In The Field

APS April 2008: Textbooks getting worse

I came across an interesting little poster the other day. John Stewart, a physics professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, decided to look at lexical trends in physics textbooks. He used a method developed by the late, great Don Hayes, a sociologist at Cornell University, who looked at trends in all sorts of texts — from school books to SATs — to explain both the dumbing down of America and the jargoning up of science and technology.

Stewart examined trends between two physics texts, Halliday and Resnick 3rd edition, published in 1988, and Halliday, Resnick and Walker, 7th edition, from 2004. The lexical difficulty — a measure of the book’s readability — increased by almost a grade level. The newer edition was prettier — the amount of blank space in the book doubled — but the addition of another author may have made the textbook worse, something along the lines of too many cooks in the kitchen. Stewart’s conclusion? “The old Halliday and Resnick was a better object to read,” he says. “It’s very noticeable.”

Now I haven’t seen the 7th edition, but I do remember Halliday and Resnick 3rd edition — it was the physics textbook I used in college. And it was plenty tough to read. I didn’t realize I had it so good.


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