The travesty of textbooks

Carsten Torgeson, Contributing Writer

Up until the start of this current semester I had never bought a textbook for school—at the very least, not the correct edition. I say this with the hubris of a miser; I’m proud of the lengths I have gone to avoid paying full price for textbooks. My stubborn refusal to make my education more expensive than it already is has brought me to unfrequented reaches of the internet. The suspense of taking a gamble on a gibberish blue PDF download link, while too much for some,  is exhilarating for me. I ritualistically knock on wood and put faith in my antivirus program. It pays off. The average student pays between $600 and $1,400 per academic year on textbooks—in my entire time in university, I have yet to break $500. If a professor requires the fifth edition of a book, at a fraction of the price the fourth will be sufficient for me. I don’t mind my page numbers being different from everyone else, nor certain sections being rearranged. And I actually appreciate the annotations that original owners of used textbooks leave for me.

However, not everyone can do this. For some, the quest to find an inexpensive (or free) alternative to a textbook is more effort than it is worth. For others, they fear the marginal difference between textbook editions might mean the difference between a good grade and a poor grade in the class. And still, some may not have as ironclad an antivirus program as I do. Until this semester, I shrugged off these concerns and had no regrets. Alas, all good things must come to an end, and in this case with an authoritarian (though very endearing) professor who has required that all their students have the most recent print edition of the textbook. Many of my professors have warned of the folly that would befall those who did not have the most recent version of the textbook, but this was the first time a professor had “encouraged” me to get a textbook by leveraging my grade. Naturally, I succumbed to the pressure and participated in the lavish and tired tradition of buying an expensive textbook. Part of me wants to spend the rest of my dwindling word limit launching a polemic against this unnamed professor (though I think very highly of them). I would complain that the previous edition was an order of magnitude cheaper or whine that there was a free PDF version online. I would even promise to print the readings out from the online source so I could annotate them. I might even appeal to logic by telling my professor, “If the correct textbook was really so important to have, my grade would suffer all on its own, without any of your professorial manipulation.” This would be a waste of an opinion piece because exorbitantly priced textbooks are a symptom of something much more important: higher education becoming mired in capitalism.

The university is a place for learning, and its telos—its purpose, to borrow a famous Greek idea—is the pursuit of knowledge and truth. It relies on skilled professors, motivated students and functional learning tools in order to attain its telos. The textbook is one of these learning tools. The effectiveness of the student and the teacher are both enhanced by the skill and motivation of the other. In addition to their codependence, they rely on the learning materials to be functional. It is at this point where we encounter our dilemma. The professor believes the textbook to be functional if it functions to teach their class. The student—who is in a state of despair at having to read from any textbook—cares only that it is easily obtained. Unfortunately, these values do not line up, for the best textbook in the eyes of the professor (who does not bear the cost of these textbooks, and, in a perverse fashion, may at times benefit from their astronomical prices) is never the least expensive. How is it that the professor and the student, bonded by symbiotic aims to educate and to learn, depart so far from each other? The resounding and omnipresent response is capitalism. 

Capitalism has its own telos: to make money. Unfortunately, this purpose is exclusive to capitalism. Though a doctor makes a lot of money, that is not their telos. Though an educator is paid for his services, that is not their purpose. Even the telos of a business person is not to make money, but rather to create value (either for themself or others). Though it is often disguised—in each of these professions, as well as practically everything else in our society—money is a result not of that thing’s telos, but instead a result of the entrenched telos of capitalism. 

In order to detangle capitalism from the host it has infiltrated, we must stop and consider who benefits. The news would have you believe that the media they produce is an accurate depiction of reality, yet as the adage goes, “99% of news is 1% of reality.” Textbook companies would have you believe that their newest edition benefits the reader. In both cases, the person who benefits is not the viewer or the reader; it is the news company and the textbook company who receive more money by creating demand for their product. The news company is paid handsomely for distorting reality to be more dramatic than it is, and the textbook company can balance their books by pricing new editions at an average of 12% higher. The news cannot achieve its purpose so long as the aims of the capitalist system are ingrained within it, nor can the textbook companies hope to provide functional education tools when they price their books so high. This is true of any system in America. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote an entire article titled “Why Universities Must Choose One Telos: Truth or Social Justice,” and I echo the same sentiment about choosing between education and capitalism—as long as the university strives to attain its capitalist goals, it cannot hope to simultaneously attain its pedagogical ones.

This should come as no surprise. We are all cogs in the capitalist system. To attend university in America (in almost all cases) is to resign yourself to participating in this system. The higher education system is a wolf hiding in a sheep’s clothing, giving off the image of an altruistic home for education while voraciously inhaling the monetary means of its students and their families. Most of us at Case Western Reserve University have made our peace with this. However, I worry that we will become so apathetic to the circumstances in which we study that it will become the perfect illusion. For this, I am glad to have been “encouraged” to purchase a full-price textbook because its novelty for me has helped to reveal the capitalist shadow that dogs us all. 

Although, I don’t know what to do about this—I suppose that is in part why I, and many of us, attend university. We hope that we can equip ourselves with the tools to understand the world better and make the changes that we see as being beneficial for all. But I wonder, can we expect to be able to dismantle a system from which we ourselves have sprung? I can only hope so. Until then, I think it is useful for all to question the things we don’t usually bother to question and think about who benefits. Why is my textbook so expensive, and who benefits? Why are grades so important, and who benefits? Why is Mitchell’s ice cream so addictive, and who benefits? If all the little things that make you pause are examined, it may yield great realizations.