The rapid turnover in textbook publication might be of benefit if publishers use that cycle to create better and more accurate texts. However, in order for this to happen, publishers must concern themselves with the content of the books they are producing.
As a Philosophy instructor, I am accustomed to getting peculiar questions thrown at me from time to time. This past semester (Spring of 2009), one of my Honors Ethics students asked me about a passage in her Theater Appreciation text. The book is a first edition text, Theatre in Your Life, by Robert Barton and Annie McGregor, with a copyright of 2008. A few years ago, when Steven Dutch, writing in Academic Questions, explained "Why Textbooks Are the Way They Are," (September 2005), he noted that textbook publishers are fighting against the economics of an increasingly efficient secondary book market. They have elevated the price of their texts and accelerated edition cycles in order to minimize loss of income from the used textbook trade. Textbook editions have the durability of mayflies. In some disciplines it might be argued that textbooks benefit from annual updating, but in my discipline, it is absurd. I'm confident that Plato hasn't published anything new in recent years.
Back to my student's question. In this brand-new text, priced at about $100, she found a passage that seemed both delightful and perplexing to her. She had sufficient critical reasoning skills to ask if there was something wrong with it. The text was trying to illustrate the way that varied translations can affect the flavor of a dramatic passage. This is a perfectly good point, and could have been illustrated easily by showing, as one example, how various translations of Antigone might be understood differently by a contemporary audience. Instead, the example chosen was not from theater, but rather from the Bible. In three pages (pp. 32-34), the authors explain that the familiar King James version of the Lord's Prayer (“Our Father which art in heaven...") is inaccurate.
Actually, they equivocate: “It would be absurd to conclude that the original English translators got it 'wrong,' since what emerged is one of the most powerful, beautiful, profound, and inspirational documents in Western history. That does not, however, make it any less intriguing to imagine translation with less [sic] cultural filters," (pp. 33-34.) So what does the Lord Prayer look like with “less cultural filters?”
The less filtered version that Barton and McGregor have located is, as they put it, "a careful attempt to translate the words as closely as possible to their original meaning rather than imposing values from another time, place and perspective," (p. 33). The translation offered in Theatre in Your Life, purportedly from the "original Aramaic version," reads as follows:
O cosmic Birther of all radiance and vibration. Soften the ground of our being and carve out a space within us where your Presence can abide.
Fill us with your creativity so that we may be empowered to bear the fruit of your mission.
Let each of our actions bear fruit in accordance with our desire.
Endow us with the wisdom to produce and share what each being needs to grow and flourish.
Untie the tangled threads of destiny that bind us, as we release others from the entanglement of past mistakes.
Do not let us be seduced by that which would divert us from our true purpose, but illuminate the opportunities of the present moment.
For you are the ground and the fruitful vision, the birth, power and fulfillment, as all is gathered and made whole once again.
My student liked the "original meaning" quite a bit, but something seemed suspicious about it, leading her to ask me what I thought. I immediately knew that something was wrong for a number of reasons which I will explain shortly, but I must credit my student for having the intellectual fiber to question something that she wanted to be true.
A few minutes of online research confirmed my suspicions. The "original meaning" text was a simple internet legend, based on a misrepresentation of a prayer found in the book Prayers of the Cosmos: Reflections on the Original Meaning of Jesus's Words by Neil Douglas-Klotz, published in the early 90's. Douglas-Klotz's neo-pagan re-imagining of the traditional prayer was not originally packaged as "a careful attempt to translate the words as closely as possible to their original meaning," (as stated in the text) but many websites make just that claim.
My student took it well when I explained to her that her book had packaged an internet myth as fact, but I was not nearly so sanguine. I contacted the book's publisher and was able to track down the appropriate editorial personnel. I pointed out the error in the text with appropriate documentation and was informed the text's authors, and they alone, were responsible for the book's content. The publishers said they would contact the authors about my concerns and I would receive a response. Several months have passed and, not surprisingly, I have received no such response.
A small observation, if I may, and then a larger one.
The current textbook publication cycle has become accelerated to the point where the word textbook can no longer understood to mean "presumptively authoritative." Authors need to produce huge quantities of material in relatively short periods, and publishers no longer consider fact checking to be their job. Peer review is spotty -- I've been paid to review some pre-publication manuscripts but most of the questions I get are about my program and its purchasing needs, not about the texts.
The larger point has to do with critical reasoning, One of the overarching concerns in education is supposed to be the inculcation of critical reasoning, but I find that there is no broad agreement as to what, exactly, that looks like. I'm afraid that "critical reasoning" usually equates with "being critical of what I want you to doubt." It amused me to attend a meeting of the Skeptics Society last year which concluded that the proper definition of critical reasoning is hostility to religion. Certainly people of faith use the term quite differently, i.e., directed against what they consider to be dangerous ideas. It's easy to doubt things that we don't agree with; it takes intellectual integrity to be skeptical of what we hold dear.
I'd offer the following: critical reasoning is the combination of a disposition and a set of intellectual tools. The necessary attitude is one of demanding good evidence for claims that have significance, whether I wish for them to be true or not. The tools are complex, but at a minimum consist of an awareness of the issues of credibility and plausibility. The inclusion of the "original meaning" Lord's Prayer in the textbooks reflects a drastic failure in all of these areas.
First, as a matter of disposition, the authors did not do basic fact-checking. It took me very little time to determine that the claim being made in the text was false; it would have taken them no longer.
Second, the authors failed the test of credibility, which asks one to consider the sources of one's information. I cannot for the life of me imagine how the authors of a college textbook could be so pig-ignorant (my apologies to porcine-cephalic readers) as to make blind use of an internet webpage, as they clearly did.
Third, the issue of plausibility is the question of whether alleged facts conform to what we already know about the world around us. This is hard to teach, because it is hard to guess what facts students already possess about their world. In the case of a tolerably well-educated person looking at the "original meaning" Lord's Prayer, the following should have leapt out:
1. Regardless of one's religious tradition, an educated person should be familiar with the Bible as literature. It's not asking much to know that the Bible manuscripts are in Greek and Hebrew (with a bit of Aramaic in some later parts of what Christians call the Old Testament). An educated person should likewise know that the Quran is in Arabic, and that the Dao De Ching is in Chinese. The discovery of a pre-Greek Aramaic manuscript of one of the Gospels would be headline news, not a piece of academic trivia.
2. The authors should know that translations don't have as much wiggle room as to have "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil" legitimately also translated into "Do not let us be seduced by that which would divert us from our true purpose, but illuminate the opportunities of the present moment." Isn't anyone taking foreign languages anymore? If the authors were ignorant of the issue they were writing about, why didn't they defer to a subject specialist?
3. Further, how could someone read phrases like "O cosmic Birther of all radiance and vibration" and not suspect it to be laden with contemporary rather than ancient concepts? Someone who teaches theater appreciation surely looks at ancient plays from time to time (chapter seven of the text offers a quick survey of the international history of theater). The intellectual space we inhabit today is not the same as that of our ancestors. This alone should have cued the authors to at least seek verification of the claims being made.
Image: Publicdomainpictures, Public Domain