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Combatting Textbook Tyranny

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800px-Programming_language_textbooksIn addition to my post in late November about the textbook bubble (spurred by this post from AEI’s Mark Perry), the Atlantic‘s Jordan Weissmann joins the discussion, asking, “Why Are College Textbooks So Absurdly Expensive?” (also the title of his article). It is a good question, and one that highlights the danger of disconnecting the determination of prices from the subjective valuing of consumer demand. There is no competition, no free market, where students are required to buy only certain books for their classes at artificially inflated prices. Weissmann provides a helpful summary of Kevin Carey’s related Slate article as follows:

Academic Publishers will tell you that creating modern textbooks is an expensive, labor-intensive process that demands charging high prices. But as Kevin Carey noted in a recent Slate piece, the industry also shares some of the dysfunctions that help drive up the cost of healthcare spending. Just as doctors prescribe prescription drugs they’ll never have to pay for, college professors often assign titles with little consideration of cost. Students, like patients worried about their health, don’t have much choice to pay up, lest they risk their grades. Meanwhile, Carey illustrates how publishers have done just about everything within their power to prop up their profits, from bundling textbooks with software that forces students to buy new editions instead of cheaper used copies, to suing a low-cost textbook start-ups [sic] over flimsy copyright claims.

I noted in my previous post that there are, in fact, ways around this, and some professors are already taking advantage of them:

I know of a history professor who is able to gather all of his required readings from Google Books and a philosophy professor who makes use of Lander’s philosophy site and Project Gutenberg, both with the low price of $0 to their students.

Weissmann seems to be less optimistic than Perry, emphasizing that professors are really the ones who need to take the initiative here, writing, “If we ever want to bring the cost of these books under control, the faculty need to tune into the problem.”

While I am more sympathetic to Perry’s optimism, Weissmann’s exhortation nevertheless rings true. Debt-ridden students will be required to continue purchasing textbooks at egregiously inflated prices (or find, where possible, creative ways to get around it) unless their professors start looking into cheaper options—whether open access sites or classic public domain texts at Project Gutenberg or Googlebooks or other options—and take the time to invest in them. Some open access sites may not be up to the quality needed, but the whole point of a wiki-based textbook is that educators can improve the content themselves.

As I said previously,

The current character of American education raises many moral concerns, but this, at least, is a small one that in many cases ought not to be too difficult to remedy. For professors who are able, I highly recommend looking into similar resources for their own classes, not simply for the financial savings to students but for the common good.

As with most good works, doing so may take a little ascetic effort, sacrificing an hour or two a week perhaps to invest some time in improving the content that is already out there, but the good to be gained—virtue—is, itself, far more valuable than the savings for students. Chances are that textbooks have already been selected for next semester, but why not look into some alternatives to the status quo over the summer for next fall? Professors would gain a little virtue and their students would save money; it’s a win-win for the common good … except for the textbook publishers, that is, but they’ve been “winning” long enough in a tyrannical game without any real competition. Enough is enough, so far as I’m concerned. But Wiessmann is right, the lion’s share of power to change the status quo of textbook tyranny is in the hands of professors.

Dylan Pahman Dylan O’Brien Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also a fellow of the Sophia Institute: International Advanced Research Forum for Eastern Christian Life and Culture.


  • Matthew Gaetano

    Very interesting. This semester was the first one in which my class ended up being a bit expensive. I really wanted to assign some new translations from Cambridge University Press.

    I did my best to keep the price down. But you’re on to something. My only consideration was that I *felt bad* for the poor undergrads. And I consoled myself with the thought that textbooks for science and math classes are far more expensive!

    • As a student, I minded much less when the books were actually worth keeping, so perhaps your students will feel the same way. However, it seems just as easy to me to use a public domain translations (if available) and list the better, but costly, translations as recommended reading. Or—since in my experience undergrads are not too prone to read recommended readings—if the texts are ones with section numbers in addition to page numbers, you could simply assign the readings by section number and list the Cambridge translation as your preferred version. Anyway, the basic point is that there may be many creative alternatives.

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