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    When textbooks were the next big, evil thing

    And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

    The “MOOC revolution” in higher education— the advent of massive online open courses—is causing massive anxiety in American universities, where professors are worried about the consequences of computers replacing campuses as places where people learn.

    Two hundred years ago, higher education faced a different distance-learning technology, one as
    cutting-edge as MOOCs, that also augured a revolution in the way we think about knowledge.

    “A textbook is something anyone can read no matter who they are or where they’re from. It allows education to occur on a global, universal scale,” says Hansun Hsiung, a fourth-year graduate student at Harvard University who studies the rise and spread of textbooks in late-18th-century Europe and Japan.


    Today it might seem that there’s nothing more boring or conventional than textbooks, but 200 years ago they were a radical idea. Before textbooks, learning typically happened through direct exchanges between students and professors. But beginning in the 18th century, scholars began redacting blocks of information into standardized books that laid out content in logical, easily digestible fashion. The goal of the textbook, according to one 18th-century French pedagogue, was to “make all truths universally familiar, and spare [ourselves] any useless effort in learning.”

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    As the modern-day textbook wars over subjects like evolution have taught us, of course, one man’s universal truth can be another man’s heresy. Hsiung explains that these types of concerns were present with textbooks from the start. Eighteenth-century Europeans worried about who had the authority to write textbooks, and, as textbooks took hold, there was a backlash against the idea that a real education could take place through a book. (Again, concerns similar to the ones we grapple with around MOOCs.)

    Today debates about textbooks are alive and well, but the revolution is over: Textbooks stayed and became central to education. Hsiung points out that today’s democratized college system is very different from the 18th-century version where only the elite went on to higher education, and given that, it’s possible MOOCs could be far more disruptive than textbooks ever were. But teaching survived the challenge of the textbook, even as these heavy volumes accomplished what their inventors hoped: delivering all the important knowledge in the world, whether people like it or not.

    Birds: What, one tree?

    Stefano Tinti

    There are lots of good reasons to plant trees in cities—they make streets look nicer, help the environment, raise property values, and make the city safer. But apparently bird conservation is not one.

    A trio of ecologists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst recently studied the impact that small greening projects have on the biodiversity of birds in Boston. They cataloged the birds observed at 12 sites around the city where volunteers with the organization CityRoots had planted trees. Then they compared those numbers with ornithological data from several large parks in the city (Arnold Arboretum, Franklin Park, and Stony Brook Reservation) and from randomly chosen places in the city where no greening work had been done.


    They found that the large parks had twice the species diversity of anywhere else in Boston (36 species versus 19 species) but that the locations where volunteers had planted trees had no greater bird diversity than random locations. What does this mean for tree planting? According to the authors of the study, if groups like CityRoots and Grow Boston Greener, which does similar work, really want to boost birds in Boston, they should try to cluster their greening projects to provide as much continuous bird habitat as possible.

    There’s something about sign painters

    It’s striking how deeply the aesthetics of old signs—the bright red calligraphic letters, the smiling, cartoony faces—are linked to our conception of the past. What happened to signs? In a new documentary about the lost art of sign painting, filmmakers Faythe Levine and Sam Macon interiew salty old professional sign painters about the artistry of their trade and the dark day, in September 1982, when it became possible to buy a machine that could cut out vinyl letters—thus allowing any schmo to make his own utilitarian sign. In this, Levine and Macon’s film, which is called “Sign Painters,” is a clear rejoinder to the 2007 hit documentary “Helvetica,” which tells the story of how that singularly bland font became the default typeface of the world. Watch it June 20-23 and 26-28 at the Museum of Fine Arts.

    Kevin Hartnett is a writer who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. He can be reached at