Textbook from Another Era: Don’t Read them and Weep

As colleges and universities rev up their welcome-back- to-classes campaigns, a great majority of students will be carrying textbooks in backpacks that might weigh more than the equipment a football player dons for the homecoming game. True, some textbooks will take up only digital space and make the reader’s load as light as a swift soccer forward’s footwork.  Eventually, maybe, everything will be paperless, but that promise hasn’t even made it to the admissions offices on campuses across the country.

Students’ journeys to bookstores to purchase their modern texts on the principles of biochemistry, advanced semiconductor and organic nano-techniques, or environment in the new global economy have been played out for generations. A century ago classes in chemistry, biology, botany, and algebra were being taught by astute professors at lecterns from New York to California which required the textbook. Basic principles are basic principles?  Well maybe not. The following over-a-century-old text might not be so fundamental today.


Moral Training in Public Schools (1911)

Charles Edward Rugh et al.(208 pages, $1.25; @ $23 in 2013 dollars)

As the preface notes, students need to know “arithmetic may be an exercise in honesty as well as mathematics; that nature study offers the finest opportunity for truth getting and truth telling as well as scientific knowledge; and that history furnishes not only facts but great examples of moral choice and moral action.” However, today’s student might ask what is the moral lesson in multiplying two negative to get a positive or in blizzards other than back strains or how did the Spanish Inquisition represent good moral choice?


Manures and the Principles of Manuring (1894)

C.M. Aikman  (592 pages, $2.50; @ $46 in 2013 dollars)

Aikman indicates that the aim of his work is to supply in a concise and popular format to explain the chief results of recent agricultural research on the question of soil fertility and the nature and action of various manures. Other than what current students might think of shoveling this research aside, the text might be of use at Oberlin College’s Lewis Center for Environmental Studies. Each fall the center needs more raw materials, better described as student deposits, to recharge its internal power system to produce energy for the building. Some students go out of their way to use the facilities as a way of giving back to nature.


American Socialism of the Present Day (1911)

Jessie Wallace Hughan (261 pages, $1.25; @ $23 in 2013 dollars)

One reviewer noted that the text was “scholarly, clear and dispassionate presentation of socialism in the United States since 1850.” The author states that Socialism is now a force in the United States, which has to alarm Tea Party members who claim Barack Obama has brought the “demon” to America.   


Pure Foods Their Adulteration, Nutritive Value, and Cost (1911)

John C. Olsen (197 pages, $.80; @ $14.74 in 2013 dollars)

As Olsen explains, “In an age when intelligence and knowledge are recognized as essential to the most efficient performance of even very simple tasks, it is surprising that most of us eat what we like, with very little thought of the ultimate result. …The coal for our engines must be tested and analyzed, but the far more precious human organism is loaded with a heterogeneous mixture of fuel of unknown composition. We should not be surprised at low efficiency, inability to work, sickness, even the premature death of an organism which is given so little intelligent care.” It’s remarkable how advocates said the same thing yesterday, last year, ten years ago, etc. Maybe, we can save students a ton of money by finding books like this that can be downloaded for free and haven’t lost their relevance.


Optical Projection: A Treatise on the Use of the Lantern in Exhibition and Scientific Demonstration (1906)

Lewis Wright (438 pages; $2.25; @ $41.50 in 2013 dollars)

One reviewer notes, “Mr. Wright’s book gives all that is, at present, at least, necessary for a thorough study of the optical principles upon which the construction of the lantern rests. . . . The book is very full of useful detail, and is eminently practicable. … Will assuredly be warmly welcomed by teachers and lecturers.” The lantern technology is outdated but I’m sure a lantern app might just be available for the iPhone. Still, the story of Diogenes the Cynic, who went around the sunlit streets of Athens, lantern in hand, looking for an honest man is a metaphor for textbooks – the light of knowledge for students of all eras!


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