mined the curriculum with an eye to producing great textbooks; still others have indirectly achieved textbook success by publishing excellent large-scale histories; and a few have rescued worthy texts previously published by commercial publishers (at lower prices). Also, several university presses have successfully published books in technical areas like economics and the physical sciences, providing examples for similar acquisitions in the humanities and social sciences.

For instance:

Compatible assets: In the 1980s, the University of Minnesota Press published Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory. Then-Minnesota editor Lindsay Waters licensed it from its British publisher, Blackwell’s. Eagleton’s text added a new and important dimension to Minnesota’s offerings, orienting generations of students toward their field of study. Textbooks, if intellectually inspired, can make a list of scholarly books a better one and their press, a stronger one.

Curricular discoveries: A decade later, Princeton University Press released Gary King, Robert Keohane, and Sidney Verba’s Designing Social Inquiry, based on their influential Harvard methodology course, demonstrating that qualitative and quantitative methods in social research complemented and reinforced each other. The book has united often contentious methodological factions in politics and other fields, helping students develop their research agendas and shaping the scholarly trajectory of the social sciences. The book was “hidden in plain sight” in a course catalog, counseling editors to focus on curricula and help develop them into texts.

Convertible histories: University press editors tend to think of the big histories they publish as scholarly trade books, which they are; but they are usually convertible into textbooks as well, most drawn from the authors’ outstanding course notes amassed over years of teaching. The surpassing current example of this proud tradition is Jill Lepore’s magnificent history of America, These Truths published by Norton in 2018.

University presses have historically succeeded with equally celebrated convertible histories. None was more influential than William McNeil’s The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community, published by the University of Chicago Press. Harvard University Press registered a similarly impressive success with Albert Hourani’s bestselling A History of the Arab Peoples. Most recently, Yale University Press published the celebrated historian Carlos Eire’s award-winning Reformations: A History of the Modern World, 1450–1650.

Period and thematic histories must be published every generation or so to keep them fresh and bring the latest waves of research and thinking to bear. If there is an outstanding perennial opportunity for university presses to make important scholarly statements while strengthening their financial futures through course adoptions, this is it.

Restorative books: In their march to consolidate their efforts around high-priced introductory markets in technical fields, the big higher education publishers have reverted publishing rights to some very good smaller-market books to their authors. In some cases, authors of these books have found new publishers at university presses or other publishers.

Thus, Deirdre McCloskey’s Economical Writing, originally published by Macmillan in 1986, was published in a second edition by Waveland Press in 1999 and is now in a third edition from the University of Chicago Press. It is a useful guide to writing for economists who want to improve their prose. In its recently revised Chicago third edition, McCloskey did a thorough revision, bringing new vigor to an older book at a very affordable price. Another such Chicago text is a Harcourt-originated title that adorned my apartment floor in Baltimore: Arthur Stinchcombe’s Constructing Social Theories.

There is a long tradition of university presses giving a second life to books previously published by commercial houses, especially books by members of the university press’ local faculty. Such books can add both new dimensions and steady course adoption revenue to university press lists.

Synthesize and Proximate

Editors don’t write books; academics do. When humanists and social scientists have focused their authorial skills on innovative scholarship in journal articles and monographs instead of textbooks, why would they choose to revive this seemingly antique practice? Who cares about the benefits of these books for general education when course customization has become the norm?

Part of the answer comes from the late historian of science Donald Fleming, who noted that the purpose of a textbook is “not to repress innovation but to give it point and zest and a prospect of general acceptance.” That is, synthesis has scholarly value of its own.

A revival of field-defining texts, from literature through anthropology and beyond, now provides a generational opportunity to shape and streamline decades of new research, folding it into the evolving conversations begun by past authors, framing the terms of coalescing new fields, and asserting the elegance and authority of scholarly ideas in a cosmos increasingly made up of fragmented knowledge.

Still, the likelihood of such a revival is remote without the enthusiastic, purposeful, imaginative, and persistent engagement of publishers intent on helping reshape general education in their respective fields while promoting the growth and relevance of their array of books.

This raises the all-important subject of editorial fit. While university presses differ in size and scope, each press has its specialties. Opportunities abound for editors to produce exciting texts that add new dimensions and value; the key is proximity, finding appropriate texts that fit.

All the university press textbooks mentioned above pass this proximity test. Others do as well. Just to name a few: John R. Thelin’s History of American Higher Education, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press; John F. Scott’s Latin American Art: Ancient to Modern, published by the University Press of Florida; Paul Hedges’ Understanding Religion and Jamie Good’s The Science of Wine, both published by the University of California Press. In addition, various presses publish histories of regional interest, most recently Stephen Harrigan’s A Big, Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas, published by the University of Texas Press.

The opportunity to innovate intellectually is the great gift of being an academic book editor. But what does innovation mean in this area? It can be as simple as taking a sturdy old genre like the textbook, dusting it off, and breathing new life into it by recombining up-to-date knowledge with the goal of general education. And what is the recipe for success? I’d say about five parts imagination, two parts determination, a handful of strategic thinking, and a pinch of wonderful arrogance.

Peter J. Dougherty is editor at large of Princeton University Press.

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