Textbook Inflation


I have in mind an American Government website that replaces textbooks.  It would be free to access, and instead of 40-50 page chapters, it would have briefer, but more focused, readings.  For example, instead of a long chapter covering all aspects of Congress, it might have a reading on the committee system, one on legislative process, one on representation, etc.

I don’t know if it will happen.  In typical INTP style I’m good at producing ideas, but weak on follow-through.  If I can find someone else to help me organize it and engage in the search for qualified contributors (no, I don’t want to write all of the readings myself), it could become a reality.

But most textbooks simply do not offer value commensurate with their cost. That’s a model that’s really ripe for a challenge.

(Image source: http://www.technologyreview.com/news/506371/free-textbooks-spell-disruption-for-college-publishers/)

About James Hanley

James Hanley is former Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College and currently an independent scholar.
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15 Responses to Textbook Inflation

  1. Troublesome Frog says:

    I’m very curious about what percentage of the price of a text book is actually manufacturing / shipping costs. We must be down to almost nothing at this point. I suppose that means that textbooks are just about pure human labor and subject to cost disease.

    More importantly, though, most of them are basically useless for anything but problem sets. In some fields, up-to-date material is important. But there are a lot of fields that are best served by the tried and true classics. Basic calculus doesn’t change, but every year we introduce more new calculus books into the mix as if the world needs them. In fields like that, there’s almost always one book (maybe two) that are considered “the classic” if you want to learn the subject. Everybody buys a copy of that book for their own use in addition to whatever glitzy book-of-the-day the professor chooses for the actual coursework. It’s amazing.

    They’re like Christmas albums. Every recording artist seems to feel that the canon of warmed over Christmas music simply isn’t complete without their contribution to it. This is not the case.

  2. James Hanley says:

    Matt, I think most of it is the need to keep making money. The used textbook market really is a bitch for the publishers, so they keep updating frequently (and the cycle has gotten shorter–I’ve seen some texts where the cycle is down to 2 years). But in terms of actual production cost, it seems to me that the big cost–at least for American Gov’t textbooks–is the use of full color and copyright fees on images, both unnecessary frills.

    If there were actually inexpensive classics about the structure and process of the American Gov’t, I’d happily use them, but I don’t know of any.

    I have contemplated just using online sources for my research methods class. I haven’t pulled the trigger just yet, but over the next summer (giving me plenty of lead time, since it’s a spring term class), I might try to build that syllabus.

    And there’s a part of me that says just forgo the text and give the students questions they have to find answers to. If they won’t read, perhaps I can still get them to research.

  3. Troublesome Frog says:

    I come more from the engineering side where textbooks are either mathematics, fundamental engineering, or advanced cutting edge stuff. The math can be taught using books published in the 1970s and the fundamentals have a very long shelf life. Almost everybody who teaches signals and systems uses Oppenheim, Wilsky and Nawab, and if you don’t use it you’re probably a bad person. That book has been revised once in 30 years.

    Undergrad econ is tricky. Relevant real-world examples change, but the concepts don’t require constant updates. There are a few authors who dominate the market, but they probably deserve to. Mankiw’s Macroeconomics looks like it’s about $170 and in its 8th edition. I believe that the first edition was 1991. I still have my copy, partially because it’s a very good textbook and partially because even if it weren’t, it would be worth more as a doorstop or hamster nesting material than as a used textbook.

    It seems to me that at minimum, the markets should reach a solution like the econ textbook market. Maybe they put out a lot of editions, but there are a few “good” books/series that dominate. I can’t explain the proliferation of high priced one-use pulp books in so many fields.

  4. Lancifer says:

    The Classical Physics, Pre-calculus and Calculus classes I teach could probably get by with books from the late 1800’s.

    But the university and certain professor authors wouldn’t make a profit every semester. Kind of a fixed market really.

    Every semester some economy minded student asks me if an older edition of the current book will do.

    I always say yes, with one exception. The text book publishers are now selling online homework programs that the students, in many of my classes, are forced to buy. Their graded assignments are provided by these programs.

    I actually think that they are no better than problems in the back of the book in most cases.

    Also I have noticed a rather silly trend to make sure that every word problem is scrubbed PC clean. Every scientist, engineer or technician mentioned in the problem must be female.
    As in,
    “A chemist observed that when she mixed two reagents…”
    They never fail to mention the contributions, no matter how obscure, of non-white scientists and mathematicians, while sometimes leaving out, you know inconsequential, white guys like Newton, Gauss, Leibnitz etc.
    And the names of people in moving cars, boats, bicycles etc. have to have non -”Anglo” names.
    As in,
    “Lupe and Wong left on trains headed in opposite directions…”
    I always mock this trend when I write word problems for assignments or exams.
    “If Ho Pi Wut and Lucia Rodgrigues Del Gato both jump from bridges…”
    I have been waiting for the campus PC police to notice but I’ll just claim I’m just getting into the “correct” frame of mind.

  5. lumbercartel says:

    Think collaboration.
    For instance, people who are reasonably expert at research methods are everywhere. Hell, my daughter has been teaching methods for the social sciences for several years. I don’t know that she’d want to co-author an online text or not (busy with a new job and planning a wedding as soon as she defends her dissertation) but she’s just one. Get a few others to collaborate with you on a Creative Commons licensed work and you could have the whole thing done in a couple of months.
    As for existing materials, IIRC that UC Berkely has quite a bit of open material now. MIT has been opening up their course material for several years. And those are far from the only top-flight schools that have gone open.

