Slowly but surely, college textbooks are becoming more rigorous

The field of college textbooks is undergoing substantial change. No single factor, either in publishing or in academia, accounts for this change, experts say. But spokesmen for several major publishers generally agree that improvement of higher education texts is more gradual and low-key than much-publicized book improvement at the elementary and secondary school levels. Nonetheless, they say, industry efforts to reverse a ``dumbing down'' trend of the 1960s and '70s should affect campus learning marked ly within five to 10 years. ``Readability'' was the byword of the passing era. The theme of those years was wider access to higher education, with a corresponding increase of two-year community colleges and relaxed academic standards. Introductory texts in particular reflected the trend, with books for college freshmen written as low as ninth grade level.

``We all did it,'' acknowledges William Willey, McGraw-Hill's higher education marketing director, who headed the division's editorial side before assuming his present position. ``Now, there's a tendency for standards to go up again. With the trend toward excellence, there is a trend toward higher quality in college textbooks.''

Neal Sweet, Harper & Row's higher education editorial director, also sees ``a market shift in favor of books that are more rigorous,'' encouraged by ``more and more remedial work on the campuses'' that is reducing a need for easier texts.

English, accounting, economics, and psychology are mentioned as subjects where textbook progress is most evident. In one company administrator's view, texts in the hard sciences and education are among the last to change.

Higher quality is taking various forms, say the publishers. Steven Cran, a college text executive for Addison-Wesley, lists state-of-the-art information and ``building motivation into our books'' among his firm's current priorities. Mr. Willey reports that McGraw-Hill's texts are ``more conceptual.'' Other publishers cite more challenging vocabulary and use of more color and more graphs and charts as examples of change.

CBS Publishing Group's marketing manager for social studies and behavioral sciences, John Yarley, offers a specific example of how the latest texts differ from earlier books. Whereas previous introductory psychology texts carried only set tenets of that field, new editions update the ``basics'' with recent advancements in cognitive and developmental psychology.

Helping to spur reform is a market where supply far exceeds demand -- what Neal Sweet calls ``the competitive maelstrom.'' In introductory psychology alone, there are 150 books on the market today. An introductory psychology book, like other texts, is chosen either by an individual professor, or by committee, as at the University of Delaware, where large enrollment in the course -- 1,500 freshmen annually -- necessitated the committee system.

Helene Intraub, a member of the Delaware selection group, explains that six professors each year review a pile of introductory psychology texts, in search of ``broad coverage and depth. There are books we've picked up and put right down. We don't even look at them.'' Typically, 5 out of 20 will be seriously considered for the course. Once a final choice is made, professors are not compelled to abide by that decision, although most do.

Publishers say the autonomy given professors in selecting texts and academic freedom overall account for the difference between college and grade school textbook reform. There is no college-level counterpart to the 22 states where state agencies must approve textbooks before they can be used in local schools. Therefore, there are not the block market influences, high financial stakes, and public argument over editorial content that exist at the grade school level. Change at the college level thus far, t herefore, has been a substantive but relatively placid process, say book producers.

However, at least one industry spokesman points out that all is not perfect in his field. Richard Welna, editor-in-chief of higher education for Scott, Foresman, expresses concern that college textbook writers, usually professors, continue to be underrated by their peers.

``Textbook writing is still not being treated [as] equal to various kinds of research and scholarship. It would improve textbooks if writing them were given greater recognition by the college establishment.''

His concern is shared by others. William D. Nordhaus is a Yale University economics professor and co-author, with Paul Samuelson, of McGraw-Hill's 1985 edition of ``Economics,'' a text considered a standard in that discipline. Says Mr. Nordhaus, ``I think it's definitely true that textbook writers are viewed as slugs -- people who grind information down to pablum that is digestible. It's different from the brilliant frontier scientist who is out there smashing theorems.''

Asked about possible solutions to the dilemma, he responds, ``It would be easy for a national association to give awards every three years for the best textbooks.''

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