At the beginning of each semester, students begrudgingly trudge to the Brown Bookstore to pay an exorbitant price to purchase textbooks for their classes. Many others, looking to save money, resort to purchasing books through online retailers like Amazon, where they often revel in having saved money before realizing they somehow received the wrong book. In an age where sharing information is even easier than withholding it, students have many options to obtain course materials. Unless the textbook industry plans a significant overhaul in policy and distribution, buying a textbook may soon become obsolete.
Purchasing textbooks is traditionally seen as a necessary college expense and can be a rite of passage for first-years taking their first courses. But students in this day and age have found other, sometimes illicit, approaches to obtaining textbooks. We do not condone the illegality of these methods, but we cannot deny their existence or their appeal to students.
Rather than spending money, students can receive textbooks from a friend, borrow them “long-term” from the library, download them from the Internet, purchase international editions of textbooks that are often cheaper or even choose not to buy them at all.
We do not specifically advocate any of these options, but they are certainly more sensible to the frugal college student. This begs the question: Should textbook companies adapt to remain relevant cornerstones of our educational experiences? Are they even capable of doing so?
We have nothing against textbooks in general. Many students find having a physical copy of the textbook to be much more conducive to studying, and for those students who are perfectly content with purchasing textbooks, feel free to stop reading at this point. But many students do look to economize, and it is common knowledge that other options exist, such as the ones outlined above.
After all, there are formal institutions that suggest knowledge is a public good that should be accessible to all who seek it. This is why websites such as Wikipedia have been so popular not just with students, but also with the general public.
In addition, the popularity of free courseware with several top institutions such as Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology attest to the belief that the more people gain knowledge, the better. We hope the textbook industry can recognize the trend toward the de-commodification of education and take appropriate and drastic measures to stay relevant in these rapidly changing times.
We understand buying textbooks is sometimes completely necessary. Many classes require course packets that can only be bought through the bookstore, and it can be difficult to obtain that specific gender studies or post-modernist Bengali poetry book from a friend or online.
But simultaneously, we want to challenge the notion that buying textbooks is the only option or even the best option. In accordance with the now-prevalent principles of open, accessible knowledge, institutions and the general public alike have already fundamentally uprooted the tenets of education. While textbooks cannot be handed out for free, it is time for the textbook industry to seriously evaluate and adapt to compete with the new, worthy competitors that have risen in its previously monopolized market in education.
Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editor, Dan Jeon, and its members, Mintaka Angell, Samuel Choi, Nicholas Morley and Rachel Occhiogrosso. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.