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Speaking Out

On Choosing Textbooks

This article is inspired by an exchange of ideas in the Advocate last year (February 2007 Dialogue) on whether the use of departmentally chosen textbooks limits the academic freedom of faculty.

Utilitarianism—i.e. the maximum benefit to society for the greatest number of people—is a general principle traditionally used to legitimize the degree of allowable freedom in society.

Applying this principle as a standard for academic freedom, it would be difficult to legitimize usurping the traditional right of faculty members to choose their own teaching materials.

In addition to other considerations, those advocating taking this right away from faculty fail to consider the effects recent technological advancement and departmental peculiarities have on the choice of teaching materials.

In an age of technological innovation, for example, the concept of “textbooks” is becoming anachronistic in some disciplines. A number of professors no longer even require textbooks for their courses. Credible electronic sources and competing ideas have become attractive alternatives. In many cases, a departmentally chosen textbook is redundant.

The debate should also consider interdisciplinary differences. Why should procedures for choosing textbooks be the same for English, mathematics, economics, and sociology, when there are substantive differences in the disciplines? For example, while the choice of an English text might make little or no difference if the goal is simply understanding, and writing English, this is not true for economics, where multiple controversies and theories abound.

One rationalization for denying the freedom of faculty to choose a text assumes that the teacher must not be trusted because of a potential disposition to be aberrant and the use of a departmentally chosen textbook will guarantee a common standard.

Course outlines and evaluations can now allay such fears. The outlines are a contract between teachers and students, and evaluations can monitor the teacher’s commitment to stay on task. In effect, outlines and evaluations provide a verifiable measure of expectations and standards.

Finally, the selection process itself is flawed. Many departments are made up of faculty members with different areas of specialization. There is no rational, general principle that can justify the substitution of this group knowledge for the specialized knowledge of the individual scholar.

Christopher E.S. Warburton, an economist and author, teaches economics and white collar crime at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. His research interests include international law and economics, poverty, and transitional justice.

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