College Quarterly
Winter 2004 - Volume 7 Number 1

Where Are the Cheap Paperbacks, Where the Rich Teachers?

by Howard A. Doughty

Snobbery in all its forms would normally fill me with righteous anger, were it not so bathetic or, occasionally, so comical. I recall, for example, the suave and self-satisfied New York intellectual, David Susskind, declaring in the very early 1960s that rock and roll music would never last. This opinion, however dim-witted, was not exceptional for many of his generation—the one just before mine. Old before their forties, they had allowed their ossified artistic refinements to overpower their immediate sociological observations. Susskind’s reasoning, however, was unusual and perhaps unique in that it combined a misinterpretation of technology, an innocence of demographics and an ignorance of economics with outworn aesthetics. Susskind said this: rock and roll will never last because the popular new entertainment technology (the long playing 33 1/3 inch vinyl recording) was ideally suited for Broadway musicals and the classical symphonic albums which, he thought, constituted “real” culture. These disks, he insisted, would long remain out of the price range of teenagers. Moreover, he was confident that no rock and roll band would ever be able to fill both sides of an LP with music that even demented juvenile delinquents would want to buy. Good-bye, Mr. Susskind. Hello, Sgt. Pepper.
In other parts of show business, theatrical performers once scoffed at acting in the cinema. Likewise, movie stars snubbed those inferior talents who dabbled in television. In the 1950s, lovely Loretta Young was almost laughed out of Hollywood for hosting a weekly drama series. Groucho Marx almost laughed himself silly over his quiz show. Hello Lucille Ball. Hello Jack Benny, George Burns, Raymond Burr, Clint Eastwood, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Dick Powell, Ronald Reagan, Donna Reed, George C. Scott and Robert Young. Hello Martin Sheen. Hello Madonna and all the other guest hosts on Saturday Night Live. Things change.

Scholarship changes, too, but sometimes not so quickly. Comfortably complacent, senior schoolmen long maintained élitist attitudes despite the evident social turbulence around them. As late as the 1950s, no “real” sociologist took even the mild muckraking of Vance Packard and his ilk very seriously. Books written about pressing social issues were dismissed as mere journalism and disdain awaited any authentic academic whose book happened to catch on with the public. From John Kenneth Galbraith through Christopher Lasch and on to the academically anonymous authors of the “Fill-in-the-blank for Dummies” series, the denizens of academe have looked upon commercial success with suspicion bordering on and sometimes surpassing scorn. They did not have many coherent reasons for their hauteur but they had some.

Part of their contempt was defensive. It arose from fear and had to do with power. Since the invention of movable type, élites have worried that subversive texts might fall into the hands of the few inspired plebians who had managed to win the skill of literacy. In order to keep knowledge out of the hands and minds of the great unwashed, they went so far as to hang, draw and quarter John Tyndale, who had the temerity, in the late 1530s, to translate The Holy Bible into English. By 1603, however, Tyndale’s manuscript formed the basis of the official King James version of the sacred text. From criminality to a royal commission in a couple of generations, things sometimes changed briskly.

Part, too, had to do with the suspicion that making any important book accessible to the masses would require so much simplification, distortion and “dumbing down” that any useful information or intellectual enlightenment would be, as it were, lost in translation. Why bother loose and disorderly people, it was seriously asked, with hollow gifts that would only confuse and disappoint them?

Other worries were available. While the Bowdlerizing of provocative materials (Shakespeare, for instance, or the sheer rump-thwacking goatishness of the satirical satyr, Aristophanes) might deny the lesser breeds any genuine improvement, it was plain that the real thing would surely produce depravity and anarchy among the already depraved and anarchic lower orders of society. Better for all, it was decided, to instruct the base and the vulgar in the menial skills necessary for a life of hard but honest labour and in the moral sentiments required to suppress any foolish ambition or dangerous sense of resentment against their betters. Repressive desublimation in the form of jousts, circuses and bawdy entertainments were to be preferred as, of course, they are today. But still, things do change a little.

Mass education, for example, came along as soon as it was required that workers master literacy and know their sums in order to follow written work orders in factories. Then, despite some official uneasiness, came public libraries as “mechanics” sought something invigorating to do with their newly gained literacy. Then came cheap paperback books and the rest, as we all know, is current events.

By the 1960s, anyone with the price of a couple of packs of cigarettes or a few glasses of draft beer (they cost about 30¢ and 15¢ respectively) could purchase the essential works of Rousseau or Freud, Aristotle or Malthus, Darwin or J. S. Mill. Popular imprints such as Anchor, Bantam, Mentor, Penguin and Vintage (among many others) sold excellent books for less than a dollar. Soon, McClelland & Stewart’s Carleton Library made Canadiana available to Canadians. So, as I was preparing to be the first of my extended family to seek a baccalaureate, I picked up my first copy of Margaret Mead’s Cultural Patterns and Technical Change for 35¢. The same price secured a serviceable edition of the essential works of St. Thomas Aquinas. Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego set me back 50¢. Walter Lippmann’s The Public Philosophy was obtained for 60¢ and Darwin’s Origin of Species was purchased for 95¢. For the richly endowed, hardcover books from either the Modern Library or Everyman’s Library were to be had for about $2.00. Vance Packard? I got The Hidden Persuaders for 35¢ from Pocket Books. Things sometimes change for the better.

