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More Evidence for Academic Irrelevance

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 06, 2013

Academic publishing—especially niche market academic publishing, such as specifically Catholic academic publishing—seems to be in serious trouble. I realized this again while looking through some book flyers enclosed in the latest mailing from the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. The books ranged in length from 218 pages to 1144 pages. They ranged in price from $50 to $210!

Even if the market is primarily libraries, I suspect this is indicative of the growing irrelevance of the professorial class. For some reason our culture struggles to maintain a huge class of academic professionals without being able coherently to explain why, and these professionals most often neither aspire nor expect to be read beyond a narrow specialized circle. It is bad enough to have to go into deep debt to get a culturally-approved education nowadays (again, for reasons nobody seems to grasp), but the idea of going into deep debt to keep up with the publish-or-perish flood of academic books is, quite frankly, absurd.

The problem is rendered humorous by the eBook editions offered by one publisher, which are listed at exactly one cent beneath the hardcover price. Want that big 1144-page two-volume set in hardback? $210. Willing to settle for the eBook? $209.99.

Rest assured that this problem is not limited to Catholic social scientists, nor to small presses. For example, a work of academic philosphy I'm currently reviewing from Oxford University Press is only slightly better-placed. It weighs in at 279 pages and $45. If the goal is to get one’s work into the hands of similar specialists, or to make it available to students who are required to write research papers, there are cheaper distribution methods, and we all know what they are. They render professional printing and binding irrelevant. And honestly, if you can print a PDF version yourself for, say, twenty percent of the cost of purchasing it in hardback, there is something wrong somewhere. (You'll spend even less if you duplex it, even allowing for 3-hole paper and a handy three-ring binder.)

But we have a system which requires print publishing without a market. Once printed and bound, ordinary books with high prices fairly scream “small market”, which is another way of saying “nobody cares”. Sometimes, of course, they should care. But that is not the point here. On one level, the problem is the apparent inability of traditional academic institutions to distribute knowledge efficiently. Sooner or later this traditional academic mold is going to break, because the financial strain is simply too great.

But the problem is even larger than that, and for a change I am not referring only to the struggle Catholic academics face in getting heard. The main problem is the growing irrelevance of the academic caste in general. We should think this through. There is much that can be said about why academicians are mostly irrelevant, and about what might make the best of them relevant again. But there is absolutely nothing to be said without first accepting the concept of truth.

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  • Posted by: garedawg - Feb. 06, 2013 3:15 PM ET USA

    As someone who has spent most of his adult life avoiding the real world by remaining in academia, I can say that as time goes on and you become more eminent your field, you learn more and more about less and less until you finally know everything about nothing.

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