Textbook and its Knowledge (par Anastasia Krutikova, étudiante M1 Ehess)

Je poursuis, avec leur accord bien sûr, la mise en ligne de certains travaux des étudiants en master de l’Ehess qui ont activement participé à mon séminaire l’an dernier: c’est une manière de permettre une circulation plus large de textes qui apportent un éclairage personnel et de nouveaux questionnements aux problématiques de l’histoire et de l’anthropologie des savoirs développées dans mon séminaire.

Aujourd’hui, un texte d’Anastasia Krutikova, étudiante en M1 Ethnologie et anthropologie sociale de l’Ehess.


Textbook and its Knowledge

As the title suggests, the object that I have chosen to explore in this essay is a textbook.

At present, only a lazy person does not criticize textbooks for being boring or outdated, too directive or on the contrary too open. Textbooks are often attacked for their complex structure, illegibility, ideological or misleading content. But still, they often become the first source of knowledge for a user who discovers a new discipline. People do not usually study, for example, Chinese language or physics reading dictionaries and encyclopedias. They find a teacher and buy a textbook. Encyclopedias and dictionaries usually stay on the shelf or migrate to the virtual world of internet to be used only occasionally. A textbook, however, is designed to be used regularly. We do not study on encyclopedias but we study on textbooks. In this sense a textbook becomes an extremely useful tool for both the student and the teacher.

I still remember the days when I found nothing interesting in textbooks. The only emotion I remember from those times is the exasperation arising from the obligation of carry those heavy thick volumes to school every day and then read them in the evening to prepare for class.

I also remember how I looked at textbooks when I took the role of a teacher. There was no more exasperation; textbooks were transformed into great tools which helped me in my work. I evaluated the topics covered in the books and their coherence, the types and diversity of tasks for students, general approach to teaching, the book’s design and layout, and even its price. I continued reading textbooks in the evening to prepare for the class, though in a very different way.

So, textbooks seem to haunt me. Now I am an anthropology student and though the perspective to become a Researcher seems a bit remote I already try looking at things around me as an anthropologist. And what do I see in a textbook from this perspective?

Socio-cultural anthropology is often defined as “the study of cultures”1. Consequently, the term “culture” is generally viewed as the key concept in this discipline.  As any key concept it may be defined in dozens of ways depending on the specific anthropological theory or even on the researcher. The British-Australian researcher Malcolm Crick for example, has chosen to focus on knowledge and defined culture as “a process of acquiring and displaying knowledge”2. This definition of culture implies that anthropologists should study knowledge and the ways in which this is acquired in the first place.

The definition of knowledge was formulated clearly by Frederick Barth in his famous article dedicated to the anthropology of knowledge.  He writes there that knowledge is “what a person employs to interpret and act on the world” and he includes in this definition ‘feelings (attitudes) as well as information, embodied skills as well as verbal taxonomies and concepts: all the ways of understanding that we use to make up our experienced, grasped reality”.3 He also adds that knowledge is necessary for communication, that “we must share some knowledge to be able to communicate and usually must differ in some knowledge to give focus to our interaction”.4

If we look at a textbooks having these definitions in mind, it seems that everything in it is connected to knowledge and thus to culture. The primary function of a textbook is to be a source of information for students, a “depository of knowledge, techniques and skills”.5 However, textbooks are created not only to preserve knowledge, as encyclopedias or dictionaries. Sometimes the authors of textbooks leave surprisingly modest place to knowledge, and focus on various techniques which are supposed to transmit it. Finally, the third function of a textbook is to promote the values of the ruling class and construct students’ national identity – or to inculcate students with precise attitudes towards the world and ways of behaving.

All things considered, it seems that textbooks are inseparable from knowledge and from culture and that they are an important source of information which anthropologists and social scientists should not neglect in their research.


 The first thing that I realize when I start thinking about the nature of a textbook and the knowledge it delivers is that despite its name, ‘a TEXTBOOK’, is not really a book. Even the librarians in school libraries in France do not register textbooks as books and keep them separately from other books. Sometimes they are not even in the open access6. I notice the same thing in specialized university libraries where textbooks and other kinds of literature are never mixed. Still, they look like books, they are published by publishing houses like books and they are usually sold in bookshops.  What do we call a textbook? What makes it different from a book?