Contemporary editions of the cheap and cherished paperbacks of my relative youth are pretty hard to find but, if any are still being published, I’ll wager the price is disproportionate to the standard rate of inflation. What is more, nobody much cares about snobbishness anymore, and only a few care about reading.

Which brings me to my point. Students entering the plurality of college courses are typically expected to buy a “textbook.” These “door-stoppers” are deeply dumbed and cost in the vicinity of $100, but they do have—from the perspective of someone raised on The National Geographic Magazine when it was still publishing in black and white—amazing production values. They are printed on glossy paper. They have lots of colour and lots of pictures and lots of graphics and lots of white space. They come with lists of key terms, review questions, glossaries, study guides, test banks, CD-ROMS and links to websites that most students never use. Sometimes, technologically lame instructors can still get accompanying “slides” and “overhead transparencies.” For the relentlessly dim, there is the intellectual prosthetic of PowerPoint. Awash in a sea of educational widgets, students are not expected (and probably would not want) to buy thrifty paperback books.

Student indifference to inexpensive texts—whether classics or contemporary volumes of literature, science or social philosophy—is certainly not caused by the new information hyper-highway’s provision of better, faster and cheaper information. It isn’t because teachers no longer expect students to read anything that doesn’t obviously contain the answer (in bold print) to a question on the standardized final exam. The explanation is that the publishing industry has successfully reorganized the economics of educational reading. It has been aided in this endeavour by college administrations and overworked teachers. For very different reasons, they want to encourage the use of standardized curricula and generic textbooks, preferably linked in some obscure way to a computer, a cache of predetermined questions and a scantron decoder.

There are a number of intelligible reasons for this conversion of postsecondary education. I’ll give just one. Cheap paperbacks scared the pants off some people. Once reading matter becomes available, it is awfully hard to control students’ tastes. In the medieval era, it was feared that mass exposure to a wide range of ideas would unleash an uncontrollable thirst for knowledge, some of which might prove incompatible with the received wisdom of the day. In the mid-1960s, it was feared that precocious youth would read the Marxist Freudianism (or was that Freudian Marxism?) of Herbert Marcuse and instantaneously transmogrify into a phalanx of unhygienic, sexually promiscuous, anarcho-communists with posters of Che, Bogie and Raquel Welch on their walls and stashes of weed in their closets. Combine that with Bob Dylan on the stereo and dark thoughts about the absence of integrity and honesty of the social élite, and it was plain that things could become unstuck pretty soon.

Meanwhile, in their offices, a new generation of unabashedly ambitious young scholars were cheerfully exchanging the cultivated manners and genteel poverty of the professoriat for the entrepreneurial spirit that would lead to ample government grants and the ultimate prizes of tenure and corporate—private or public—research contracts. No one was bothered any longer about the curse of commercial success. Carl Sagan could appear on Johnny Carson’s Tonight show, banter cheerfully about extraterrestrials, and not lose absolutely every shred of academic respectability and credibility. Marshall McLuhan appeared as himself in Woody Allen’s film, Annie Hall. On Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, a recurrent comic line was: “Marshall McLuhan, what are you doin’ ” If people had the wit and the will to challenge Alvin Toffler for the title of pop guru du jour, more power to them! By the 1990s, tenured teachers with a tale to tell could say: “Today a book signing, tomorrow the Oprah Winfrey Show!”

Now, the conundrum: What separates the list of shallow, glib and hollow hucksters from the substantial inventory of what are now called “public intellectuals”? Now that the ugly stereotype of the hapless, absent-minded or just plain nutty professor has been jettisoned in favour of the certified experts on everything from zoology to archaeology who crop up on public television, 24-hour cable news programs and the Discovery Channel, who is the public entitled to trust among the growing gaggle of attractive, quick-witted specialists in deep and difficult disciplines? Whose popular books and engaging articles should the curious laity consult?

I have no catalogue of criteria, but a few examples come to mind. As former US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said of obscenity: I can’t define it, but “I know it when I see it.”

