Disrupting the Textbook Machine

David Clemens

The higher education bubble was inflated by various pumps and gases:  expensive but useless degrees, an ideological straitjacket, grade inflation, administrative bloat, and proliferating programs, centers, and offices of enigmatic, malign, or Kafkaesque purpose.  As FIRE’s Robert Shibley recently wrote, “. . . tuition and tax dollars are funding an ever-growing army of bureaucrats that police everything from free speech to dating. Administrators now outnumber faculty on our nation’s campuses, and even students’ innermost thoughts are subject to their oversight.”  Basically, ye olde sheepskin has become a product whose cost in dollars and nuisance far exceeds its value.

Textbooks play their own part in this carnival.  For one, it’s not clear what textbooks are for in 2011.  Some students won’t buy them, preferring rent-a-texts, e-books, library reserves, Wikipedia, SparkNotes, et al.  Other students won’t read them because they can pass anyway after a Google click-a-thon.  Thus, M. W. Klymkowsky says, “Clearly, the issue of whether to use a textbook is complex, and it is dependent upon course and curricular goals. Students(and colleagues) expect a textbook; yet often, the textbook is not used, except as a reference.”

Jane Shaw, President of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, goes even further, suggesting that a textbook may often be nothing more than a security blanket for the professor.  In an email, she says, “I think that most faculty members still want a textbook because it provides an instantaneous organization for the course.”

Still, there are some courses students can’t pass without the textbook, and those are the jackpot for publishers and authors.  At $100+ per book, constant revisions and new editions, websites, CDs, and DVDs keep that money pump humming.  James Stewart made so much money from his Calculus textbook that he built a showplace home/performance space for an estimated $30,000,000 after auditioning architects such as Frank Gehry.

In an email, Evergreen Valley College’s Sterling Warner says, “Publishers . . . like the idea of electronic textbooks—not because they will serve students as well or better than paperback texts (or reduced costs per textbook).  No, publishers are asking for paper and electronic rights to reprint works because they can make greater profits.”  Warner continues:

I see publishers rushing after the glitz, bells, and whistles (maybe even clickers!) placing pedagogical substance second. Soon they’ll all be using Go-Daddy girls to use a bit of sex to straighten out slumping sales . . . .”

Enter Zachary Mason, Silicon Valley entrepreneur, computer scientist, artificial intelligence theorist, and author of the celebrated The Lost Books of the Odyssey.   Mr. Mason has just launched a new company in what seems a virtuous attempt to shrink textbook prices by using a mixture of new methods and new technology.  Zach, a very bright and talented man, is interested in hearing from all the players in the textbook casino:  teachers, administrators, students.  If you have ideas and/or needs you would like to share, just shoot me an email at [email protected] and I will forward your contact information to Zach. Go-Daddy girls need not apply.

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