A textbook as we know it now is a relatively recent phenomenon. It appeared only with the advent of technology, industrialization and democratization of education. The fist textbook in France was printed soon after the invention of the printing press, around 1470 and it was followed by other books designed to teach how to read, write and count correctly7.  However, those books did not have the educational component and were rarely used in class. The majority of books used in village schools in the 17th-18th centuries were not educational; we can find among them the Bible, prayer books, catechisms, the books of collected stories and exempla, almanacs, etc. But there were also Psalters and primers created by teachers for educational purposes. Adventure stories and historical novels such as Les Aventures de Tétémaque, fils d’Ulysse written by Fénelon, or M. de Scudéry’s les Conversations were not educational, but they were supplemented with the instructions for teachers.

Textbooks acquired the didactic dimension and became one of the necessary elements in class only in the 19th century after the introduction of public education. The development of publishing industry made it possible to produce large numbers of books and at the same time to reduce their cost.

After the French Revolution, the government officially gave ‘textbooks’ a legal status defining them as those “elementary books which give knowledge which is absolutely necessary in order to educate the citizens”8.  The progress of industrialization in the 19th and 20th centuries has lead to the rationalization of the process of publishing which covered all important phases of textbook production, from its conception to its distribution and commercialization. This process began to involve more and more people. The collaboration of authors, experts in education, archivists, illustrators and photographs, printers, etc. coordinated by the editor has improved considerably the quality of textbooks and stimulated their general use at schools and in other educational institutions. The editors did not hesitate to use new technologies in textbooks to make them more attractive:  the application of colors and photographic reproductions in books were tested on textbooks before they became common practice in printing in general9.

Form this perspective, a textbook seems to be a more complicated object than a book as it requires the participation of more people and involves more phases in its production as well as more regulation at the state level. At present, the creation of a textbook and its distribution takes on average between six and ten years and Gerard and Roegiers identify at least twenty phases which allow elaborating a textbook10. They divide all existing procedures into three big stages, namely the outlining of a project, the writing phase and the production phase. Each of these stages unities 6 or 7 various procedures and involves numerous actors.

A textbook is never written by only one person; it usually requires the collective work of a number of people, usually between three and fifteen authors 11 and it is not always possible to identify them. Even if their names are  mentioned on the cover or in the beginning, the textbook still seems impersonal, ‘authorless’ in a certain way as the reader cannot know who is the author of a particular chapter. The authorship is undermined even more by the fact that those who write the text do not chose the photographs which illustrate it and they do not define the final layout of the page. This part of the work is normally done by photographers, illustrators and designers. In the case of a book or an encyclopedia their contribution is still important, but they do not overshadow the writers as the text takes the central role and the illustrations are used to support it. But if we look at the textbook used in secondary school in France, for example, it becomes obvious that the text or “knowledge” in it is far from taking the central place: it occupies between 5 and 25 percent of the space depending on a discipline12. The remaining 75 percent is dedicated to exercises and illustrations. Moreover, all textbooks must respect the national program written by state officials who can also be included (why not?) into the long list of textbook’s authors as they make an important contribution as well as outlining the topics that should be developed and, normally, indicating how it should be done.

Though the question of authorship of the textbook seems very interesting to me and deserves probably a whole article, I don’t mean to question the work of the teachers who write the text for textbooks by describing the implication of other specialists. All this is to show that the textbooks deliver very impersonal knowledge which may be perceived by students, and sometimes by teachers, as absolute and reliable knowledge. In textbooks, knowledge is often presented in the form of given facts13 (and facts do not have authors) which are in reality someone’s interpretations, hypothesis or opinions. For schoolchildren and many teachers, if something is written in a textbook and approved by the government commission, it must be right and it can be trusted. In this sense the textbook preserves certain authority. Governments and elites discovered the potential of the textbook to transmit ideas thanks to this authority long time ago and the history knows many examples of the way it was used and abused to impose ideologies and values of the ruling class. But even if the textbook does not have explicitly ideological content, the interpretation of certain facts given as facts in the textbook certainly may influence the way the future citizens will remember and use them.

The book edited by Javier Perez Siller illustrates well how interpretations can be given as facts14. This Mexican historian and sociologist united fourteen researches from different countries who altogether analyzed how the Columbus expedition to the American continent in 1492 was represented in about 150 textbooks from 70 countries from all parts of the world.

