Piranhas in the Water: On Textbooks

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He's wiry. His mop of hair hints at his musical skills. This last year of high school is "pointless" because he's already been accepted to the college of his choice. The group has just finished watching a fun, albeit historically inaccurate, movie. "It bothers me that textbooks present ideas as if they were true when they aren't."

My mind fills with examples, but I'm not sure where he's going. "Like what, for instance?"

"You know, how piranhas are supposed to strip a human clean in, like, 30 seconds. Not true. It's frustrating because I was taught that was a fact. I don't like how textbooks present stuff like that."

I heartily agree.

Textbooks, my mom has often said, present ideas as if they were the only way to view the world. And this is simply not reality. Far better to consider ideas from various perspectives. Check out other works on the topic. Read more.

I like literature because it presents ideas in a less ...digested fashion. Within novels, we see ideas play out on the messy stage of life. And that, I believe, allows us to see more clearly how an idea applies. Jesus taught using parables, stories that demonstrate the application along with an idea.

Textbooks can be powerful tools. But don't be afraid to toss them overboard.


When possible, I recommend a literature-based approach to learning.

What ideas do you remember learning in a textbook that proved to be false?

 ~Luke Holzmann
Filmmaker, Writer, Empty Nester

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  1. I remember that many things from history were presented in a very one sided way. There was a lot of hero worship of our fore fathers and such. Not that they were bad people...it was just that we were never really presented with the *whole* story from history. We only were told the good and we never were presented with the other side of the story so that we could see the larger picture.

  2. Trista

    I remember being taught that when a caterpillar sheds its skin and becomes a chrysalis, it liquefies and rearranges into a butterfly. None of the caterpillar is left behind.
    2 years ago while raising butterflies for my daughter's science project I saw first hand what happens when a caterpillar sheds its skin. you can see the face, you can see the under developed legs and antenna. I decided then that I wanted to raise butterflies when I grew up.
    I have since learned that you can actually move the antenna an it will come out deformed. If the wing pad is damaged by a stick while the chrysalis is still soft, the adult butterfly will have a scar on its wing if it is able to fully expand it. There is no liquefying of the caterpillar. It is simply an immature butterfly that finishes developing in the safety of the chrysalis.

    • Amelia

      Wow! Thanks, Trista! Now I know that too. :)

      My example was the "line of progression" that shows a monkey turning into a man step by step. Only I found out in high school, while writing for a research paper, that scientists know full well that Homo Sapiens did not evolve from Neanderthals. They lived at the same time, and can be traced back to different points of origin. That didn't stop my biology text book from presenting that chart as fact. I felt as though I had been lied to and began to question everything! :)

  3. katieb

    I can honestly say I never really noticed how bad textbooks were until using Sonlight with the kids starting in 2005-----and the biggest thing missing from textbooks is 'The Rest of the Story'! The details that complete the snippets of information in those nice, compact 'histories' known as textbooks never can include enough information to present a complete or balanced pictures of history or historical figures. The broad and deep picture of history given by the literature approach is just simply the best way to study historical events.

  4. I was taught that George Washington Carver invented peanut butter. Sadly, it's still taught in schools as a fact. Among other things.

    I remember when I learned the same thing as Amelia. I was in college and I was so angry about it being taught incorrectly that I snapped at the professor. lol

  5. Cathy and KatieB, I love how we can get a bigger picture of things in homeschool. Great points!

    Trista, isn't amazing how much of a better picture we get when we experience something? Thanks for sharing.

    That's a good point, Amelia. Those simplistic explanations of scientific thought are so far off base. I know such things bother scientists as well as people like me <smile>.

    Stefanie, George Washington Carver did a lot with peanuts, it's true <smile>.

    Thanks for chiming in here, everyone!