By: Thomas Gosart
It is always great to get a new book. I look forward to the beginning of the school year primarily because I anticipate the pleasure of getting my books: all new, beautiful, inviting me to make my new discoveries. However, do we really need new books? Have you ever looked at your textbook and wondered what it meant by “eighth edition”? Have you wondered what made the eighth edition better than the seventh and the seventh better than the sixth?
I used to think that the current edition of my books is by far best available, even if it costs my family a fortune. However, I have recently made a discovery. It began when I showed my $280, third-edition textbook in physics to one of my friends, a physics professor at UCLA. He was astonished when I told him the price. “At this level,” he told me, “all physics books are like dictionaries. For the most part, they all have the same information.” He laughed when I showed him my $220 calculus textbook, asking why I couldn’t write a book on my own, if all it took is shuffling around bits and pieces of material that has been around for at least half a century! I began to wonder why my school forced my family to pay such huge sums for the books.
The following week, the same friend introduced me to the library of a retired UCLA professor of physics. To my delight he invited me to take some of the books home, and I chose mostly classics in math and physics. These publications ranged from the early 1920s all the way up to the 1970s; many were from the 1940s. I began my exploration of these new treasures at home with a textbook titled College Algebra by Paul Rider, published in 1940. Purchased at the UCLA Store in 1946, the book cost $2.20. The content of this book, to my astonishment, was similar to that algebra content in my brother’s latest-edition pre-calculus textbook, which cost $270. Then I looked at another book, a 1946 edition of Calculus by G. Sherwood and Angus Taylor, purchased at UCLA Store for $3.75 around the same time. And again, the content of the 1946 Calculus covered pretty much all of what my calculus book had. The same applied to a 1948 edition of Modern College Physics by Harvey White, purchased at the UCLA Store for $5.00. I could not see any advantages the new books had over old ones besides the colorful computer-generated graphs and pictures. I found it very interesting that these books from the 1940s had hand-drawn pictures in them created before advantages of modern technology!
With some chagrin, I reflected that perhaps all prices had grown tremendously since the 1940s, resulting in such an astounding rise of the textbook cost. The price increase of a physics book from the 1940s to today, from $5.00 to $280, was 56 times; the price increase for a calculus book was just as high: going up from $3.75 to $220, a price increase of almost 6000%!
I decided to compare the price increases for some basic commodities from the 1940s to today. Using the website The People History and having consulted the New York Times from 1940s and 1950s, I learned that the average cost of a loaf of bread increased by about 20 times: from $0.10 in 1940 to $1.98 in 2013. The average cost of one pound of hamburger meat went up 23.5 times: the price grew from $0.20 to $4.68. When I calculated the increase of the average wage, I learned that it was somewhat similar to the increase in meat and bread prices, 26 times, from $1725 in 1940 to $44321 in 2013. I compared prices of other commodities, where none had an increase of price comparable with my precious textbooks! In fact, I calculated that if the prices and average wage increased in correspondence with the price growth of the physics book, a loaf of bread would cost today around $5.60, a pound of hamburger meat would be around $11.20, while the average wage would nearly be $100000 ($96600)!
This experience made me ponder why we are forced to pay these huge sums to get information that has been available for many years. Perhaps the publishing companies are turning science education into a profitable business. Perhaps knowledge becomes a luxury where only selected few have privilege to enjoy learning, unaware of unexploited treasures that collect dust in local libraries. Yet, if the price of textbooks increases at the same rate as they have, in 65 years a physics textbook will cost nearly four times as much as the average cost of a new home in 1940s: over $15000!