This article appeared in the "Editor's File"
in The Textbook Letter, May-June 1998.

Now We Know

William J. Bennetta

Holt, Rinehart and Winston recently issued a slim catalogue, titled Hot Off the Press, that promotes some new schoolbooks and classroom posters. The catalogue consists largely of run-of-the-mill puffery, but it also presents a startling disclosure: Students, Holt says, can't learn physics from physics textbooks.

Why not?

Because, Holt announces, "Many important physics concepts -- such as motion, momentum, and other dynamic forces [sic] -- simply can't be demonstrated adequately on a static printed page."

That statement, coming from an outfit that has been making and selling physics texts for decades, is weighty indeed -- and it seems all the more significant if we recall that people have been trying to learn classical physics from static printed pages for more than three centuries. Now, thanks to Holt, we know why all those people have failed. Thanks to Holt, we even know why the lads who dispatched space vehicles to the Moon had to rely on guesses and voodoo, instead of exploiting important concepts from the realm of Newtonian mechanics: Those concepts, alas, couldn't be conveyed on the static printed pages of books.

Holt's revelation about the inadequacy of physics textbooks appears on page 21 of the Hot Off the Press catalogue, where Holt is promoting (believe it or not) a physics textbook! The book is titled Holt Physics, and it is inadequate, of course -- but not to worry. Having discovered that physics books cannot demonstrate important ideas, Holt has fortunately been able to produce a CD-ROM, for sale with Holt Physics, that makes everything come out right. After you spend $47.85 to equip a student with a copy of Holt's impotent textbook, you get to spend $49.95 to equip him with a copy of the CD-ROM (which, Holt says, will enable him to "learn about concepts").

I understand why Holt wants to sell a pricey CD-ROM with each copy of Holt Physics, but I wonder:

Does the CD-ROM really teach the concept that motion and momentum are "forces"?

William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes frequently about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.


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