The authors of these textbooks shared the conviction that this event marked the beginning of the new era. However, the comparative approach helped the researchers to distinguish at least four interpretations of the event. Some countries, for example, adopted the indifferent “explorer’s view”, describing the expedition simply as the result of the geographic expansion. According to “colonist’s view”, Columbus “discovered” the world to conquer; and it was a “happy event not only for the Europeans, but for the whole world”15 which was also going to gain and achieve in terms of coming to terms with the European civilization. Many countries have chosen the “ambivalent view”, characterized by the conviction that the “discovery” and the colonization that followed were beneficial and positive on the whole. But they admit that it could have been done differently, and some catastrophes and tragedies could have been avoided. Finally, there is “denunciator’s view” which describes the “discovery” as the result of colonial expansion and focuses mostly on its negative consequences.

The researchers described at least four different interpretations of the same event, but the majority of the textbooks introduced one of them to children.


I have argued that knowledge that we find in a textbook is thoroughly elaborated and evaluated by many specialists so it is never arbitrary and uncontrolled. At the same time it is very impersonal; it is such kind of knowledge that gives the textbook the authority to impose certain knowledge and, consequently, an “essential role in constructing ideologies and beliefs”16.

It should be also mentioned, that knowledge associated with a textbook is already socially validated and established. The definition states that it should be “elementary and absolutely necessary”17. Knowledge must be accepted socially to become “absolutely necessary” and thus to appear in a textbook. Children and adolescents in schools  are not usually taught marginal or new, non-conventional ideas, they study mainstream theories even if these theories are outdated, partial or sometimes even inadequate.

Indeed, the authors of textbooks tend to be quite conservative and resistant to change. From the educational point of view, true innovations are rare. A new edition of a textbook is often very similar to the previous one; the changes are limited to minor improvements in the text and several new illustrations.

As of the knowledge transmitted to the user, textbooks seem sometimes even more resistant to change. Anthropologists and historians, who are interested in these questions show that some interpretations of the events and hypothesis remain unchanged for decades, even centuries, despite new developments and progress in natural or social sciences.

Wiktor Stoczkowski, for example, by analyzing the chapters in several history textbooks that describe the prehistoric times and human origins makes a striking conclusion; namely that the textbooks used in different countries, sometimes with opposite ideologies, not only give the same description of our prehistoric past but also offer the description that has not changed since the 19th century despite obvious progress in paleoanthropology, its methods and the growing number of new empirical data. The author proves that there are many possible and equally valid descriptions of our prehistoric past and tries to understand the origin and persistence of the particular scenario described in the textbooks18.  It seems that in this context, the textbook may reinforce the acceptance of conventional theories and, in fact, prevent the validation of scientific knowledge.


In conclusion, I think it is useful to remember that textbooks always offer knowledge which is context-free. As Frederik Barth rightly says “it simulates knowledge without knowers”, or those people “who hold, learn, produce, and apply knowledge in their various activities and lives”19.

Anthropologists who study traditions of knowledge in different societies should always remember that though a textbook is a rich source of information about culture, it is certainly not the only and exclusive mode of knowledge, and that people accumulate much of their knowledge by learning from others. Knowledge is not only an abstract idea, or a scheme, but it is also a relationship.


1 Rapport, N. and Overing, J., 2000. Social and Cultural Anthropology: the Key Concepts. Routledge, p. 92.

2 Crick, M., 1982. Anthropology of knowledge. Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 11, p. 287.

3 Barth, F., 2002. An Anthropology of Knowledge. Current Anthropology, 43(1), p. 1.

4 Ibid., p.1.

5 Jacquet-Francillon, F. (dir), 2010. Une histoire de l’école : Anthologie de l’éducation et de l’enseignement en France XVIIIe – XXe siècles. Retz, p. 261.

6 Borne, D. (rapporteur), 1998. La documentation Française  : le manuel scolaire, programme de travail 1997-1998. Ministère de l’education nationale, de la recherche et de la technologie, p.33.

