0.10 Cultural Appropriations

As David Hamilton points out, textbooks both "mediate the structure of knowledge on the one hand, and the performance of teaching on the other." They assemble knowledge and also organize it for educational purposes. In the humanities, textbook authors recapitulated that portion of "yesterday's learning that was to be learned by tomorrow's male adults." (52) Thus, insofar as this online book is a study of how textbooks were used, it falls into the category of what Roger Chartier, writing of popular culture, calls "appropriation studies" -- a history of "the concrete conditions and processes that construct meaning" in the marketplace for books. This approach involves its own set of methodological cautions, especially the need to resist seeing a small number of surviving cases as typical of whole classes of readers. (53) Here too, however, the educational setting provides us with a control of sorts on the quality of our generalizations. Classrooms, especially elementary ones, were settings for highly deliberate popularizations of learned culture. The strategies teachers incorporated into the textbooks they authored were exactly the ones they expected their students to employ in appropriating learned culture for their personal use later in life. They represent, if you will, the teachers' imagination of the students' appropriational acts. The design elements of such books often reflect these appropriational acts directly. Both students' and teachers' annotations in turn represent direct reactions to the expectations built into textbooks. A thoughtfully annotated textbook or a group of them can offer subtle and complex evidence for a whole range of authorial, editorial, marketing, and readerly appropriations.

Latin grammar, although it belonged to an international publishing world, was too hidebound and traditional a field to give us a full picture of the dynamics of educational publishing, even in the early sixteenth century. For one thing, the future of textbook publishing lay (as we now recognize) in the creation of national, not international markets. Again, the most innovative textbook printing of the period happened in fields where authors wanted to present entirely new knowledge or highly practical skills to young readers. Geography and astronomy were fields where new advances were made almost yearly in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century and where there was a constant tension between a respect for classical learning and Christian tradition on the one hand, and, on the other, the realization that the ancients had gotten many things seriously wrong. Vernacular literacy also allowed for new kinds of textbooks and new publics for these old subjects. Mathematics and music are telling in this regard, moving as they did from highly theoretical presentations to more practical ones across our period. Handwriting books, by contrast, grew across the sixteenth century from simple models of calligraphy with a few instructions into elaborate self-help books and even systematic treatises aimed at the professional education of scribes or secretaries. We will have repeated recourse to the evidence of books in these fields and will discuss them as a group in chapter six.


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