The first is Neil Postman (1931-2003), one of the most revered educators of excellence in recent times. He is paid tribute in this edition of The College Quarterly. Unlike Michael Kompf, who wrote the piece, my first exposure to Postman was an early reading of his anthology, Language and Reality (for reasons that escape me now, I was “into” quantitative linguistics at the time). Later, I saw him on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s television network, where he appeared so frequently that he could easily have been taken for a Canadian who had picked up an unusual American accent, perhaps while doing graduate field work in the Bronx or Brooklyn. His later, more explicitly critical books, especially Amusing Ourselves to Death, Technopoly, The End of Education (which I reviewed for this journal back in 1995), and Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century were gems of what is sometimes called “general education.”

Postman was not, I fear, an exceptionally original thinker; however, his special genius was taking the ideas and analyses of others and applying them directly and enthusiastically to the lives of the students, teachers and members of the general public who were his audience. Dense philosophical tracts and obscure interpretive exposition may contain great wisdom and insight into what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has called “the malaise of modernity,” but it takes a Neil Postman to spread the word. His graceful prose, his quick wit, his ebullience and his ability to identify the patterns that connect academic discourse, social awareness, and pragmatic strategies for living intelligently in a world seemingly out of control make incalculable his contribution to our lives and potentially to the lives of those who are quickly coming after us.

There are others. In the sciences, no one surpassed Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2003). Now past and deeply mourned, Gould rekindled in me an interest in biology that I had neglected for too long. Having read every one of his books and as many of his incidental writings as I could get my hands on over the past twenty-five years, I have been inspired not only because of the quality of his scientific imagination (his theory of punctuated equilibrium alone would have made safe a place for him in the annals of science) but also because of the breadth and depth of his popular work. For most readers—myself included—his greatest achievement will have been to expose non-professionals to the language and lore of evolutionary theory as it has developed and been refined in the two centuries since Jean-Baptiste Lamarck first popularized the concept of evolution and the century and a half since Charles Darwin—with a nod to Alfred Russel Wallace—began its systematic explanation.

The list goes on. Physicians like Lewis Thomas, physiologists such as Jared Diamond, paleontologists including Donald Johanson, together with psychiatrists of the sort exemplified by the beloved Oliver Sacks join with the usual suspects in the social sciences and humanities to permit the attentive and intelligent laity—what Robertson Davies called the clerisy—to disseminate knowledge. These informal, unembarrassed and engaged individuals have chosen to share their treasures with us. They do so with the zest and gusto that betokens the excitement of true learning rather than the obtund training—fettered and constrained—that we too often provide in our classrooms.

Now, what about the kids? When I was in high school, I was not an especially good student. My grades hovered in the mid-60s and I was extraordinarily lucky to win a place at the very bottom of the admissions list at York University. An emergency appendectomy freed me from the four final exams I would certainly have failed and allowed me miraculously to secure aegrotat standing in their place. Still, despite my chronic intellectual underachievement, by grade 11 my leather jacket was usually stuffed with one or two old, dog-eared paperbacks. As an undergraduate, I delighted in an expanding and expansive world of international literature and was happy to discover that both Heidegger’s Being and Time and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness could be had for a couple of bucks apiece. Things can change for the better or for the worse.

The courses I took rarely relied on a monster textbook. The only one I recall was Introductory Psychology, which compounded the insult by basing all grades on regularly administered multiple-choice quizzes, thus ensuring that I would shun the subject until I enrolled in a charming seminar in Cross-Cultural Psychology (anthropology in disguise) late in graduate school. Far more common were courses in which students were expected to purchase up to a dozen or so paperbacks—original sources! Today, the notion of going to primary material in colleges or undergraduate university survey courses is pretty much passé. Moreover, the work of popularizers (though I prefer to call them elucidators) is increasingly reserved for the alert and discerning public outside the academy or for graduate students with time on their hands. Meanwhile, alien notions such as “subject mastery” and “learning objectives” have insinuated themselves into our curricula as substitutes for thoughtful study and reflection.

If we cannot restore the place of those treasured pocket books of long ago, can we not dispense with the eighth, eleventh or eighteenth edition of standard regulation, common and garden variety of the Introduction to whatever-discipline-you-choose, complete with busy add-ons that are said to be vocationally relevant, user-friendly and client/customer-centred? Can we not at least adopt the work of academic generalists who can provide compelling secondary material, as opposed to one-size-fits-all committee-driven comprehensive texts that are as death to any authentic educational experience?

Yes, I know, our primary and (some insist) our exclusive task is not education but training. We are “in business” (telling phrase) to meet the needs of a fast-faced, lean and mean, competitive, high-tech global economy and the domestic labour market that feeds it, and so on. Surely, however, there is some benefit in attending to the media and the messages that popular (i.e., “of the people”) writers and books have to offer. Our students rather desperately need them and we could probably profit ourselves from the experience of hearing and reading expositors of ideas, both familiar and unfamiliar, that would enhance our lives as educators as well as the lives of the soon to be educated, before it’s too late.

Howard A. Doughty, Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences, Seneca College


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2004 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology