August 18, 2009
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This article form the New York Times about renting textbooks has my opinion fairly split. On the one hand, I’m all for lowering the costs of texts (something I actively try to do when I pick out textbooks for my courses). On the other hand, I see some problems. First, if book rentals means that publishers will stop issuing new editions every year then we might be getting somewhere. The article itself indicates that the publishers get no money from the sale of used books, hence the new edition which will ensure increased profit (minus some chump change for a new cover and forward by some scholar or other). There’s also the troubling aspect of merely renting knowledge. A brief example: if I assign a writing handbook for my class, having students merely rent it entirely defeats the purpose. At least 80% of the students in my classes end up desperately needing a handbook that covers basic grammar so I assign one that does just that. 75% will need that handbook when they leave. It’s not that I ignore teaching the topic, or that my students are unable to learn, rather it’s just a topic that needs refreshing and to be looked up from time to time. Sure they could buy the book, but how many will be motivated to do that? There’s already the likelyhood that students will sell back the book anyway, but it seems to me that a student is more likely to keep a resource like this if there’s no more money to be paid. If it’s paid for already, why not keep it? If you owe $20, forget it. It’s an issue that becomes even more distressing in regards to English Literature or History. What happens when we view these books as not being intrinsically worth owning on their own merits. What happens when we merely rent our education?
That said, I’ve had my fair share of useless textbooks that I’ve sold back after the term, and I get the usefulness of this in some cases. Still, it feels like it reinforces a disturbing trend. Maybe, instead of renting, we should look at lowering the cost of education all together, the price of textbooks included.