  6. Lancifer says:


    Are publishers doing the same thing to “PC” up American History books?

  7. Matty says:

    Lancifer, I’m going to have to question you on the PC thing. First on the names, assuming these characters have to be named why are ‘non-anglo’ names more significant than ‘anglo’ ones? I’m struggling to see why it would have been a good thing for the writers to make an effort to ensure they chose names that reflect the majority.

    Next – obscure contribution, can you define this? If you mean the contributions were minor then fair enough but if you mean the people used to be obscure because they weren’t in the textbooks then this is a pretty weak argument that boils down to “These people shouldn’t be in the next edition because they weren’t in the last one”. I have no argument with your objection to leaving out important figures though, that is indefensible.

  8. James Hanley says:

    D.C., a collaboration using a Creative Commons license is exactly what I was thinking.

    Lance, I don’t use American history books, so I wouldn’t know. I haven’t noticed it in American Gov’t textbooks. I have noticed in general writings, and I normally practice, a lot of mixing of he and she, using both in about equal numbers in examples.

  9. Lancifer says:


    I’m struggling to see why it would have been a good thing for the writers to make an effort to ensure they chose names that reflect the majority.

    Look I’m fine with “inclusion” and “diversity: but when the names in the problems are disproportionately foreign and ethnic names and the genders are disproportionately female it is obvious that the text book writers are showing a leftist “multicultural” bias.

    The vast majority of students in the US do not have names like Carlos and Fong and the last time I checked half of the population was male. Also the illustrations show a disproportionate ratio of nonwhites and females.

    Also in math and physics the overwhelming majority of laws and discoveries etc. were made by white guys. Now maybe that’s because they had the benefit of a society where they were afforded the opportunity to study math and physics while oppressing and subjugating the other folks.
    But in a textbook about math and physics the majority of people mentioned as making major contributions should reflect the larger contributions not the desire of the text book writers to be “inclusive”.

  10. Lancifer says:

    There is another trend that annoys me in algebra and physics problems, although it is less controversial.

    When I was a kid (back in the 1840’s) when a problem had two trains or planes or cars or whatever, traveling toward each other at different speeds the question would ask, “When will the trains collide.”

    I guess that’s just too violent for the poor dears now a days. The problems now invariably read, “When will the trains pass each other on separate tracks.”

    Where’s the fun in that? Not to mention that’s just more words to typeset. Are they afraid that the delicate psyches of our youth will be scarred if they have to envision imaginary people killed in imaginary train wrecks. Oh, the humanity!

    I always make train “A” full of orphans and train “B” full of nuns and ask “When will the trains collide in a horrific fireball?” I guess it’s reactionary but hey someone has to bring the destruction and mayhem back to math and physics problems!

  11. Troublesome Frog says:

    I think it’s important to remember that at a lot of grade levels, textbooks aren’t written for the entire country. They’re written for California and Texas. If you can’t please one or both of them, you’re out of business. The demographics in CA and TX are very different from much of the rest of the country. Put together, I think we probably have most of the Asians and Latinos in the US.

    When I moved to my current house, I moved to a city that is only 20% white and 61% Asian. This was my first experience being in the minority. Not particularly upsetting, but definitely interesting, and I keep it rolling around in the back of my mind as it resets my definition of what “normal” is. I can see how people in places that are overwhelmingly white might feel like they were experiencing an invasion if they suddenly started receiving the ads and leaflets that I get every day. Nice place, but it’s a real pain in the ass to find a vendor who has a decent cheese selection.

    Making women feel less like outsiders in science and engineering is one of my hot buttons, so I won’t bother with that for now. I see the textbook thing as a harmless overreaction to a very real problem.

    When I was studying those subjects 10-15 years ago, there wasn’t any move to rub Newton or Young out of the textbooks, so I can’t say much on that topic. My multivariable Calculus book did use the same portrait for Laplace and Lagrange, though. To this day, I can’t recognize Laplace on sight.

  12. Lancifer says:


    I don’t have any real problem, other than annoyance, with the emphasis on female and ethnic names in problems. I just look forward to the day that text book authors, and everyone else, aren’t so focused on identifying people by their cultural or physical characteristics.

    Also I don’t know that it matters to a student that the driver of a car in a word problem “looks” like them or has the same genital configuration.

    This was my first experience being in the minority. Not particularly upsetting, but definitely interesting, and I keep it rolling around in the back of my mind as it resets my definition of what “normal” is.

    You should spend a month or two in rural Africa where you sometimes don’t see another white face for weeks and kids follow you around like you are a space alien! It definitely realigns your perspective on being a minority.

  13. Lancifer says:

    My multivariable Calculus book did use the same portrait for Laplace and Lagrange, though.

    Funny how you never see them together?

  14. Matty says:

    Lancifer, If you are arguing for including people based on their contribution I have no argument. I was a little worried that you may have fallen for the fallacy that we should select which contributions are important based on ‘recognition’ rather than merit, which might exclude people who made an equally significant contribution but were unpopular for some reason in the recent past.

  15. Lancifer says:


    I completely agree. In fact I think that people that were denied credit for their contributions should be highlighted. But selecting people who made relatively obscure contributions based on the fact that they are a particular “race”, gender or ethnicity is as wrong as denying people recognition based on those criteria.

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