A Waste of Paper?
By Bryan Caplan
Last week I walked the stacks of GMU’s Fenwick Library with my elder sons. Their presence was clarifying. As we three perused the books, my main emotion was embarrassment. I’m an academic. A university library is supposed to be a warehouse of great thoughts. But the vast majority of the books seemed literally indefensible. Lame topics, vague theses, and godawful writing abounded. Titles withheld to protect the guilty.
The indefensibility was clearest for the humanities, where many books seemed doubly pointless: A History of Literary Criticism of a Minor Genre. But most of the social science was in the same ballpark. 90% of the books screamed, “If writing stuff like this wasn’t a ticket to tenure, no one would write it.”
You could dismiss me as a philistine, but that seems unfair. On any conventional test of cultural literacy, I’d at least make the 95th percentile. I have very broad interests. I’ve heavily explored economics, philosophy, psychology, political science, history, sociology, education, genetics, evolution, and the history of music and film. The fact that most of the books failed to minimally pique even my interest reflects poorly on them.
Could the problem be my lack of expertise? Perhaps if I were an expert on Emily Dickinson, I’d see the value in most of the volumes written about her. But I doubt it. The obvious test: Do I see greater value in the median work in the areas where I have attained expertise? Only to a slight degree. And that small effect is readily explained by selection bias: You should expect me to be more favorable toward academic literatures I chose to carefully explore.
My question for anyone who’s wandered the stacks of a university library: Do you really think that most of the books were worth writing? What fraction of the collection literally isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on?
Bonus question: What lessons do you draw about the social value of academia?