7 Historians generally agree that the first printed textbook in France was Les lettres de Gaspin de Pergame which was written for adolescents to study Latin. The books that followed include La Civilité puérile et honnête, a French translation of the Erasme’s work printed in 1530, and Le Livre facile pour apprendre l’Arithmétique de soy-mesme et sans Maistre written by F. Barrême and printed in the second half of the 17th century. See Moeglin, P., 2010. Les Industries Educatives. Puf. and  Choppin, A., 1980. L’histoire des manuels scolaires. Une approche globale. Histoire de l’éducation, n. 9, pp. 1-25.

8 Choppin, A., 1980. L’histoire des manuels scolaires. Une approche globale, Histoire de l’éducation. n. 9, p.4.

9 Moeglin, P., 2010. Les Industries Educatives. Puf, p. 30.

10 Gerard, F-M. and Roegiers, X., 2003. Des manuels scolaires pour apprendre: concevoir, evaluer, utiliser. Editions De Boeck Université, p. 30.

11 La documentation Française  : le manuel scolaire, programme de travail 1997-1998, p.12.

12 Ibid., p.14.

13 See Dauphine, O., Janneau, R. and Perron N., 2009. L’enseignement de l’histoire-géographie de l’école élémentaire au lycée : Vecteur de propagande ou fondement de l’esprit critique ? L’Harmattan.

14 Siller, J.P., 1992. La “decouverte” de l’Amérique? Les regards sur l’autre à travers les manuels scolaires du monde. L’Harmattan.

15 Ibid., p.305.

16 Brouillard, E., 2005. Les Manuels scolaires questionnés par la recherche, in Brouillard, E. (dir), Manuels scolaires, regards croises. CRDP de Basse-Normandie, Documents, actes et rapports sur l’education, Caen, p.18.

17 See p.4.

18 Stoczkowski, W., 2002. Explaining Human Origins: Myth, Imagination and Conjecture. Cambridge University press.

19 Barth, F., 2002. An Anthropology of Knowledge, Current Anthropology, 43(1), p. 3-4.




Barth, F., 2002. An Anthropology of Knowledge. Current Anthropology, 43(1), pp.1-19.

Bonte, P. and Izard, M. (ed.), 2007. Dictionnaire de l’ethnologie et de l’anthropologie. Press Universitaires de France.

Brouillard, E., 2005. Les Manuels scolaires questionnés par la recherche, in Brouillard, E. (dir.) Manuels scolaires, regards croisés. CRDP de Basse-Normandie, Documents, actes et rapports sur l’éducation, Caen, pp. 13-36.

Choppin, A., 1980. L’histoire des manuels scolaires. Une approche globale. Histoire de l’éducation, N. 9, pp. 1-25.

Choppin, A. and Herriou, Y., 1997. Le manuel au CDI : un objet ambigu.  Argos n° 20, CRDP Créteil, pp. 60 – 70.

Crick, M., 1982. Anthropology of knowledge. Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 11, pp. 287-313.

Dauphine, O., Janneau, R. and Perron, N., 2009. L’enseignement de l’histoire-géographie de l’école élémentaire au lycée : Vecteur de propagande ou fondement de l’esprit critique ? L’Harmattan.

Gerard, F-M. and Roegiers, X., 2003. Des manuels scolaires pour apprendre: concevoir, evaluer, utiliser. Editions De Boeck Université.

Jacob, C., 2011. Pour une anthropologie historique des savoirs. Conference présentée le 14 février 2011 devant la Société française pour l’Histoire des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris, EHESS.

Jacquet-Francillon, F. (dir), 2010. Une histoire de l’école : Anthologie de l’éducation et de l’enseignement en France XVIIIe – XXe siècles. Retz.

Borne, D. (rapporteur), 1998. La documentation Française  : le manuel scolaire, programme de travail 1997-1998.  Ministère de l’education nationale, de la recherche et de la technologie.

Lebrun, M., 2007. Le Manuel scolaire d’ici et d’ailleurs, d’hier a demain. Presse de l’Universite du Quebec.

Moeglin, P., 2010. Les Industries Educatives. Puf.

Rapport, N. and Overing, J., 2000. Social and Cultural Anthropology: the Key Concepts. Routledge.

Siller, J.P., 1992. La “découverte” de l’Amérique? Les regards sur l’autre à travers les manuels scolaires du monde. L’Harmattan.

Stoczkowski, W., 2002. Explaining Human Origins: Myth, Imagination and Conjecture. Cambridge University press.

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